These days, victories are hard to come by — especially in public education where our schools are under constant attack by free market advocates determined to privatize everything in their path and scrub critical pedagogy from the classroom.
But in late August, seven years after Arizona lawmakers targeted an ethnic studies program in Tucson for elimination and passed HB 2281, banning courses that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima upheld the constitutional rights of Mexican American students who challenged the law. Tashima called the ban what it is: racist.
“The Court concludes that plaintiffs have proven their First Amendment claim because both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus,” Tashima wrote in his decision. “Having thus ruled out any pedagogical motivation, the Court is convinced that decisions regarding the MAS [Mexican American Studies] program were motivated by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears,” he wrote.
Ethnic studies advocates say the legal victory gives a boost to those working to implement these programs and also highlights the fact that many of the arguments against ethnic studies are steeped in racism and white supremacy.
“The question I was answering before the decision was what happens if it doesn’t go your way,” said Curtis Acosta, who taught in the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson before it was shut down and was a plaintiff in some of the initial legal challenges to the ban.
“And of course it would set this awful precedent for all the areas of the country that have blossomed and are embracing ethnic studies after our untimely demise and it would unfortunately give the detractors a road map for how to challenge this in court and legal precedent,” Acosta said. “Thank God that didn’t happen; the nightmare scenario is gone. So instead: affirmation, validation, and precedent to anybody who tries to kick this stuff up.”
Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program started as part of the response to a class-action desegregation lawsuit filed by Black and Latino students decades ago. HB 2281 was passed in 2010 and while Tucson initially kept the program intact, the school board caved in 2012 after threats that they would lose 10 percent of their state funding.
Rethinking Schools was dragged into the fray when our book, Rethinking Columbus, was banned from classrooms along with Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Rodolfo Acuña’s Occupied America, and 500 Años del Pueblo Chicano/500 Years of Chicano History in Pictures by Elizabeth Martínez.
Acosta cheered Tashima’s ruling and said it was “an incredible moment in history and an incredible punctuation to a long journey.” But what he enjoys talking about even more is why the Mexican American Studies program is so helpful for young people.
“There are many particular, small, nuanced ways that our program may have been unique, but I think just flat out, if you boil it down, the space was powerful because it was a space where the students felt not only safe, but a space where they could be brave, a space where they could grow into their own strength,” he said.
“And we did that by being very real with our students about our expectations, how much we loved them, and what love means in a classroom and that we were working not only for them but also for their grandparents, and for those who came before them, and that they needed to work for our children, and the young ones coming up, and that we had this understanding that we were in this beautiful space together to work to get better as human beings.”
To read our full interview with Curtis Acosta, go to http://bit.ly/2erfTgK