News that Arizona has censured its first public school ethnic studies program has prompted me to write about it.  I first did so in this blog about a year ago.

  1. It is counterproductive, i.e. it stirs up more anger and resentment than it prevents

H.L Mencken has written, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” This reminds me of what we called in my un-politically correct youth a “Chinese handcuff.” That was a woven tube into which you placed the forefinger of each hand and then tried to free them. If you did the obvious thing and simply tried to pull your fingers out of it, the tube merely tightened and held you more firmly.  The trick was to do the counter-intuitive thing and to push your fingers into the tube more.  It loosened and was thus easy to escape. In my thirty years of teaching  “ethnic studies” courses at the college level students were much more likely to become angry at the idea that this information had been hidden from them in public education than angry at “whites” for things they had done in the past. In fact those who had taken such courses gained a greater appreciation for America where things like racism and religious bigotry could be confronted and overcome. We should allow increased opportunities for minorities to develop a group consciousness and for individuals to succeed in society despite America’s shortcomings. Indeed the exceptions in the law for native Americans and the Holocaust provide examples where federal or mainstream politics recognizes the value of this. I was at a conference once where the keynote speaker lamented that “we had asked for revolution and a share of the power and all they gave us was ethnic dinners.”  In other words the real power sharing demands had been mollified by the acknowledgment and steering of ethnic demands into non-threatening areas. America and capitalism’s ability to absorb and steer challenges to it into things like the marketing of “ethnicity” plays a great role in preserving it.An anti-ethnic studies law conceals things you should know about.

2. I am struck by the “ostrich” aspect of this law.

It is based on the ludicrous assumption that if we don’t talk about something, it ceases to exist. Incidentally the corallary to this is also false” something” only comes into being when we talk about it (take the concern about too early sex education.) What the law calls “ethnic studies,” is most often “American studies” just told from a different perspective. “Ethnic studies” did not make up  anti-Native American policies, slavery, Jim Crow laws, the Chinese exclusion Act,  race riots,  the Japanese internment camps or modern “ethnic” movements like the civil right movement, farm-worker movements, the women’s movement etc. These are parts of American history that all should know about.  Whether you spin these into a narrative about an ever improving America or mine it for models to emulate and adapt to conservative causes, it is a history even conservatives should know about. Whether one agrees with “ethnic studies” one has to understand the reality of today’s America to adequately plan tactics and strategies. If there is resentment against or by an ethnic group you need to understand how to use it to support your cause, enlist allies, broaden your message and defend against challenges.

3. “Ethnic studies” teaches and demonstrates values you want inculcated in young people.

The whole anti-ethnic studies movement is based upon incorrect assumptions about what actually happens in such classes. The fear represented in this law is that by teaching people that they have been oppressed they will react as a group and resent their oppressors as a group rather than acting as individuals or seeing other ethnic groups as individuals. This is hogwash.  First of all the word has already slipped out that minority groups have been, are and will continue to be oppressed. Some members of minority groups don’t believe it and some do, but their belief will be shaped by the conditions of their lives not what is said in ethnic studies classes.  It is these conditions like how and where one lives, one’s chances for success, how others you know have fared and the opportunities available to you, which will determine how you feel about other groups.  It is individual circumstances and personal relationships that shape whether you see yourself oppressed as an individual or as a group and whether you see other ethnicities as individuals or as a faceless group. How you are treated now is much more important to you than how your group was treated historically.

Moreover many of the values which those who support this law say they hold are taught by the “ethnic studies” courses. An ethnic group’s spirituality, the importance of family, the meaning of liberty, the value of making up your own mind, one’s own uniqueness and the viewing of pronouncements critically are far more meaningful things that one learns in an ethnic studies course. To deny students these teachings for fear they may resent your group historically seems to me throwing the baby out with the bath water.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply