A couple days ago I attended a talk by University of Arizona professor Roberto Rodriguez who spoke on the Arizona SB 2281. His talk was entitled “Arizona: The National Road Back to the New Jim Crow” which I thought was a bit heavy-handed and not terribly apt (he also considers the ban “cultural genocide” over at his column at The Guardian which is more accurate, but still certainly controversial). In case you’re not familiar you can begin to check it out here. Supporters of the bill argue that ethnic studies programs do the following (which they wish the bill to ban):
•Promotes the overthrow of the United States government.
•Promotes 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 (a key provision here I think).
Arizona catches up with Colorado in Stanley Fish’s book. He wrote an article entitled “Arizona: the Gift that Keeps on Giving” mimicking a similar article he did on my alma mater CU a while back (note the “more” in his title). I’ll be taking a different take than Fish here. In any case, upon listening to Dr. Rodriguez’s presentation, I realized that cultural conservatives made a big mistake and could have made things much worse for Leftist activists.
A large portion of Dr. Rodriguez’s presentation centered on the curriculum of the Tuscon ethnic studies program under attack. One of his points is that most of the people who criticize it don’t actually know much about due to a lack of media in-depth coverage (validated by an simple internet search). No matter what your political stance is, it’s hard to argue with the curriculum’s performance: simply put, more of their students stay in school, graduate, and then go on to college. Getting students excited about the arts and humanities is great and emphasizing cultural background can be a great way to do this.
But, then Dr. Rodriguez continued a totally unexpected direction. He expounded upon what amounted to essentially religious beliefs that are taught through the program. Within the worldview of what the professor calls “maiz culture” that, he argues, spans the whole Americas, apparently the ethnic studies program teaches some religious tenants of Latino (or, in Dr. Rodriguez’s conception, “maiz”) tradition. Some of it sounded incredibly traditionalist which is to say conservative, though he was always sure to portray it in a neutral, positive way (which it may well be). Some of his arguments sounded very naturalizing such as when he argued that this cultural conception believes one man and one woman came together to miraculously create corn, the only time this has happened in all human history he said. Or, for example, the program has a tenant very much like the golden rule which appears in many world religions. In any case, I stupidly wasn’t taking notes and I don’t want to waste your time with too long a post, but I found myself becoming increasingly uncomfortable with his presentation because of its religious themes. Of course, I am assuming that Dr. Rodriguez as an internationally respected scholar knew what he was talking about in relation to the curriculum (the programs website is fairly vague about what makes up its curriculum).
This brings me to my main point: that if conservative power elites and cultural conservatives had a much easier target sitting on their horizon. Instead of claiming that the program creates animosity and fosters revolutionaries and injects politics into the classroom (which, ironically, this bill is doing to a great extent—here Dr. Fish and I agree), cultural conservatives might have pointed out that parts of the culturally-centered program are religious and thus not permitted within public schools. But, instead they didn’t do this and quite a conflict has ensued.
Attacking the Tuscon high school ethnic studies program in direct terms was a major mistake on the part of Arizona and cultural conservatives. I’m sure they think they’re being sneakier than they are. They couch it in color-blind, “neutral” and (what they think are) “objective” terms. The rhetoric of Horne and other cultural conservatives is a manipulation of progressive liberal rhetoric of the 50s, 60s and 70s (I highly recommend Nancy MacLean’s Freedom Is Not Enough and Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive for more on the rise of the conservative Right). But certain comments really haven’t fooled too many with political lines being drawn quicker than might have been had they actually been clever.
For example, Tom Horne is quoted as saying that Arizona had “to put a stop to this, and to be sure that taxpayer-funded public schools teach students to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of the race they happen to have been born into” (emphasis added). (Finding more hateful and fearful comments isn’t too hard, but this’ll do.) Not only does Horne essentialize race here, but he foolishly shows his cards. Of course Republicans want people to be treated flatly “as individuals” in his conservative worldview since this 1) helps deflect any mutualism or communalism unity (based on whatever identity characteristics) and 2) attempts to place a neutral or color-blind veneer on his ideology. Oppressing many individuals is easier than oppressing a unified group.
One interesting factor to note in all of this, however, is that cultural conservatives found themselves in an ideological bind of their own in choosing which strategy to pursue. As cultural conservatives who view America as a Christian nation, they have often found themselves advocating for religion (of a certain kind) in schools (“I pledge allegiance to the flag…”). There is a good chance they would have been forced to address this contradiction had they attacked the Mexican-American program on religious grounds.
In sum, conservatives made their ideology explicit. And since ideology is most effective when it’s hidden, ambiguous, and thus hard to track or understand, this can be seen as major misstep and one that leaves an opening for activists. Therefore, there is hope for the 11 teachers who have taken SB 2281 to court.
Lastly, I can’t help but leave you with my main man Michael Eric Dyson telling it like it is to the Silver Fox over on CNN a while back: