Race in Arizona, banned books and closed minds

The ongoing saga of racialized theatrics continues in the state of Arizona. As you might remember, Arizona introduced the anti-immigrant law SB1070 last year, and then the Mexican-American studies program (also called the Ethnic Studies program) was banned at Tucson Unified School District. Now there are rumblings that Mexican-American studies programs at the university level might be targeted next. And Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer, not through meddling with education, approved the incorporation of an elective  high school course, called  “The Influence of the Bible on Western Culture,” earlier this week.

A step back, on January 10, the Tuscon School District’s governing board voted 4 to 1 to eliminate its Mexican-American Studies courses and comply with a new law forbidding classes that advocate the overthrow of the United States, promote racial resentment, or emphasize students’ ethnicity rather than their individuality. The law, HB 2281, was written to specifically targeted the the school district’s Mexican-American studies program, which the law’s supporters accused of politicizing students and breeding ethnic resentment. Promptly the school district removed seven book titles from its classrooms, including Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” Even Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” faced opposition because a teacher used it to draw attention to modern issues of race and inequality.

Now this, in the face of the persistent xenophobia in Arizona’s recent laws, is acutely dangerous. Philosophy professor Linda Martin Alcoff writes about why in the NYTimes:

Race may not be in our DNA, but it is all over the history of Western literature, in Melville as much as in Mark Twain, Charles Dickens as well as Conrad. The white imaginary — in Toni Morrison’s evocative phrase — constructs “Americanness” in racial terms while undertaking what she calls “elaborate strategies” to erase its own influence from view.

The operations of race are thus complex and can take some work — critical work —to render visible. Everyday racial identities raise a host of normative questions. For example, how should mixed race identities, recently visible, be classified? Are Latinos a race? Can race be so clearly distinguished from ethnicity when categories like “African-American” bring both to mind, distinguishing this group from Afro-Caribbeans and Africans? Letting people ascribe their own identities cannot settle all of these questions when how we are seen and interpreted by others can still have such devastating effects, and even affect how we see ourselves. Serious scholarship in the area of race is really just beginning.

In truth, the Arizona legislature was not motivated to confiscate textbooks because it opposed complicating students’ understanding of what race is or how race works. Their real concern, as stated in the bill, was about “solidarity” and “resentment.” They are scared of a curriculum that might foment an anti-white sentiment among impoverished populations of Mexican and Central American kids.

I raise this point, made so beautifully by Professor Alcoff, because it often gets lost in the political outrage. While that outrage is understandable, and I certainly share it, what I find truly unconscionable is that the Tuscon school has only one historical perspective being validated (though there is awesome resistance happening). In these schools, only one way of identity construction is offered. As evidenced by the elective on the influence of the Bible, that historical perspective is decidedly about reinforcing dominant paradigms.

This a crisis of history, politics and literature certainly, but it is also a crisis of epistemology – wherein we ask the question of how we know what we know, the theoretical frameworks we’re allowed to use, the way are able to construct our own world views, if at all.

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