Arizona’s Ban on Ethnic Studies Doesn’t Actually Ban Anything

When I first heard talk about Arizona’s HB 2281 — a.k.a. the anti-ethnic studies bill — I couldn’t decide if the law banned a majority of all social science classes, or if it banned nothing at all.

After getting a chance to read the bill’s text, however, I think it’s clear that the answer is almost certainly the latter. The law is too vaguely written for it to be anything other than a disorganized attempt at populist rabble-rousing, resulting in a bill that lacks any teeth and has no actual legal effect.

But saying that the bill has no real effect is not the same as saying that the bill is harmless. Chicken Little laws are not something to be encouraged, particularly where they invoke racial bogeymans that do not exist outside of legislature’s minds.

Look, no one involved in passing HB 2281 is making a secret of what this bill is really trying to prohibit: a hypothetical high school class intended for Hispanic students which tells them to blame their problems on the people whom are euphemistically referred to today as “Real Americans.” That such a class does not actually exist is, apparently, an unimportant consideration.

Tom Horne, the bill’s champion, is quite open about the fact that he is specifically attacking Latino studies courses. Although the Tuscon school district also offers courses in African-American studies, Native American studies and Pan-Asian studies, Horne claims he is not (yet) trying to get rid of those — Horne says that he’s studying those classes now to see whether they can stay, but that he “felt he [already] knew enough about Mexican-American studies” courses to advocate for their elimination. (As an Agnes Scott grad, I suppose I’ll just be grateful he hasn’t yet decided to target women’s studies.)

Some people have argued there is an inequity in the fact that Arizona offers all these ethnic studies courses, and yet doesn’t offer “European-American studies.” The reason that class doesn’t exist, of course, isn’t because of some anti-European-American sentiment, but because in the context of American school curriculums today, a European-American course simply wouldn’t have any academic value; a majority of humanities courses are already approached from a predominantly European-American perspective, so there is nothing new to be gained from magnifying that focus even more.

On the other hand, there are plenty of universities overseas that offer American studies classes, a course offering that is completely appropriate given that “American culture” is not the predominant theme of the rest of those universities’ curriculums. I’m sure Tom Horne or other supporters of the Arizona bill don’t find it objectionable that foreign schools offer courses in American studies, so why is it objectionable to offer studies of foreign cultures here in States?

The ethnic studies courses in Arizona come in a variety of forms — there are offerings in history, sociology, and literature. As with all humanities or arts courses, these classes have selected a particular narrow segment of human civilization for special scrutiny. The usual theme in ethnic studies courses is a focus on a given subset of the population with common traits and historical backgrounds, be it a race, a nationality, or a culture. The courses then pick out relevant people, events, or books related to that category, which the students are then expected to learn about, discuss, and then do typical high school class tasks such as “analyze the unifying themes” or “identify similarities between the authors.” It’s not exactly rocket science, no, but it is a useful academic enterprise.

Selecting “Latin American literature” as the lens through which the art of writing will be examined is no more or less legitimate than selecting “modern literature” or “Middle English literature” or “Shakespeare.” Selecting “African-American history” as the lens through which some segment of American history is to be examined is no more or less legitimate than selecting “history of American cuisine” or “history of the women’s movement” or “history of the Oregon Trail.” Ethnic studies classes simply are not different from other humanities courses in any manner which could create a legitimate government interest in banning them without banning all other humanities courses to boot.

Luckily, however, the Arizona bill doesn’t actually ban anything at all. Ethnic studies courses are not in jeopardy in Arizona, or at least they aren’t threatened by HB 2281.

Let’s take a look at the text. The law states in its Declaration of Policy that:

The legislature finds and declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.

Ignoring the gratuitous use of political buzzwords, this isn’t too objectionable. Valuing individuals is good. Hatred is bad. Courses that teach the opposite don’t actually exist, but sure, why not, let’s prohibit them, just for funsies.

After the O&P, we get to the actual prohibitions of the bill:

A. 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;

Again, there is nothing particularly objectionable about this law, save for the fact it is tilting at windmills. Advocating the overthrow of the government already puts you on rather shaky First Amendment grounds, not to mention that First Amendment rights in public schools already can be restricted based upon legitimate pedagogical concerns — and those who fund public school systems can legitimately object to teaching that they should be overthrown by coup — so I can’t say I really disagree with this clause. But it doesn’t actually do anything, because no course in Arizona, or in all of the U.S., actually promotes such a thing.

Just to be sure, however, I did go look for evidence of a case where a public school was advocating for the overthrow of the U.S. government. The closest I could find on all the interwebs was this video here. This video features a dude who is a teacher who is speaking on some steps somewhere, and he apparently has a crush on Che Guevara. However, he is speaking at night, so he is obviously not teaching public school course of any sort. Whether or not you believe that people who share the dude’s views on Che Guevara should be allowed to be public school teachers, this law would do nothing to address the issue either way.

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

I would love to see a court try to handle this section of the ethnic studies bill. How on earth do you ban middle and high school courses that “promote resentment?” That’s what middle schoolers and high schoolers do. They are essentially jackals that have acquired the rudimentary elements of speech; they spend their days resenting stuff and hating stuff, no matter what courses they are in. Gym makes them resent gym teachers and peers that are more athletic than they are. Calculus makes them resent Newton. English lit makes them resent the fact that Chaucer couldn’t just speak normal English like everyone else does. It can’t be helped.

On a more serious note: how do you teach WWII without teaching students to resent or hate those who carried out the Holocaust? How do you teach the Civil War without promoting “resentment or hate” for the ideology that believed one human could own another? How do you teach about the suffrage movement without promoting “resentment” for those who believed two X chromosomes made you unqualified to vote?

Unless Tom Horne has the balls to come out and actually re-phrase the law so that it specifically prohibits teaching student about anything bad that any white Europeans or Americans may have ever done to any Native American or Latin American, the Arizona statute is meaningless. This legislation cannot actually address the “problems” its framers are claiming its supposed to fix, or at least the bill cannot do so without simultaneously prohibiting the teaching of most of global history.

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

The Federal Constitution already prohibits any real problem that this portion of the law is aimed at, so it’s more or less redundant. Once again, I don’t agree that the problem is real, but to whatever extent this is an actual issue, I’m fine with the Arizona legislature prohibiting it. The greatest value to be had from any ethnic studies course is the same as it for any other humanities course — that is, exposing students to ideas and knowledge they had not encountered to before. An ethnic studies course designed only for students already of that ethnicity is needlessly crippling itself.

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

This portion of the law would target subjects its framers never intended to. Any sort of pro-America message could conceivably be prohibited — because, after all, nationalism does not advocate the individualism of every special snowflake, but advocates a unity based upon shared passports.

Not to mention, teaching “Asian studies” does not advocate “Asian solidarity” any more than “Philosophy of the Enlightenment” might advocate “Rationalist solidarity.”

But all of the above aside, any potential bite that the prohibitions in the Arizona law may have had is completely eviscerated by parts E & F of the bill:

e. This section shall not be construed to restrict or prohibit:

1. Courses or classes for Native American pupils that are required to comply with federal law.
2. The grouping of pupils according to academic performance, including capability in the English language, that may result in a disparate impact by ethnicity.
3. Courses or classes that include the history of any ethnic group and that are open to all students, unless the course or class violates subsection a.
4. Courses or classes that include the discussion of controversial aspects of history.

f. 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.

Pay special attention to e(4) and f. Because e(4) does not contain the “unless the course or class violates subsection a” language which is specifically enumerated in e(3), it very likely that e(4) would be interpreted to offer a blanket exemption for courses which include controversial aspects of history. As if that wasn’t clear enough, section f goes on to explicitly exempt from the prohibition the study of the Holocaust or any other oppression of a particular class of people. That pretty much gives a pass to every ethnic studies course in Arizona that doesn’t happen to be calling for a revolution. Which is, well, all of them.