HB2281 and the Arizona Politics of Fear

on Mar 16, 2012 in Blog by

Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.

–John Steinbeck

What seems like a staunchly anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant saturated Arizona agenda has now irrevocably seeped into the state’s education system, risking the success of its many Mexican students.

The Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) was denied reinstatement of its Mexican American Studies (MAS) Program last week after the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed the request over a month ago.

Since January, the MAS Program has been closed down on the grounds that it violates one of Governor Brewer’s approved laws, HB2281.

In Arizona, following Brewer’s signing of HB2281, school curriculums “[can]not:

  • Promote the overthrow of the United States government.
  • Promote resentment toward a race or class or people.
  • [Be] designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.
  • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”[1]

The MAS Program’s vision is as follows:

“The Mexican American Studies Department is dedicated to the empowerment and strengthening of our community of learners. Students will attain an understanding and appreciation of historic and contemporary Mexican American contributions. Students will be prepared for dynamic, confident leadership in the 21st Century.”[2]

This hardly sounds like something to be so fearful of that one is led to dismantle it. The benefits of the MAS Program (i.e. a 93% graduation rate of MAS students; improved grades and attendance) can easily be seen upon viewing the trailer to a new documentary, “Precious Knowledge,” wherein MAS student profiles, classroom conversations, etc. are featured.

Another reason behind the cancellation of this program has been twisted into being a financial one. In what the New York Times called a blackmail tactic[3], $14 million would have been withheld from the district per TUSD Superintendent Huppenthal, if the program was not shut down. But, how costly is it to empower students with their cultural; and yes, American history—at minimum to simply ensure them they have a place in it, too?

Why must education reform conversations often resort to focusing on the technical?

Failing to look further allows us to be in the dark about how beneficial a tailored, more relevant curriculum can be for students. I would argue that empowerment through the MAS program has led to a better school climate and a more positive socio-emotional experience for its students; which in my mind, is priceless.

Stripping students of the opportunity to acquire “precious knowledge” about their cultura is a detriment to not only the students themselves but to Jan Brewer’s entire constituency.  When the Program was stripped away, so was a chance to achieve the Program’s goal of preparing “dynamic, confident leadership in the 21st century.”

With the growth of Latinos continuing to be a hot conversation topic, I have seen fears arise in many different forms. One being a fear of Latinos holding power that they are not prepared for – what with their young demographic and their drop-out rates being the highest among all other minority groups.

We’ve seen this argument aplenty in the National conversation on the importance of Latino educational success in our classrooms. The future of our country will soon depend upon it.[4]

But from HB2281 comes another fear. An undeniable assertion and simultaneous attempt to deny the fact Latinos will take away [our] power, whether they are ready or not. Whether [we] want them to or not.

Or, as one blogger put it, “It (the closure of the MAS Program) happened because the state’s Latino population has nearly doubled in the past 20 years and the right wing is angry and afraid that it is helpless to stop it. In one generation, Latinos will be 50 percent of the state’s population and, short of declaring martial law and deporting everyone with brown skin, there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent that.”[5]

Clearly, Arizona is not ready to accept the outcomes of its ever-changing demographic. Underlying this fear of losing power is a long-held belief that is being threatened—one of white as unarguably dominant and deserving of power over any other group of people.

Through this situation in Arizona, we see that much of what James Baldwin asserted in his “Talk to Teachers” decades ago is still true today:

Without a robust understanding of one’s identity both personal and cultural, less will be achieved—for individuals and for society as a whole. When we embrace diversity, we all reap the benefits. Forcing instead a common knowledge that does exactly what it forbids (pitting the contributions of one ethnic group above another) will lead to an “ideal” society—a society that may perish because of its refusal to embrace changes that are inevitably forthcoming.

Arizona is just one example of the inability of a system to look at things in a whole new way. The MAS Program was a counterexample to this and the 93% graduation rate of students within the program is proof of its success[6]. Without continuing to approach things differently, those dismal outcomes that my fellow Latinos typically experience in school are bound to remain the same, and that makes me afraid.

[1] huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/06/mexican-american-studies-banned-_n_1324755.html[2] tusd1.org/contents/depart/mexicanam/index.asp

[3] In his 2011 Townhall with Latino students, President Obama stressed that one of the major ways to regaining dominant status on an international education spectrum was through Latinos: “The only way we can achieve these goals is to clearly understand that the future of America is inextricably linked to the future of the Latino community”

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/opinion/sunday/rejected-in-tucson.html?_r=2

[5] littlegreenfootballs.com/article/39775_Tucsons_Mexican-American_Studies_Program-_Why_It_Was_Started_Why_Republicans_Killed_It

[6] preciousknowledgefilm.com/

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