Arizona Ends Divisive Chicano Studies in Schools

Ashley Thorne

On Tuesday, May 11, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law HB 2281, which “prohibits a school district or charter school from including courses or classes that either promote the overthrow of the United States government or promote resentment toward a race or class of people.” 

The classes now banned are the ‘La Raza studies’ courses—also called Chicano studies or Mexican American studies—that have become popular in Arizona public schools. Two years ago, in the Argus article “Protecting the Prickly: La Raza Studies,” I wrote about the La Raza studies program adopted by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD).  

La Raza, we noted, means “The Race.” Members of MEChA (which stands for “Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan” and means “Chicano Student Movement of Aztlan”) identify themselves as “La Raza.” MEChA is a Chicano organization dedicated to regaining control of “Aztlan”—the Southwest region of the United States. The guiding idea is that this region rightfully belongs to Chicano people, not Anglos, or the American people generally undivided by race or ethnicity. 

We observed that two of the main books for the TUSD program were Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Occupied America: A History of Chicanos, by Rodolpho Acuña. Freire’s book, of course, argues that teachers must train students to acquire “critical consciousness” (an understanding that they are oppressed); to give voice to their grievances; and to liberate themselves from the bonds of imposed assimilation. A reviewer of the book for The Nation, wrote, “Wherever education is explicitly involved in struggles for equity and justice, Freire’s ideas and his books, especially Pedagogy of the Oppressed, will live on.” 

This revolutionary fervor is even more pronounced in Occupied America, which tells the story of the Southwestern United States from the perspective of Mexican Americans and has been called “the Chicano bible.” The book is sympathetic to Mexico in a reference to the battle at the Alamo. In another place, Acuña wrote: 

Gutiérrez attacked the gringo establishment angrily at a press conference and called upon Chicanos to ‘kill the gringo,’ which meant to end white control over Mexicans. 

Actually, “kill the gringo” means “kill the gringo.” Jose Angel Gutiérrez, who is referenced here, is the co-founder of the Raza Unida Party, a U.S. political third party. At a 1995 conference Gutiérrez declared, “We have got to eliminate the gringo, and what I mean by that is if the worst comes to the worst, we have got to kill him.” Today Gutiérrez is a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington. 

The Raza studies program housed its revolutionary aims in terms of “transformation” and social justice.” Among its goals were to “Advocate for and provide curriculum that is centered within the pursuit of social justice,” “Work towards the invoking of a critical consciousness within each and every student,” and “Promote and advocate for social and educational transformation.”  

While such aims and books do not explicitly call for the overthrow of the U.S. government, they do seek to stir up in students a racial consciousness that perceives white Americans as the enemy and oppressor. Freire invites minority students to identify themselves as victims and to fight back. Acuña invokes an America where ‘gringos’ are power-thirsty imperialists whom Chicanos must overthrow. 

The passage of this bill represents a victory for Arizona’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, who in November 2007 asked to see the textbooks and curricula used in the program, and its funding sources. Horne said he was concerned that Raza studies was “teaching people to make their primary personal identity the ethnic group they were born into rather than identifying as an individual in terms of character and ability.” But TUSD evaded his request and news headlines characterized him as a meddler.  One Tucson newspaper warned, “Memo to Tom Horne: butt out.” 

But Horne didn’t butt out and has continued to work to uncover what’s really being taught in ethnic studies programs at Arizona public schools. Once he learned the content of the curriculum, he wrote in a press release: 

Most of these students’ parents and grandparents came to this country, legally, because this is the land of opportunity. They trust the public schools with their children. Those students should be taught that this is the land of opportunity, and that if they work hard they can achieve their goals. They should not be taught that they are oppressed. 

One aim of Raza studies programs is to give Hispanic students a sense of community and an appreciation of their heritage; these are legitimate desires. But a consequence of this pedagogy is that students are trained to think of themselves primarily as Chicanos at odds with white America. The program at its most basic is polarizing.  It has no sense at all of America as open to people of all races, but rather reduces America to a clash of whites vs. others.  Civic education should endow students with a sense of unity, not of division. Instilling resentment toward “the gringo” is a step backward from unity. As I said two years ago, this will ultimately only stunt students’ scholastic growth, breed bitterness, and propagate racial division. 

This bill is a move in the right direction. It is important, however, to distinguish between K-12 and higher education when it comes to such ethnic studies programs. La Raza studies is an academic program or course at San Francisco State University, Sacramento State University, Contra Costa College, and the College of San Mateo. These programs, while not our pick as ideal disciplines of higher learning, are at least voluntary and fall under the more expansive protections of academic freedom that apply at the collegiate level. They are certainly not, so far as we know, imposed on unwilling students the way a K-12 curriculum often is. Taking courses from Jose Angel Gutiérrez at the University of Texas at Arlington may not be a wise use of a student’s tuition dollars or for that matter state support, but we’ll address that matter another time.   

This bill will help refocus Arizona public schools’ attention on unity and patriotism, and will prevent them from giving students a skewed, racially prejudiced history of the United States

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