Recently, I had the honor of working with The Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics to bring to the University of Southern California’s campus a powerful feature documentary concerning the state of Ethnic Studies entitled, Precious Knowledge. I first encountered the film during my graduate program at Columbia University and had an extremely visceral reaction to the film and its content that made me eager to share the film with my alma mater. However, Ethnic Studies was born long before the struggle presented in Precious Knowledge. “Ethnic Studies grew out of the civil rights movement and the concerns of minority students on college campuses throughout the United States. Campus strikes began in the 1960s driven by the demands of students of color and others in the Third World Liberation Front demanding an increase of students of color, faculty of color, [and] a more comprehensive curriculum that spoke the concerns and needs of marginalized communities of color” (NAES). Precious Knowledge portrays the structure and success of the La Raza curriculum, also known as the Mexican-American Studies program, in Tucson, AZ public high schools. In its prime, the program had many successes including increased graduation rates amongst underrepresented minority students. A less tangible benefit that also arose was the increase in self-confidence and positive transformation the students experienced as they graduated as critical scholars. Ultimately, the state of Arizona’s conservative government banned the Ethnic Studies curriculum within public institutions through House Bill 2281, stating:
“The legislature finds and declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people… A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:
- Promote the overthrow of the United States government
- Promote resentment toward a race or class of people
- Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group
- Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals” (via saveethnicstudies.org)
As soon as the program came under fire, teachers, students and families rose to challenge the law, fighting to keep this curriculum within their schools through peaceful protests and symbolic marathons run across the state of Arizona. The event held on USC’s campus, co-sponsored by the American Studies and Ethnicity Department as well as our Latino cultural center, El Centro Chicano, included a discussion following the screening, with a centering question of “Can the government really justify removing programs that the people, the community, and/or the students are demanding?”
In this case, HB 2281, was that justification. However, during the discussion, key points arose concerning the battle of Ethnic Studies. I myself majored in American Studies and Ethnicity as an undergraduate student, and like most other students who find the discipline, it changed my life and I only wish I had found it sooner. Audience members engaged in the idea that within the United States K-12 education system, particularly history, is taught from a euro-centric perspective. Thus, when students are able to major in or take classes within an ethnic study department during college or high school, the topics discussed, the way the information is presented, the facts that are stated, often lead to a revelation, not, as the opposition fears, a revolution. Unless students are attending an HBCU or other minority majority campuses, they have drastically different experiences on white majority campuses, where they struggle to be heard, recognized or accepted as seen most recently with the Being Black at the University of Michigan social media campaign, the I, Too, Am Harvard movement, and the recent videos documenting the black experience on the campus of UCLA. Ethnic Studies, for many of us, was an awakening but also a haven and a lens through which we are able to contextualize our experiences and think critically about society. As Paulo Freire writes, it teaches us to read not only the word, but also the world. Those in attendance asked, “What is it about this curriculum that is so threatening, to the point of reduction as at California State University, Los Angeles, or elimination as in Tucson?” In many ways, it’s a fear – a fear of facing the truth that is American history and accepting it for what it is so that as a country we can move forward and not in a way where we ignore race, or pretend to be colorblind, but where we can see the value in those histories and differences. Furthermore, most institutions currently operate under an almost apartheid-like power system. There is a small, largely white, population within positions of power, whether it be in government or educational institutions, controlling and dictating the experiences of a much more diverse majority. By maintaining the current system, as opposed to evolving and supporting the needs of their diverse constituents, power holders aim to maintain their control and influence, silencing voices and squashing ideas that might jeopardize the status quo. So for those of us who see the value and necessity of Ethnic Studies, what can we do to protect and encourage its existence within education? Those in Tucson continue to fight the legal process while also working around it. Currently, scholars and community members have established an afterschool program where students can take classes independently offered outside of the public school system and jurisdiction. We also see examples of coalition building amongst non-minority groups, organizations and individuals as well as Latino, African-American, and Asian-Pacific Islander disciplines and organizations, supporting one another and presenting a united front much like the days when Ethnic Studies was first introduced as a valuable discipline.
Ethnic Studies is a reflection of the diversity of people and like our daily struggles as people of color, keeping Ethnic Studies within our curriculums is a beautiful struggle. It’s a struggle for which we continue to fight because the opportunity for students to learn to be critical, engage in diverse historical accounts, and learn theories and ideologies that speak to their experiences from members of their own identity group. This kind of education is invaluable to the development of society and the development of youth who will someday be active, productive citizens with powerful voices and ideas.
To learn more about the state of Ethnic Studies in Arizona, please visit saveethnicstudies.org
National Association for Ethnic Studies NAES (2014, March 19). NAES History .Retrieved from http://ethnicstudies.org/about/naes-history
SaveEthnicStudies.org (2014, March 19). The Opposition. Retrieved from http://saveethnicstudies.org/the_opposition.shtml
By Kendall Williams