Arizona legislators have long waged a battle against ethnic studies, culminating in a ban of Tucson’s acclaimed Mexican American Studies program. But in spite of — and really, because of — the ban, ethnic studies programs have expanded across the nation.
Arizona Revised Statute § 15-112 is a law passed in 2010 by the Arizona legislature that specifically targeted Tucson’s MAS program. Former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal and other conservative politicians in the state argued the program fomented racial hatred, and passage of the law led to the dissolution of the MAS program in 2012 despite independent assessment that found the program did no such thing and increased student success, especially among Mexican American and Latino students. With the demise of MAS, TUSD also banned from classrooms seven titles by Mexican American and Native authors.
Shortly after the Arizona ban went into effect, Curtis Acosta and Sean Arce, two former instructors for the embattled program, took matters into their own hands: They announced an after-school course at Prescott College that offers the MAS curriculum and provides college credit. At the time, Huffington Post Latino spoke to Acosta about how he has kept the MAS curriculum available:
When the Tucson school board shut down the classes last year, Acosta volunteered on Sundays to teach Mexican American studies off school grounds at the John Valenzuela Youth Center in South Tucson.
“I started it because I couldn’t imagine the idea of the classes being erased,” Acosta told HuffPost. “As long as I’m still breathing, I’ll be teaching this.”
Acosta and Arce weren’t alone in their battle to keep MAS alive: Tony Diaz, a literature professor from Houston, Texas, organized and led the Librotraficante Caravan, which traveled from Houston to Tucson, “carrying a payload of contraband books, creating networks of Underground Libraries and leaving community resources in its wake.” Since, Diaz has led a campaign in front of the Texas legislature, demanding that Mexican American Studies be made available in schools statewide. Texas hasn’t been as resistant as Arizona has. The Texas State Board of Education made it possible for the inclusion of ethnic studies at interested schools, and Diaz reports that the ethnic studies is expected to be expand to 100 districts in the state.
J. Weston Phippen of The Atlantic recently covered the expansion of ethnic studies programs around the country, citing further examples:
Seeing the protests in the news, Jose Lara, a Los Angeles social-studies teacher at Santee Education Complex High School, wondered why his district didn’t have its own Mexican American Studies course. “What are we doing in our classrooms [to help]?” Lara thought. “What type of awareness are we bringing?”
Within a year, Lara had spoken with leaders in San Diego, San Bernardino, San Francisco, and Ventura counties who wanted ethnic studies in their schools. The reaction in California couldn’t have been more different from Arizona’s. When the school board held a meeting to discuss implementation and Lara had no money to bus students to it, “teachers started reaching into their pockets and soliciting online donations. We heard from people all across the country—teachers, parents, professors saying, ‘Here’s $25. And I wish I could be there.’” Lara told The Los Angeles Times, “It’s been pretty amazing.”
As a result of Lara’s work, five California school districts now require ethnic studies, and a proposed law seeks to expand ethnic studies to all high schools in the state.
The students and teachers of Tucson’s now defunct Mexican American Studies program have been fighting against Arizona Revised Statute § 15-112 in Arce v. Douglas (formerly Arce v. Huppenthal). In late 2013, CBLDF joined an amicus brief filed in the case by the Freedom to Read Foundation. The brief attacks the partisan legislation that led to end of the MAS program and the ban of several books. CBLDF joined FTRF’s amicus brief because any legislation that bans books based on the ethnicity of their creators or subject matter is just as likely to ban comic books for the same reason. If images of works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, or other Chicano artists can be banned (as was done with the removal of 500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures), it doesn’t seem so far fetched that works by the Hernandez Brothers and other Mexican American and Latino comics creators would become part of Arizona’s censorship spree.
Recently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion that hopefully puts opponents of Arizona Revised Statute § 15-112 one step closer to striking it down. The law was challenged under the First (freedom of expression) and 14th Amendments (equal protection). The Ninth Circuit determined that one subsection of the law was in violation of the First Amendment. They further determined that the other subsections stood up to scrutiny but that three subsections did raise some constitutional concerns under both amendments. In the majority opinion, New York District Judge Jed Rakoff writes:
The very danger we perceive was corroborated, at oral argument, when we asked counsel for defendants whether the statute could be found to prohibit a public school course in San Francisco on the topic of Chinese history that was open to all students but was designed in consideration of the substantial Chinese and Chinese American student population there that might benefit from a greater understanding of its history. Defendants asserted that the course could be found in violation. As indicated by this example, subsection (A)(3) threatens to chill the teaching of ethnic studies courses that may offer great value to students— yet it does so without furthering the legitimate pedagogical purpose of reducing racism.
The opinion does not strike down the law, but the Ninth Circuit has sent the decision back to district court for reconsideration. The prior court had ruled against the students bringing suit on three of the four subsections, dismissing most of their First Amendment claims without evaluating the discriminatory nature of the law. However, the Ninth Circuit is demanding that the lower court review the student’s claims of discrimination. Rakoff writes:
…it is undisputed that the statute’s enactment and enforcement has had a disparate impact on Mexican American students… Not only were sixty percent of all TUSD students of Mexican or other Hispanic descent, but also ninety percent of students in the MAS program were such. Moreover, defendants concede that the statute was enacted in response to complaints about the MAS program and that the statute has been enforced only against the MAS program, even though two other ethnic studies programs in Arizona were alleged by the state superintendent to seemingly violate § 15-112.
Arizona legislators intended to eliminate Mexican American studies, but instead they ended up propagating the program, seeding it in schools nationwide — a not-uncommon result that arises from attempts to ban books and educational materials. Diaz succinctly describes what happened for The Atlantic:
“It sped up the evolution by about 25 years,” says Diaz… “It’s clear to me that our intellectual advancement is a threat to some people, because they tried to make it illegal.”
To view CBLDF’s prior coverage of the MAS ban, click on the links below: