The War on Ethnic Studies

A four-year-old hate campaign by Arizona state superintendent Tom Horne finally nailed its target last week, when Republican Governor Jan Brewer signed a new law that could shutter ethnic studies programs in public schools.

Fresh on the heels of Arizona’s new immigration law, which requires law enforcement to detain anybody who looks Hispanic, this latest measure takes aim at the Mexican-American Studies Program at the Tucson Unified School District, a popular skills-building program that engages Hispanic students by teaching government and history from a Latino perspective.

Despite this latest blow, school officials in Tucson have said they’re determined to keep their classes open, and the Arizona Education Association also is working with NEA to examine the law for possible challenge.

The new law makes it illegal for public schools to have any courses or classes that promote the overthrow of the United States government or foster resentment toward any race or class of people. It also forbids programs “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.”

But proponents of Raza Studies say that isn’t them at all. “We’re not trying to overthrow the government! We’re trying to learn about our people,” Tucson student Jacobo Ramirez told local television reporters last week. “Everything we’re trying to do here is because we want to learn,” he said.

If state officials weren’t so full of resentment themselves, perhaps they might see that the program actually teaches critical thinking skills, and the value of service learning and civic engagement. It engages its students through “authentic love, respect, and care for all students, by all students,” said Tucson teacher Norma Gonzalez.

What students actually get is an “amplified perspective of history,” and a better understanding of their world, Gonzalez says. “They can learn about their history in a manner that helps them to discover their ancestral roots.” And, with that, they develop the “self respect and stability…critical for respect of other cultures, traditions and various ways of perceiving life.”

Tucson school officials agree and have said they have no intention of shutting down the program, even though it means risking 10 percent of its state funding. “We believe these classes are meaningful and they do a lot of good for students, and they are in full compliance with the law that was signed yesterday,” Acting Superintendent Maggie Shafer told National Public Radio last week.

“From everything I’ve seen, [the programs] empower kids to take charge of their own destiny, gain a sense of the value of their own existence and become more determined to be well-educated contributing members of society,” said Judy Burns, president of the Tucson governing board, to The New York Times.

The Mexican-American program is more than a decade old and it came about as part of the settlement in a discrimination suit filed by African-American and Latino parents in Tucson. In a court-approved settlement, the Tucson district agreed to new hiring practices, better data management of suspension and expulsion rates, and new ethnic studies programs. In the final plan, approved by a federal judge last year, the district pledged to expand those classes – because they’re so popular.

The classes, which also include African-American literature classes, are open to all students, regardless of race or ethnicity, but enrollment tends to be more popular among the ethnic or racial groups featured in the curriculum. At Tucson High, about 66 percent of students are Hispanic.

All too frequently, Hispanics lag between White students in graduation rate, but the Hispanic students at Tucson have an 84 percent graduation rate. (The district’s overall graduation rate for Hispanic kids is 76 percent; the state of Arizona’s is around 60 percent.) Those gaps are closing in Tucson because of the ethnic studies programs, its proponents say. Specific test score data from Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) shows that students who take these classes outperform any other student group.

And the anecdotal evidence can’t be discounted either. “For some students it was their participation that provided them the will to stay in school and pursue higher education,” Gonzalez said.

Still, the stand-out graduation rate at Tucson High – or the passionate engagement by students in the ethnic-studies program – was no match for a massive hostile media campaign, orchestrated, at least in part, by anti-immigration activists who likened ethnic-studies students to Hitler Youth. In blog posts and editorials, right-wing opponents screamed that Raza students hate America and their teachers have indoctrinated them in “terror” campaigns.

“It’s a revolutionary curriculum – an outrageous abuse of taxpayers’ funds,” one opponent called it.

And, oh yes, that was Superintendent Horne, who has been angry with the program for years, according to The New York Times — ever since students walked out on a speech by his deputy, who had hoped to refute an earlier speaker who said Republicans hate Latinos.

Speaking of revolution, Horne and Brewer are running for election this year. And, at the Tucson graduation this month, students will receive their diplomas – and new voter registration forms.

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  • Robert Duvall

    Did Ms. Flannery bother to interview anyone that supports the Arizona law? It did pass, so there must be some folks out there to interview. As much as educators may not want to admit it, there is an incresing number of ethnic studies programs at the high school and college level that have evolved into programs that support separatism, social activism, and hate.

  • cyork

    Mary Ellen Flannery is either misinformed or deliberately spreading falsehood. “Arizona’s new immigration law, which requires law enforcement to detain anybody who looks Hispanic” is patently untrue. Has she bothered to read the law?

  • EnglishGuy

    I plan on using Ms. Flannery’s comments during a lesson to point out a real-world use of hyperbole. e.g., ” Arizona’s new immigration law, which requires law enforcement to detain anybody who looks Hispanic,” is a cogent extreme exaggeration.

  • Jess Green

    Just downloaded the TEXT of SB 1070 and searched for Hispanic AND Mexican

    NO MATCHES FOUND. How can we believe the rest of her article?

    She needs a teacher for Journalism, it is not sensationalism!

  • Keefer

    I realize that NEA today has a partisan agenda but as a teacher I take offense at the lack of objectivity shown by Ms. Flannery. The tone of this article epitomizes everything that we as teachers strive to avoid. I see little evidence of critical thinking in this article. It certainly isn’t balanced. Were I to grade this I would give it a D.

    Perhaps there is merit in the Arizona law after all when opponents of it have to resort to such extreme measures. I find myself asking what have all these ethnic studies programs really accomplished? Are we more united as a nation? Perhaps the students would be better served studying vocational or core academic studies, things that would have more of a positive influence for them in this very difficult economic environment. Money is tight and jobs hard to come by. I suspect that the people of Arizona made the right call.


    Ms. Flannery very apparently has no idea what they are teaching in Raza Studies – nor did she bother to find out: the “hate” and “revolution” in those materials are unbelievable! (Mexico IMHO has this agenda in encouraging all the illegals & their children to sneak into our country for “La Reconquista”- “the reconquest”.) Furthermore, she has not read SB 1070 because it distinctly and specifically states that no law enforcement can stop anyone because of the way he or she looks. This is the absolute worst article I have ever read – the writer has not only 1. done “no” research but 2. she is wrong in what she says. There are quotes in the Raza Studies’ books such as “Kill the gringo” (the original quote was “If the worst comes to the worst, we must eliminate the gringo which means we must kill him”) at pg. 323 of “Occupied America” (make sure you get the 5th edition which is what they have been using). (Think about what this ‘title’ means – that we are occupying “their” land – Mexico only owned what is the SW of this nation for 24 years-that’s it!) At pg. 167 another quote, “The supporters (of the first Plan to throw the ‘gringos’ out back to Europe and murder any that do not leave willingly called the ‘Plan of San Diego’) would execute all white males over age 16…” That’s just for starters. Would you like more? Furthermore, the Dept. of Educ. did a study and found out that Raza Studies’ students do not do any better on the AIMS test than those who do not take Raza Studies.

  • Carmen3

    Did Mary Flannery go to Journalist school? I took an English course in writing while in college and we would get a poor grade if we didn’t mention research and sources of information on what we wrote.
    Flannery just writes what comes to her mind. She thinks that SB 1070 will go after anybody who looks Hispanic. Wow! Now that’s a whopper, Ms. Flannery!
    Please do some research on SB 1070 before you write on it.
    Moreover, do some research to find out what the “ethnic studies” are teaching in schools, before you write about them.
    Basic journalism, Ms. Flannery.
    By the way, I am an American of Hispanic heritage and I love Arizona.

  • Tom Rooney

    I was so encouraged to read the other comments, none of which seemed to have fallen for Ms. Flannery’s rhetoric. My “objective journalism feelers” went up on the first sentence when she called the support of this law a “hate campaign”. How does she know that Superintendent Horne is motivated by hate? Is she saying he hates Latinos? This attack is a good way to dismiss the law without addressing any of the arguments for it. Perhaps it is a bad law, perhaps it is good. All I know from this article is that Ms. Flannery opposes the law and she that she has contempt for those who support it.

  • Susana

    A terrible program that needs to be shut down! Congratulations to the citizens of Arizona and the Governor for protecting their boarders!