The Whitewashing of Arizona

The state's ban on "ethnic studies" in high schools reveals a deep fear of racial diversity

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Eric Thayer / Reuters

Demonstrators against the state's Senate Bill 1070 immigration law march in Phoenix, Arizona April 25, 2012.

There is a community of Arizonans who live in constant anxiety. They worry that their neighbors want to persecute them. They feel surrounded by hostile strangers. They believe that public opinion and public institutions have been mobilized to undermine their place in society.

These anxious, beleaguered Arizonans aren’t undocumented Mexican immigrants. They are the white politicians who enacted the anti-immigrant “attrition” law now under review by the Supreme Court. And with less fanfare — but no less audacity — they’ve now banned from Arizona public schools all courses “designed primarily for pupils of one ethnic group” that “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals” or that promote “resentment toward a race or class of people.”

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The target of this remarkable ban was a Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson school district, which featured such books as The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years. Last month that program was shuttered, and with it, another window between the state and this century. Officials came to confiscate the program’s teaching materials from the classroom, including the books, although they remain available in some school libraries.

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The authors of the ban, some of whom now propose to extend it to state colleges, admit they never attended a class in the offending Tucson program. They simply didn’t like the idea of teachers telling students the apparently subversive facts that nonwhite people have at times suffered at the hands of white people, or that people of every color have at times acted with color-conscious solidarity. This is a shameless kind of censorship, oozing anti-Hispanic animus.

In trying to whitewash history, these fearful Arizonans have painted themselves into a corner. They claim to have instituted the ban to remove grievance-focused identity politics from the classroom and to put the focus on the individual. “The race you are born into isn’t relevant,” says Tom Horne, the state attorney general who conceived the ban when he state secretary of education. But of course this is a claim made by a bloc of whites whose identity feels threatened by the changing look and sound of their neighbors. Their sense of siege rises in direct proportion to the brownness and redness of the population.

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The ban also implicitly assumes that whites are not even a race or ethnic group subject to the terms of the ban, that whiteness, as the invisible norm, just is. But white is very much a color. And there is no reason why an enterprising minority activist in Arizona couldn’t invoke the neutral language of the ban to cover whites. Enough about the suffering of Irish or Italian working-class immigrants! Enough about the Anglos whose Puritan ethic shaped the early republic!

To be clear, there is one thing I think the ban’s creators are correct about: America does need a unifying culture and that culture needs to be taught in our schools. I am all for a strong synthesizing American curriculum. I am very much for teaching what is exceptional about our country. But what is exceptional is not just that we have a color-blind creed of equality. It is that from the start we have both failed to live up to that creed and pushed ourselves to do better.

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What other country does this? This redemptive struggle is worth examining honestly and celebrating. The problem with the ban is that it pretends that America has never had conflicts fueled by race. It silences those who point out the bad and the ugly along with the good. Using the power of state to forbid discussion of complexity is what insecure dictators do.

There will always be people like this who live in fear. Their fear, however, is contagious. What makes or breaks a community is whether enough people step forward to face history and themselves. Chinese folks like me were once excluded from American soil; now we aren’t. Blacks were once enslaved and, as Kevin Young writes in The Grey Album, from that condition they forged much of the American vernacular. Latinos are rising in number and are transforming our politics. We don’t need bans and blinders to deal with this. We need not be afraid of America.

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