Orwell observed in his dystopian masterpiece 1984 that “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
As America’s demographic landscape continues to undergo a significant shift toward a more multicultural—and multicolored—reality, political forces representing the past are doing their utmost to superimpose that past onto the future by “disappearing” inconvenient facts of history.
In January, the school board in Arizona’s Tucson Unified School District shut down that city’s Ethnic Studies/Mexican American Studies curriculum, with the state’s school superintendent, John Huppenthal, declaring that it violated a recent Arizona state law that prohibits courses placing “ethnic solidarity” ahead of the goal of treating “pupils as individuals” (New York Times, 1/22/12).
Moreover, the school district confiscated several books from the classroom, including Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Occupied America: A History of Chicanos.
The pretense of wanting to treat students as “individuals” serves as convenient code for stripping away Mexican-American history and identity in a city where 37 percent of the city’s population is of Mexican descent, and in a state notorious for its racially motivated harassment of Latinos (Extra!, 6/09).
Dr. Rodolfo Acuña (Huffington Post, 8/9/11), a celebrated author of 20 books, including Occupied America, bluntly ob-served that for some Americans, denial of historical reality is embedded in their ideological DNA: “Americans are still fighting the Civil War—see what is happening in Texas. For them, slavery never existed. The South was wronged, according to them. Facts mean little.”
One damning example in Arizona is Huppenthal, who has vowed to try to extend the ban to state universities, and has expressed indignation that an ethnic studies course in Tucson High School criticized Benjamin Franklin for his less-than-enlightened views of non-whites. For Huppenthal, Franklin’s late-stage involvement in the abolitionist movement erases the broader reality that for most of his life Franklin did not oppose slavery, and in fact owned slaves himself (NPR, 1/18/12).
“There are historians who think that because Franklin opposed slavery at the end of his life and he was an Abolitionist, he should not be portrayed as a racist,” historian David Waldstreicher, author of Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery and the American Revolution told Fox News Latino (3/28/12). “I think that based on the few things that he wrote in his life, it is fair to say that he was a racist and that he was not anti-slavery most of the time.”
The insistence of denial in the nativist movement is hardly limited to history, however. An audit (5/2/11) commissioned by Huppenthal himself largely vindicated the Mexican American Studies programs, describing them as “designed to improve student achievement” and observing that “student achievement has occurred and is closing the achievement gap.”
And so, in spite of the intense attention and concern around racial achievement gaps in classrooms across the country,here we have a prominent school superintendent taking the cudgel to a successful set of programs to appease the threatened and insecure nativist mindset.
One self-described liberal Democrat in Tucson who came to oppose the ethnic studies program seems to epitomize that mentality, lamenting to NPR (6/24/12) that politics dominated the classroom: “It seeped into every single one of the class offerings, unfortunately. So even when you had really conscientious teachers, it couldn’t help but become political in nature.”
But how can the “political” in Arizona be separated from the historical in classrooms of students whose friends and families face deportation, racial profiling, harassment and criminalization? Are these pupils and their loved ones “treated as individuals”—to borrow the disingenuously saccharine phrasing of the nativist argument—outside the classrooms, where they are often judged by appearance?
Suppressing ethnic studies in the classrooms will only exacerbate the underlying realities outside the classrooms that continue to necessitate their existence. Whether the ban is upheld or struck down by the courts, the unwelcoming political environment doubtless continues to serve as an instructive lesson to Mexican-Americans and others across the state.