Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hate in Arizona: The 'American' Way

Clenched jaw. Dried tears. Incredulous about the country we live in.

I just got home after a screening of the film "Precious Knowledge," (trailer here) a documentary about the flagrant repression of high school students in Tuscon, Arizona who have been rallying for the last three years to save their schools' ethnic studies programs. As of this January, Mexican-American studies programs in the Tuscon Unified School District were deemed illegal by the Arizona legislature.

Six TUSD high schools established ethnic studies programs in 1993, in an effort to improve the abysmal retention and graduation rates for Latina/o students. And it worked! According to the film (supported by data from an independent audit), almost all (93%) students who participated in ethnic studies classes graduated, in comparison to the 56% graduation rate for Latina/o students nationwide.

Yet (white male) lawmakers zeroed in on the programs a few years ago, saying that they were racist and promoted hate speech. Filmmaker Eren McGinnis spent much time in these classrooms, and what you see there is beautiful, and couldn't be more different from how politicians try to characterize ethnic studies. The Latina/o, white and black students recite a mantra of respect, love and understanding at the beginning of class; they discuss the effects of systemic racism; they talk about finally feeling seen, heard and engaged in class; and their teachers encourage them to critically analyze literature, history and systems of oppression.

The students in this film are incredible. Their level of intellectual and civic engagement, passion and activism is exactly what educators and policymakers bemoan this country is missing. Yet they are maligned by their own elected officials as racist, militant and anti-American.

Students, teachers and communities in Tuscon have been fighting the program's annihilation, and were successful in shutting down earlier versions of the bill. And though the fight is far from over, they have lost this round with the law now on the books. What this means in practice is that the former ethnic studies teachers are able to stay at the schools but it is illegal for them to teach any Latina/o authors or history from any Latina/o perspectives. It is even illegal for them to teach "The Tempest" or "Othello" since they are works that overtly deal with race. In the Q&A with the director after the film, Eren explained that the state education department even confiscated 2nd graders' diaramas because they included depictions of Latina/o history.

No matter how unambiguously racist or oppressive this all may be, it's no farce. Arizona is  mandating "color blindness" in its public schools, while also passing Bill 1070, which legalizes racial profiling. (A suit against the bill is currently waiting to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.)

So this might be where you say...wait a second, I thought this blog was about LGBTQ issues on college campuses! Indeed it is, including this very post. What my eyes have been opened to in the last few months is that oppression is oppression is oppression. As the Reverend Irene Monroe recently explained in a talk at MIT, there is not a hierarchy of oppression, where it works to pick and choose the kinds of oppressions we confront. She explains that there is a wheel of oppression, and it is effective in keeping many different groups down because each oppressed group thinks their oppression is unique and must be dealt with in isolation.

The attack on Mexican-American studies in Tuscon is an LGBTQ rights issue, not only because of the many Latina/o queer people in Tuscon, but because combating discrimination writ large is a crucial part of the LGBTQ civil rights fight.

I hope you'll all consider seeing "Precious Knowledge" when it airs on PBS in May, and keep an eye out to see if a screening is coming to your city. There's also extended clips on the film website.


  1. Great post Judy! It feels very timely. The National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) just celebrated their 10th anniversary with a four-day conference in Los Angeles. For the first time in history they held an LGBTQ caucus for queer Latino/a immigrant workers. Here in Seattle Casa Latina (my organization) is also developing a workshop on allyship between the LGBTQ and immigrant communities. Thank you for so eloquently articulating the importance of connecting these struggles against oppression.

  2. Wow, that is awesome Emily! It's so exciting that you are getting to do intersectional's really the best kind :) I would love to hear about/see the materials from your workshop some time if you would be willing to share.

  3. Yes! I think materials will be in Spanish, but I will be in touch once it launches.