February 24, 2012

Something rotten in Arizona: Where books aren’t “banned,” just put in boxes in storage


Not Thugs, Americans

“I grew up in South Tucson. So when I go down to Tucson Unified School District, I’m going home.”John Huppenthal

Like many of us, John Huppenthal would seem to have complicated feelings about “home.” In June of last year the newly elected Arizona Superintendent for Public Instruction determined that the Tucson Unified School District was in violation of a new law and threatened to curtail funding of the district:

“Pursuant to Arizona state law, and until TUSD comes into compliance with A.R.S. § 15-112, I have directed the Arizona Department of Education to withhold ten percent of the monthly apportionment of state aid that would otherwise be due to Tucson Unified School District.”

Written by former the superintendent (2003-2011)—now Arizona Attorney General—Tom Horne (B.A., J.D., Harvard), Arizona Revised Statute 15-112 states, in part:

A school district or charter school in this state shall not include in its program of instruction any courses or classes that include any of the following:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.

2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.

3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.

4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

Was the TUSD promoting the overthrow of the government?

According to the 2010 census Arizona is 29.6% of “Hispanic or Latino origin.” (The United States as a whole is about 16%.)

Of Arizona’s cities, Tucson includes the highest percentage of Latinos, 41.6 percent.

And the Tucson Unified School District is 61% Latino—a percentage that is predicted to rise as a result of continuing white flight.

As could seem reasonable, even expected, given those demographics, the TUSD had been home, since 1998, to a Mexican American Studies (MAS) program—a bugaboo that Horne and his successor, it turns out, have long sought to do away with. Horne, who was endorsed by the Arizona Tea Party in his bid for the Attorney General’s office, had campaigned for several years against “ethnic studies;” Huppenthal’s election campaign aired baldly bigoted radio advertisements promising that he would “stop la raza” and—yes, this is what passes for a campaign promise in Arizona—dismantle the Mexican American Studies program. That proved a winning strategy in a state captured by anti-immigrant, Tea Party Governor Jan Brewer. As Pamela Powers Hannley (who, while decrying the law, seems to want to ignore the bigotry at work in its creation) reported, “The law … was finely targeted by Horne and the Arizona Legislature to take down the MAS program in TUSD.”

Before making his final determination, however, and to bolster its credibility, Huppenthal commissioned an audit by the independent Cambium Learning Group to determine the extent of the program’s violations; Huppenthal then cited the completed audit, purported to have cost $100,000, as confirming the assessments of Horne and Huppenthal.

It didn’t.

As the Arizona Republic reported, ”It is difficult to overstate how lavishly the Huppenthal-commissioned study praises TUSD’s ethnic-studies program.”

Indeed, Cambium  recommended that the program be “expanded and made available to more students.”

The audit concludes: ”During the curriculum audit period, no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law A.R.S. 15-112.”

As James King wrote in the Phoenix New Times, [“Huppenthal] may have been under the impression that nobody was going to actually look at the audit … the guy straight-up lied.”

Inasmuch as the audit did not support his preconceived conclusion, Huppenthal had little choice but to disregard its evidence. He proceeded to demand the elimination of the Mexican American Studies program, which is his sole prerogative. Faced with the loss of funding, the district board, who appear to have been supporters of MAS, voted to end the program—exactly as Horne had anticipated:

“In my eight years as Superintendent of Schools I’ve never seen a district faced with a substantial loss of funds not come into compliance with state law, and I believe that if this school board were to try to have this school district suffer a 10-percent cut in their budget in order to defy state law, the school board members would be immediately recalled by the parents who would not put up with something like that,” Horne said.

At the source of controversy, books are so often to be found. In shuttering a Mexican American Studies program, one would also want to remove the sources from which ideas may be emanating. Accordingly, “seven books that were used as supporting materials for curriculum in Mexican American Studies classes have been moved to the district storage facility…”

They include:

Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado

500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures edited by Elizabeth Martinez

Message to AZTLAN by Rodolfo Corky Gonzales

Chicano! The History of the Mexican Civil Rights Movement by Arturo Rosales

Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuna

Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire

Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years by Bill Bigelow

Heady reading for high-schoolers, especially in a district targeted by Horne and Huppenthal for its underachievement. (Mr. Huppenthal says of Paulo Freire, by whom he is frankly alarmed, “I’ve read his entire book…” —but having watched him repeat this claim on video, I can’t believe it.)

Cara Rene, Communications Director for the TUSD, is at pains to emphasize, however, that the books have not been “banned” —an inflammatory word, I agree. She elaborates, “NONE of the above books have been banned by TUSD. Each book has been boxed and stored as part of the process of suspending the classes.” Not banned. Just put in a box and removed to storage.

Whatever cynical electoral calculations may have encouraged their appeal to White fear and rage, Horne and Huppenthal, like their constituents, seem genuinely unsettled by what they thought was being taught in Mexican American Studies. Above all, by what Huppenthal calls “this narrative of the oppressed versus the oppressor.”

“… [T]hey’re going to construct Mexican American Studies around this Marxian framework with a predominantly ethnic underclass, the oppressed, being—filling out that Marxian model and a predominantly Caucasian class filling out the role of the oppressor.” (interview with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!)

If that sounds uncannily like … American history—well, you won’t be receiving an endorsement from the Tea Party.

As Gregory Rodriguez wrote on Monday in the Los Angeles Times, “Put bluntly, Arizona banned ethnic studies to protect the reputation of the white majority.”

During an interview on NPR Huppenthal sounded like something of a Jeremiah, pleading to be heard:

“[L]iberals ought to read these books and understand them better. These issues are going to be huge philosophical issues for the United States as we become—as our whole racial makeup changes … the consequences are going to be enormous for all of America as this thing rolls out over the coming decades.”

Mr. Huppenthal, have you considered Maine?

The American Library Association reported yesterday that

“Educators in the Houston metro area are readying a “book trafficker” caravan that would travel March 12-18 from Houston, Texas, to Tucson, Arizona, to donate books about the Mexican-American experience to four volunteer libraries…. Libro Traficante, organized by Houston Community College professor Tony Diaz, plan to contribute titles to underground libraries in Houston, San Antonio, Albuquerque, and Tucson.”

Arizona State Rep. Sally Gonzales has introduced a bill to repeal ARS 15-112, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has asked that the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights investigate “the language of the statute and its targeted application against the MAS program.”

Arizona Revised Statute 15-112 concludes by affirming that:

“Nothing in this section shall be construed to restrict or prohibit the instruction of the holocaust, any other instance of genocide, or the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on ethnicity, race, or class.”

Unless it’s a history in which white people were—or are—the oppressors.

Dan O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Melville House.