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Neo-Racism in the Southwest

The surge of neo-racism in Arizona, especially racism directed at people of Mexican descent, has received sporadic media coverage over the past year.  But for the most part news about the economy and presidential politics has pushed off the front page Arizona’s attack against its working class of color and their children.  In other words, the slow motion creation of a new Jim Crow regime for Mexican Americans in Arizona is not “trending.”

But what is taking place in southern Arizona deserves our attention as the most fanatical episode in the war against public education.  Specifically, the question being posed is whether or not young people from working class communities and communities of color ought to be educated and if they are what are they entitled to learn?

Last month, the U.S. Supreme court agreed to hear Arizona’s appeal of a 9th Circuit decision that declared the draconian anti-immigrant SB 1070 in violation of federal law and therefore unconstitutional.  In the meantime, those who promoted 1070 steadily go about their business dismantling the highly successful Mexican American Studies program in the Tucson school district.

At first glance, the ban against “ethnic studies” would seem to be a prohibition against an entire academic discipline.  In reality, it is a narrowly targeted attack on Mexican American or Chicano studies.  As former University of Arizona dean Sal Baldenegro reports, the ban leaves other “ethnic studies” programs in place.

Accompanying the elimination of Mexican American studies is a list of prohibited books.  Shakespeare’s The Tempest leaps off the list as the most recognizable title.  Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and well-known histories by Howard Zinn, Ron Takaki, and Rudy Acuña join the castoffs.  According to the list, one-act plays by the Teatro campesino, short stories by Sandra Cisneros, essays by James Baldwin, and a speech by Cesar Chavez will be added to the bonfire (or at least sentenced to perpetual confinement in a local book depository).

The list of banned books invokes more ironies than I am able to unpack here.  That a collection of short stories (Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek) whose main characters are young Latina women negotiating gender and ethnic roles should be on a list of banned readings seems silly.  Silly unless one realizes that what frightens the right-wing Arizona politicians has less to do with the content of the books and more to do with the way they might be juxtaposed and interpreted by teachers who seek to empower their students.

Joining Shakespeare on the banned list is former UC Berkeley professor Ron Takaki.  In his history of the United States, A Different Mirror, Takaki takes the image of Caliban from The Tempest and uses it to explain how Native Americans, African slaves, and almost every single immigrant group that has come to these shores—Irish, Jewish, Italian, Chinese, Mexican, and so on—have been cast as the monstrous and dark outsider and fed through the grinder of white supremacy and economic exploitation.  Perhaps the Arizona Inquisitors (as Rudy Acuña calls them) are smarter than we thought.

But there is one more stunning paradox.  Although these books are banned for courses taught under the umbrella of Mexican American studies, many of the same books are allowed in other classes at schools such as Tucson’s University High where students are placed on a college track and exposed to a variety of uncensored curricular materials.

Could it be that the attack on Mexican American Studies in Arizona is less about “ethnic studies” and more about denying the right to education to the coming Latino majority (and to the Black community that the neoliberal consensus considers equally disposable)?

Across the Arizona border in California, we are witnessing a related transformation that is different in its details, subtler, and less openly racist.  There are no Sugiyamas, Hornes, or Huppenthals, the henchmen of the Arizona Tribunal.  But throughout the University of California and Cal State systems invisible technocrats are slowly destroying the public university and converting it into a corporate bastion where students from California are displaced by foreign students (who pay more), where students are “taught” in classes of 900 people, and where faculty are forced to become “entrepreneurs”–a fancy word for academic panhandlers.

At UC San Diego (UCSD), campus leaders recently published their three top priority areas for the future–all of them had to do with creating products for the market.  The word “education” was not mentioned once.  Academic areas that emphasize history and critical thinking are either shrinking or becoming a parody of themselves.  The push for on-line education is strong–no need to interact with real students.  We simply sell them virtual courses and have underpaid graduate students grade the work. Administrators brag that UCSD is no longer a California university; it’s an international university—this in a state that will be majority Latino by the year 2040.

As costs go up (more than a 300% increase at the UC system over the last decade), working class and youth of color will slowly be denied access.  The few that make it in will have to take on serious debt to finish.  The future? — Education for the already privileged and for a few tokens.  Education as preparation for the job market.  Education as the site of corporate-driven research.  Education to train elites from around the world.  No more critique of the status quo. Minimal engagement with local populations. A ban on critical pedagogy in the classroom.  No interest in teaching strategies that empower youth, especially those who do not already arrive with an abundance of social and economic capital.

Back in Arizona, Yolanda Sotelo, now in her thirtieth year of teaching in Tucson schools, was informed last week that monitors would visit her classroom to make sure banned books were not being used.  Teachers who assigned reading from prohibited titles would be reprimanded.  Monitors would also evaluate all posters in the classroom.  In other words, no critical thinking, no critical history, and no critical pedagogy for the new Calibans who must take their designated places in the market economy and forget their past.

JORGE MARISCAL has taught at both public and private universities for thirty years. His latest book is “Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons From the Chicano Movement ” (University of New Mexico Press). His website is http://jorgemariscal.blogspot.com/

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