01/31/2012 01:04 pm ET Updated Apr 01, 2012

Shooting the Messenger: Arizona and the Ban On Ethnic Studies

On January 18th, NPR aired an interview with John Hupenthal the Superintendent of Arizona Public Instruction and the author of a state law banning ethnic studies programs. According to Hupenthal, the law was conceived, in part, because of the "failure of the Tucson Unified School District to provide a good education to low income Hispanic children..." When encouraged by interviewer Michel Martin to give him an example of the kind of egregious "Marxist" education students were being exposed to and that, allegedly, was having such a deleterious effect on their educational achievement, Hupenthal responded that the teachers were giving "Classroom exercises in which they had students identify and go through these exercises dealing with different times and territorial shifts in the United States." His most pressing assertion, however, was the idea that these classes imposed upon Hispanic students the idea that "they can't get ahead, that they're victims in, you know, a country in which Barack Obama is president." The segment encapsulates and foregrounds the stakes of the debate over ethnic studies in Arizona and across the nation.

Mr. Hupenthal is correct when he asserts that the educational system is broken, and further, he is correct when he acknowledges that Hispanic children in the Tucson school district are being underserved by their educational system, but to take those facts and to use them as justification for cutting the entire field of ethnic studies, is to miss the larger point. These same students, and those like them all over the country, are also being failed by their instruction in math and reading from Kindergarten through High School. Does this mean that we should stop teaching them reading? Does this mean that we should stop teaching them math?

What Hupenthal and the Arizona legislature have done is to denigrate, through erasure, the contributions of people of color to the social, economic and political fabric of the United States, our United States. And they have done so by perpetuating the long-standing practice of targeting ethnic studies as a scapegoat for larger, persistent social inequalities that have defined, and continue to define, the social reality of the United States. They have, to put it another way, shot the messenger for bearing the bad news. To suggest, as he does, that cutting these programs will help improve the quality of education of struggling students is absurd. It shows a startling lack of understanding about the role these classes play and what they represent.

Hupenthal and those who support him have made two critical mistakes in their conceptualization of ethnic studies in education. Underlying their actions is the assumption that these courses are "entitlement" courses that give students of color "something extra," something they don't deserve, something that white students don't get. In this regard their hostility towards ethnic studies is rooted in a hatred for affirmative action. For people like Hupenthal, affirmative action is a crime because it gives students of color special treatment. The problem with this line of thinking, of course, is that it ignores basic facts about our society. While the United States remains, in many ways, a place that offers more freedom and more opportunity than many other places, it has yet to deal honestly and openly with the core issue of its persistent racism and social inequality. Simply put, Race matters in the U.S.

Affirmative action is one small but important effort to address the fact that bias, prejudice and outright racism have conspired, over the centuries and well into today, to keep communities of color in lower socio-economic positions. Let me put it this way: If we understand racism and social bias to be the cancer that has slowly and consistently ravaged the body politic of the U.S., then affirmative action is a form of radiation treatment. It is not perfect. It is painful and it will not cure the cancer. But it goes a long way to improving the lives of all us: blacks, indigenous, latinos, and whites who suffer from the debilitating effects of cancerous racism. Until we can find the cure for this cancer, we have to put faith in the treatments we have at our disposal.

The second major ideological mistake made by Hupenthal and company, is their idea that Mexican-American courses and programs are for and about Mexican-Americans. This same faulty logic underscores our basic understanding of ethnic studies programs in general. We think they are about people of color. They are not. Yes, they spend significant time detailing the histories of people of color but they are, at heart, courses about us, all of us. They are about how we as a society, and as a nation, have dealt with our diversity. And what makes them so important is that they reveal truths that we have been embarrassed or afraid to face up to: The injection of syphilis on unsuspecting sharecroppers in Tuskegee. The lynchings of blacks and Mexicans throughout the centuries. The disparities in how our legal system punishes white criminals in contrast to minority defendants. The fact that our founding fathers were slave owners. The fact that when the Southwest became part of the U.S. we promised Mexicans their rights as newly-minted U.S. citizens and then systematically robbed them of their land, their social rights and, most importantly, their dignity. Most of these issues and realities go unaddressed in traditional history courses. And so we all, people of color and white students alike, grow up being taught to love our country under false pretenses.

The misguided decision taken by Hupenthal and the Arizona legislators to ban ethnic studies turns truth into criminal behavior. It recasts Latinos and communities of color as outsiders, blaming them for their struggles in our flawed educational system. And perhaps most painfully, it robs the students of Arizona, all of them, of the possibility of loving the real America, not the dolled up, sanitized and siliconized version we've been raised on. What Hupenthal fails to realize is that we shouldn't be expected to truly love a lie. Ethnic studies is about seeing and loving the U.S. as it really is with all of its flaws and failures. And loving these United States, in spite of its flaws, with the hope of addressing and fixing our collective shortcomings, is the ultimate act of patriotism and respect.