By Roberto Rodriguez, New America Media
The irony of standing trial on Columbus Day – for defending Tucson’s Raza Studies Program – is not lost on the defendants. The philosophical foundation for Raza Studies at Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) is maiz-based knowledge – knowledge that is both indigenous to this continent, and at least 7,000 years old.
Despite this, the state superintendent of schools, Tom Horne – whose mission is to eliminate ethnic studies in Arizona – believes that Raza Studies is “un-American,” this while embracing knowledge from Greece and Rome as the basis for Western Civilization taught in Arizona schools.
On May 14, a day after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB 2281, legislation designed to eliminate ethnic studies, the police at Tucson’s state building detained a total of 15 student and community members for “criminal trespassing.” The first trials, primarily of social justice students, are set for the morning of Oct 12, the day after the Monday holiday and the traditional date of Columbus Day.
Initially, after word had spread that Tom Horne was coming to Tucson to a meeting with TUSD administrators – one day after the signing of HB 2281 – hundreds of students and community members formed a human chain around the TUSD headquarters. His presence was interpreted as a victory lap. Wave after wave of students surrounded not just the building but the entire block itself.
Rather than face them, Horne instead opted to hold a press conference at the state building a couple of miles away. Hundreds of students marched there, and then entered the state building, despite being told by officials that they were not welcome in this public building. Several dozen students attempted to enter the press conference on the second floor, but were locked out. As a result, they staged an impromptu sit-in. In the end, 15 refused to leave and were thus detained. Of these, 13 were arrested for criminal trespass. This included several middle, high school and college students. It also included two University of Arizona professors (including me).
No charges were filed against Horne, who has single-handedly made it his mission to eliminate the highly successful Raza Studies program. This program graduates students at a 97.5 percent rate and the college-going rate is upwards of 70 percent, at a time of extremely high nationwide dropout rates. Horne charges that the program is “un-American,” that it promotes ethnic solidarity and that it breeds resentment against other races and the United States itself.
Through HB 2281, Horne has charged that ethnic studies promotes segregation and calls for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. The legislation creates exemptions for American Indian Studies and African-American Studies – a clumsy attempt to isolate Tucson’s Raza Studies.
HB 2281 sets up a state mechanism to approve books and curricula. Horne’s intent is to prove that Raza Studies-TUSD is out of compliance, and to eliminate it by Dec. 31, 2010. Despite his wishes, the state lacks the power to shut it down. The district would get a chance to appeal the decision before Raza Studies could be shut down.
On its face, Horne’s charges – that Raza Studies is out of compliance with a law that doesn’t even go into effect until Jan. 1, 2011 – is bizarre. Having never visited a Raza Studies classroom, he has demanded that TUSD videotape all Raza Studies classes. TUSD has rebuffed his demands, arguing that Raza Studies is in full compliance.
Separately, a lawsuit is pending that will seek to prevent the state from implementing HB 2281. Proponents of the lawsuit will argue that the law is ambiguous -- that the terms used in the legislation are ambiguous. For instance, the notion of what is “American” or “un-American” has never been litigated. What is “ethnic” and what constitutes “ethnic studies” has also never been litigated.
The danger of HB 2281 is similar to that of SB 1070 – which made it a state crime to be undocumented: it could be replicated nationwide and expanded to the college and university levels.
This is the importance of these Columbus Day trials and the forthcoming lawsuit. It is when and where Ethnic/Raza Studies will be defended.
Rodriguez, a member of the MAS-TUSD community advisory board is a professor at the University of Arizona.