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Arizona Erasing History to Promote Racism Today

05/27/2010 11:46 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Shortly after signing SB 1070, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed HB2281 targeting Ethnic Studies programs, even after the measure was condemned in a report issued by United Nations human rights experts. "State schools chief Tom Horne, who has pushed the bill for years, said he believes the Tucson school district's Mexican-American studies program teaches Latino students that they are oppressed by white people. Schools should not be encouraging students to resent a particular race." (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100512/ap_on_re_us/us_arizona_ethnic_studies)

Given this rationale, why limit the censorship to Ethnic Studies? What will be next? American history? It is impossible to teach about much of American history without provoking resentment. (Although Texas is trying its best with recent textbook decisions that will, according to the NAACP, "institutionalize ignorance").

I remember the first time I learned that women had to fight over seventy years to win the right to vote in the US. I am certain I felt some resentment.

And we better leave out slavery as well. As renowned scholar and former president of the American Sociological Association Joe Feagin writes, "in the first two centuries of the new nation the majority of white Americans, in spite of the professed ethic of liberty, saw nothing wrong with the brutal subordination of black Americans." Slavery was not just a Southern project, the North benefited directly as well from the slave trade and slave labor which provided cheap cotton for Northern textile mills. Feagin concludes that "This brutally executed enrichment was part of the new society's foundation, not something tacked onto an otherwise healthy and egalitarian system." Boy, that could really lead to some resentment.

And the taking of American Indian lands, we better leave that out as well. Feagin calls the near genocide of indigenous peoples the "largest example of human destruction in recorded history." Many of our founding fathers were not only slave owners, but their families participated in speculation on native lands, accumulating wealth taken by force. The reality is that our nation and economy, from its very foundations, was built on the backs of forced labor on stolen land.
As historian Grace Elizabeth Hale incisively concluded in her study, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940, after reconstruction, cementing segregation required "new origin narratives that absolved white southerners of moral obligation" to the recently freed slaves. In short, "crafting the future" first required "remaking the past."

Maybe this gives us some insight into why the ban on Ethnic Studies has come so closely on the heels of the racist anti-immigrant law SB1070. In order to craft a future built on continued racism, we must make sure that there is no access to an accurate historical past.

Let's consider one example of the way in which current ant-immigrant hysteria is dependent upon lack of historical knowledge. Supporters of the immigration law often cry out that our own ancestors came here legally and followed the law, and people today should be expected to do so as well. How many times have you heard someone claim, "it is not the immigrants we object to, just the fact that they are breaking the law." On the face of it, this argument makes sense. But only if we ignore the facts of history. As Aviva Chomsky writes in They Take Our Jobs! And Twenty Other Myths about Immigration, "What the people who point to the rules ignore...is that when their parents and grandparents came to the United States they in fact did exactly what so-called 'illegal' immigrants are doing today. They decided to make the journey, and they did...Between 1880 and World War I, about 25 million Europeans immigrated to the United States. They did not have visas or passports. There were no illegal immigrants from Europe because there was no law making immigration illegal for Europeans." That was not the case for immigrants from China, however, or Japan, or other non-white nations.

The rules have always been different for non-white immigrants. But if we actually taught our children about our full history, that could lead not only to resentment, but to declining support for SB1070.

So, is the recent ban on Ethnic Studies really about preventing resentment? Any good teacher of ethnic studies will tell you the goal is not to produce resentment; it is to create educated citizens who can help shape our future based on an accurate accounting of our past. Yes, I have seen resentment among students. However, it is usually the result of discovering that there is so much of our nation's history that they have never before learned about. They resent the one-sided education they often receive. They resent that they have never learned our full history, the good and the horrid. That is part of the reason why Ethnic Studies courses exist; to provide this missing history, for all students (the majority of students in every Ethnic studies course I have taught have been white). Leaving out the bad will not decrease resentment, it will increase it. But more importantly, it will limit our ability to ever move forward, to some day achieve a society that actually lives up to the goals set forth in the Declaration of Independence, of creating a society where all humans are truly viewed as equals.

References and Recommended Reading:

Aviva Chomsky, They Take Our Jobs! And Twenty Other Myths about Immigration, Beacon Press, 2007.

Joe Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations, second edition, Routledge, 2010.

Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940, Vintage, 1999.

Jane Guskin and David L. Wilson, The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers. Monthly Review Press, 2007.