A People's History of Arizona: What Would Howard Zinn Say?

05/18/2010 04:12 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The New York Times Book Review said that Howard Zinn's bestseller, A People's History of the United States should be "required reading for a new generation of students." Unfortunately, it doesn't look like Arizona's new law dispensing with ethnic studies programs would permit a teacher in that state to even assign Zinn's book.

You may recall, this past April Arizona foolishly passed a law requiring police officers to inquire about an individual's immigration status. That law has been highly criticized for, among other things, promoting racial profiling. The law, which specifically targets Hispanics, is the result of a frightening anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona and across the U.S. Even more frightening, however, is the exuberance and frequency with which Arizona legislators enact severely flawed and intolerant laws. The immigration law has since been amended, though its future remains uncertain. Many individuals in Arizona and across the country are making their voices heard by protesting these intolerant pieces of legislation.


Demonstrating her commitment to intolerance and rank ignorance, Arizona Governor Janice Brewer signed in to law HB 2281, yet another gem delivered to her by the Republican controlled state legislature. Like the immigration law that will go into effect on June 29th unless blocked by the courts, this law too bears the mark of conspicuous hostility. This time however, the object is ethnic studies curricula in K-12 education. The law's passage marks the completion of a crusade by Tom Horne, Arizona's Superintendent of Public Education, against Tucson Unified School District's (TUSD) Mexican American Studies program.

The ethnic studies law forbids any program of instruction in a public or charter schools that: "promote[s] the overthrow of the U.S. government; promote[s] resentment toward a race or class of people; is designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; or advocate[s] ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals." If the State Board of Education or the superintendent of public instruction "determines" that a school district or charter school's ethnic studies program meets the criteria above, then the Arizona State Department of Education may be directed to withhold up 10% of the funding they provide to the district or charter.

Ethnic studies programs generally, and specifically TUSD's Mexican American Studies program do not advocate "ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals." Nor do they advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government while promoting ethnic chauvinism as Horne claims. Further, TUSD's program is open to all students. The program focuses on historical and contemporary contributions to our country's history made by Mexican Americans. Unfortunately, some of this subject matter is all too frequently omitted from mainstream history and social studies texts.

For example, one need not look any further than to Texas where the Republican led state Board of Education, ignoring the recommendations of history teachers, is "whitewashing" social studies guidelines to be followed by publishers of the textbooks for its nearly 5 million K-12 students. Lauri Lebo at Religion Dispatches reports that many of the changes sought by the board in the "Texas Textbook Massacre" have become progressively more extreme. For example, the board plans to de-emphasize the contributions of pioneering heroes Thurgood Marshall and César Chávez.

Superintendent Horne, who is currently campaigning to become Arizona's next attorney general, has been after TUSD's Mexican American studies program for a while. In 2007, he penned an open letter to the citizens of Tucson denouncing TUSD's Mexican American studies program. In that letter, Horne misleadingly characterized the program by saying that ethnic studies classes are for students of a particular race or ethnicity. This is simply incorrect. Instead, ethnic studies programs like TUSD's are about the contributions to American history made by people of America's diverse ethnic groups.

Horne's actions fit one of, or a combination of the following: paranoid, politically opportunistic, severely prejudiced or, chose your own Rahm Emanuel-esque adjectival noun. One thing is certain, Horne completely misunderstands the nature and purpose of ethnic studies curricula.

The real issue is that Horne, Governor Brewer, Sarah "We're all Arizonans now" Palin and the Texas Board of Education are more concerned with the preservation of a jingoistic narrative that is purposefully exclusive of important contributions by ethnic minorities, than with ensuring that school children are presented with a more complete historical account of the American experience.

Last week more than 300 high school students in Tucson walked out of class to protest a speech Mr. Horne was to deliver at their school concerning the new law terminating their Mexican American Studies program. Just like the labor leaders, civil rights activists, fugitive slaves, and impoverished veterans among many others whose contributions to American history Howard Zinn highlights in A People's History of the United States, these students are the embodiment of the fortuitous character that has helped to transform America in our quest to form a more perfect union. In fact, these students are the stuff new chapters are made of. Zinn would say that the students' actions are of the type that galvanizes people to push for change and stand tall in opposition to hate and prejudice.

While clad in the rhetoric of equality, these latest pieces of legislation represent anything but. Instead, both the immigration and the ethnic studies laws themselves represent ethnic chauvinism by the Arizona state government. In her book "Why Are All of the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": And Other Conversations on Race, Beverly Tatum, referring to the fight against racism, says that racism is like the moving walkway at the airport. If you let it, the walkway will just carry you along until you make a conscious decision to get off and walk in the other direction. The 300 students at Tucson High and those around the country boycotting Arizona have chosen to step off of the walkway and proceed in the other direction. The rest of us must as well.