Fear and loathing in Arizona


Though I can’t recollect exactly what I ate, Dr. Brown had a BLT. Our Texas governor had recently left for the White House. We were having lunch at IHOP on University Street in College Station and talking about black film, rapper Tupac Shakur (she disliked him) and romances gone sour.

Dr. Brown taught “African Americans in film” at Texas A & M University. She showed our predominately black class “Birth of a Nation”, a racially volatile silent film made in 1915. We also watched “El Otro Francisco”, a Cuban film about slave revolt, and “Burn!” starring Marlon Brando, about the Caribbean slave trade.

Over lunch that day, I told her about some wanton plans to travel the country and discover a common American dream that runs through everyone. She chided my naïveté.

Around this same time, I was kneeling in the pews of St. Mary’s Catholic Church three to four times a week, fasting on water and bread during Lent and taking a class by a Jewish professor on the “History of Christianity”.

My devout cohorts packed the 75-seat classroom twice a week, eager to challenge their faith against our gleeful professor who was always happy to shatter our historical misconceptions. Though I’d been indoctrinated with 19 years of Catholicism, I had never learned that books of the New Testament were compiled by popular vote (meaning some of God’s words didn’t make the cut) or that the authors’ names were actually pseudonyms.  

A realization dawned that entire universes of thought had never interrupted my education, and it immediately became apparent that legions of teachers and supervisors had failed to convey foundational points of history to me.

This all comes to mind when I think of Arizona.

In January, Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal enforced a ruling that a Mexican American Studies program in Tucson schools violated state law and promoted ethnic division, victimization and rebellion against the American government.

Tucson’s program is currently suspended. Here’s one example of how Huppenthal wants the lesson plans amended:

{Culture can play a significant role within a work of fiction. For generations in this country, the literature studied in English or literature classes rarely represented the lives and history of Mexican-Americans.} In a formal literary analysis, discuss what makes So Far From God a Chicano novel and how this might influence the experience of the reader. Remember to use direct citations from the novel to support your ideas and theories.

My judgment says the teacher’s previous lessons do coax a response toward victimization, but that’s a central tenant of American race history. Victimization versus empowerment prompted famous intellectual rivalries between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois – same with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.

As this month’s High Country News cover story suggests, the motivation behind Arizona’s intentions in revising the lessons is fear, and it’s written in the legislation.

The law that dissolved Tuscon’s program states that ethnic studies lessons shall not:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.

2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.

3. Be designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.

4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

The language of the law seems to stem from a fear that Hispanics will one day revolt against white society. Rather than ordering Tuscon schools to balance their curriculum, the state has designed legislation that’s constitutionally thin, indefinable (“promotes resentment”?) and institutionally racist. As education scholar Henry A. Giroux puts it:

“What many of the newly elected Tea Party ideologues recognize is that critical pedagogy has the power to challenge persistent racial injustice in the United States…If Huppenthal had his way, US classrooms would only be permitted to teach the Donald Trump/Walt Disney view of history, one that celebrates the growth of corporations… and an uncritical view of American society based on white Christian narratives and principles.”

Arizona legislators reinforced Giroux’s assertions last week when the House passed a bill allowing public schools to teach “The Bible and Its Influence on Western History”. To me, this is a reasonable class - no points of history should be omitted - but Arizona’s legislators are not motivated to liberalize the range of intellectual thought in public schools. They’re grappling – tooth and nail - to maintain cultural power. As the bill’s sponsor, Terri Proud put it, “This is about America as a whole. The key is for all sides to step back and give first consideration to the principles that bind us together as a people.”  

Except that when Rep. Ed Ablesser made a request to include the Book of Mormon within the law, he was denied. The law also states that except for using the Bible and related course material, “all books, publications, papers or audiovisual materials of a sectarian, partisan or denominational character” are excluded.

For the remainder of my college electives, starving to uncover more, I took classes on black radicals and intellectuals, the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, the philosophy of yoga and African American history from slavery to present.

Dr. Brown and the rest of my professors never fostered resentment in me toward government or another race. Deep study of these groups only brought me closer to them. The only resentment I ever held was toward those who tried to keep these lessons hidden.

Neil LaRubbio is an intern at High Country News.

Flickr images by Charles Hoffman and Ken Lund

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