Teaching Hip Hop Illegally Promotes Ethnic Solidarity, Arizona Official Says

01/05/2015 06:40 pm ET | Updated Jan 05, 2015
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Public schools in Tucson, Arizona, illegally promote ethnic solidarity and the overthrow of the U.S. government by teaching Mexican history, Rage Against the Machine lyrics and an explanation of hip hop by rapper KRS-One, the outgoing head of the state Education Department said in a letter released Friday.

The letter to the Tucson school district was the final act in office for John Huppenthal, a conservative former state senator who in 2010 helped pass a law later used to ban a controversial Mexican-American studies program from Tucson schools, arguing that the courses had bred resentment against whites.

Huppenthal, Arizona's superintendent of public instruction since 2012, oversaw the program’s elimination. He now says “culturally relevant courses” that a federal court ordered Tucson to offer as part of an agreement to resolve a decades-long desegregation lawsuit also violate the state law.

Huppenthal's letter says a U.S. history class taught from the Mexican-American perspective violates the ethnic studies law’s restrictions against advocating ethnic solidarity because it “includes substantial Mexican history.” The letter cites the course description as evidence:

In this class we will study the history and culture of Chicano, Mexicano and indigenous people throughout the United States and Mexico. This class is intended to get students to become critically conscious about the society that we live in and the history that has made it what it is today.

A separate course on U.S. history from the Mexican-American perspective violates the law’s ban on promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government by teaching the Rage Against the Machine song “Take the Power Back,” the letter says. Ironically, the song is an anthem to the cause of ethnic studies. The lyrics, penned by the band’s Chicano frontman Zack de la Rocha, read in part:

The present curriculum
I put my fist in ‘em
Eurocentric, every last one of ‘em
See right through the red, white and blue disguise
With lecture I puncture the structure of lies

Arizona officials' complaints with Tucson schools over the last five years have focused on classes taught from the Mexican-American perspective. But Huppenthal’s Jan. 2 letter says a course taught from the African-American perspective also violates state law by teaching a “An Introduction to Hip Hop Presented by Master Teacher, KRS-One.” The manifesto is published on the rapper’s website.

“Hip Hop is defined as the artistic response to oppression,” KRS-One's essay reads. Huppenthal says the essay violates the law's ban on courses that advocate ethnic solidarity.

“I think we’re getting a really clear view into the paranoia of the leadership of this state,” Curtis Acosta, a former teacher of Tucson’s prohibited Mexican-American studies courses, told The Huffington Post.

Acosta said the Huppenthal's letter recalled the way state officials dismantled the Mexican-American studies program he and his colleagues built, by emphasizing statements taken out of context rather than focusing on the way material is taught.

“They pulled out these inflammatory quotes to scare people,” Acosta said. “The same thing’s happening here, where you’re seeing a picking apart of novels or books or unit plans to build a case rather than to see it in its holistic environment.”

Acosta noted that in college he studied Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler, and The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and asked whether Arizona law leavess room for a critical reading of such texts.

The Arizona Education Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The state education department demands that Tucson public schools remove the material from its curricula by March 4, or face the loss of up to 10 percent of its state funding.

Tucson school administrators, however, aren’t budging. They said they'll work on a solution with Huppenthal’s replacement, Diane Douglas, a Republican who was inaugurated Monday.

Tucson Superintendent H.T. Sanchez accused Huppenthal of repeatedly trying to meddle in his district’s plans to create culturally relevant courses, as mandated by court order in the segregation case.

“This threatened enforcement proceeding is nothing more than an attempt to circumvent the federal court orders denying the state’s intervention,” Tucson Superintendent H.T. Sanchez said Friday in a statement.

Stefanie Boe, communications director for the Tucson Unified School District, told HuffPost that for now, the classes will continue.

The wrangling over Tucson’s culturally relevant courses comes as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit prepares to hear a challenge to the Arizona ethnic studies law brought by students and teachers of the prohibited classes.

Tony Diaz, the host of the Latino literature radio show “Nuestra Palabra” and leader of a group formed to protest Arizona’s attacks on Mexican-American studies called “Librotraficante” -- Spanish for “book smuggler” -- called Huppenthal’s letter “mindboggling.”

“It’s the epitome of petty,” Diaz told The Huffington Post. “He’s just picking on particular lesson plans and bullying teachers.”

He also looked on the bright side.

“I think Huppenthal’s giving us the soundtrack for revolution,” Diaz said. “We’ll be playing Rage Against the Machine on our show, along with KRS-One.”

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