Feathered Bastard

Ethnic Studies at TUSD on the Ropes Till Federal Judge Rules

Los Tigres del Norte, apparently not to Judge Kowal's liking...

Is there any doubt save in the most muddled of noggins that Arizona's Latino population continues to dwell beneath the bootheel of a hostile political class made up almost entirely of Anglos?

Yes, the successful recall of the state's top bigot, former state Senate President Russell Pearce, reveals an opening to be exploited by those who long for racial and ethnic harmony, justice and adherence to U.S. Constitution. I certainly do not discount the significance of Pearce's downfall.

But consider the counter evidence: A damning report from the U.S. Justice Department, which found that the sheriff's office for Arizona's most populous county engages in racial profiling; a U.S. district judge granting class action status to Latinos stopped by that same agency; and a sheriff willing to thumb his nose at both.

Statewide, Arizona's breathing-while-brown law Senate Bill 1070 remains popular with a still-ascendant passel of nativist goobers and race-baiting politicos, though it's mostly been blocked by a district judge and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Arizona's clueless Governor Jan Brewer, bereft of any real ideas to help the state's economy, clings to the signing of SB 1070 as her moment of glory and persists in her steady drumbeat of nativist sloganeering.

Wingnutty state Senators and House members continue blurting hateful, Mexican-bashing rhetoric: everything from state Senator Sylvia Allen's recent pronouncement that if Arizonans don't declare an ersatz civil war on the federal government, "we're going to become part of Mexico" to state Senator Steve Smith's pimping a never-to-be-built border fence to various state legislators' calling for an armed, vigilante force on the border. 

Such current events and the xenophobic climate here in Sand Land may not have been front and center in the Tucson Unified School District's appeal of state school's Superintendent John Huppenthal's finding that the district's Mexican American Studies curriculum was not in compliance with a racist law aimed at wiping out the program entirely.

Still, context is everything. And in the context of Arizona at the tail end of 2011, the recent decision by Arizona Administrative Law Judge Lewis Kowal in favor of Huppenthal, a cynical politician who campaigned for election on a platform of stopping TUSD's mostly Latino students from learning about their own history in this country, is galling.

In short, Kowal, a jurist whose expertise is with liquor laws and insurance statutes, swallowed whole the shibboleths dished out by well-known enemies of ethnic studies such as TUSD board member Mark Stegeman. By contrast, the judge discounted entirely a glowing report of the MAS program by the Cambium Learning Group, ironically commissioned by Superintendent Huppenthal at a cost of $110,000 to taxpayers. 

Kowal also overlooked the fact that the MAS program is having its intended effect, improving the performance of at-risk students in a district that's overwhelmingly Latino, and making them more likely to graduate from high school and matriculate to college.

At one point, Kowal writes,

"Testimonial evidence presented at the hearing in conjunction with excerpts from texts, curriculum, assessments and student work, demonstrates that MAS classes cause students to develop a sense of racial resentment toward the `white oppressor' or `dominant' group/ the philosophy of `us against them' is a persistent theme that exists within the program."

To back up the contention that MAS is teaching Latino kids to hate whitey, Kowal cherry-picks and misinterprets this "testimonial evidence" with the same leaden predictability that's common among die-hard MAS-haters.

For example, an ancient Mesoamerican version of "the golden rule" is "imbued" with the "philosophy" that "Latinos have been dehumanized, and stripped of their humanity, culture and language by white people."

Talk about someone being irony-deficient. First off, the history not only of Latinos, but of Native Americans and African Americans and just about every minority in this country is, sadly, one of dehumanization. 

And who were the ones doing the dehumanizing? Three guesses on that one, folks. And the last two don't count.

Secondly, Kowal is essentially participating in the "stripping" of "culture and language" from Latinos by endorsing Huppenthal's findings and ordering that 10 percent of TUSD's budget be withheld until it kowtows to Huppenthal and kills off MAS.

You can read Kowal's decision for yourself, here. Perusing it, I'm astonished to find that descriptions of the Chicano "unity clap," made famous by Cesar Chavez, and the Mayan greeting In Lak'ech, which posits that "You are my other self," are regarded with suspicion as examples of hateful indoctrination.

Another example from Kowal's decision is instructive. He quotes at length from a "poem" used in one teacher's curriculum entitled Somos Mas Americanos. Actually, it's a song by the popular norteno-band Los Tigres del Norte

Kowal reproduces it in part. Here it is in full:

"We are more American"

They have shouted at me a thousand times I should go back to my country

Because there's no room for me here

I want to remind the gringos: I didn't cross the border, the border crossed me

America was born free, but men divided it

They marked a line so that I jump it

And they can call me "invader"

And that's a very frequent mistake

They took from us eight states

Who's then the invader?

I'm a foreigner in my own land

And I didn't come here to cause you trouble

I'm a hard-working man

And if history isn't lying

The powerful nation settled here, in the glory

Among brave warriors,

Indians of two continents mixed with Spaniards

And if we take centuries into account

We are more American

We are more American than the children of the Anglo-Saxons

They got from us without money the waters of the Río Grande

And they took from us Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado

Also California and Nevada were taken away

Utah was not enough, so they took Wyoming as well

I'm the blood of the Indian

I'm Latin American, I'm mestizo

We are made of all colors

And of all trades

And if we take into account centuries

even if it hurts our neighbors

We are more American

Than all of the gringos

I'll grant you this is a point of view that many Anglos do not want taught in schools, aside from its general accuracy. But does it teach resentment to repeat it and discuss what it means in a classroom?

Flip the script for a moment, and consider a song that could easily be part of an African-American history or literature class, Strange Fruit, made famous by Billie Holiday:

Southern trees bear strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root, 

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Disturbing stuff. But if you know anything about the history of lynching and white supremacy and Jim Crow in the South, you know it speaks the truth.

Thing is, many white Americans simply can't handle the truth about this nation's past. They want sanitized history books for their children, which may give a vague chapter or two to the ugliness and brutishness of our forebears, but then go on to sing the praises of the United States, and rationalize those errant chapters as the occasional potholes in an otherwise well-paved road.

William Faulkner's dictum that, "The past is never dead. It's not even past" comes to mind. Indeed, the America we live in is the direct result of the intertwined strands of horror and greatness that preceded it.

In this regard, I find it interesting that Kowal completely dismisses the testimony of Dr. Jeffrey Milem, head of the University of Arizona's Department of Educational Policy Studies and Practice, who was a witness for TUSD. 

Yet, Kowal's depiction of Milem's testimony makes plenty of sense to me.

Kowal writes:

"Dr. Milem opined that teaching students about historical facts of oppression and racism does not promote racial resentment, and , in fact, `the failure to teach this part of our history is more likely to promote this resentment.'"

That Kowal did not find such statements illuminating says more about Kowal than about the testimony. 

Thankfully, Kowal is not the final word on whether the MAS program will continue. Nor, ultimately, will it belong to Superintendent Huppenthal.

Currently, the constitutionality of the underlying statute is at question in a lawsuit before federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima. On December 21, Tashima listed to oral arguments for and against a preliminary injunction Tucson attorney Richard Martinez is requesting, one that would enjoin Huppenthal from enforcing Arizona's anti-ethnic studies statute.

Martinez's motion seeking an injunction is an incisive document, one that lays bare the duplicity and race-baiting of the statute's author, current Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, and of Superintendent Huppenthal, both of whom ginned up an unnecessary culture war against MAS to aid themselves politically. 

Horne's lawyers, arguing on behalf of their client Huppenthal, are seeking the lawsuit's dismissal. In addition, there's a motion for summary judgment by the plaintiffs which was not addressed in the oral arguments on December 21.

A lot rides on the outcome of Tashima's rulings on the various motions at play: the First Amendment rights of students and teachers, local control of public schools, and the equal protection of Latino students and teachers under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

There's also that little thing called historical truth, as well as how it's taught. 

The history of the MAS program, which began in 1998, has so far been a success story, despite the hyperbolic screechings of its detractors. 

If it's crushed in compliance with the desires of the hateful nativists and cynical pols who run this state, history will not be kind. Although, that history may have to be taught beyond the boundaries of the benighted Grand Canyon State.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons