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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Arizona's new civil rights coalition

Arizona's new civil rights coalition
Part 1 of Part 2

The attempt to outlaw the Mexican American studies programme in Tucson schools has mobilised a powerful new movement

o Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez
o, Thursday 28 April 2011 16.49 BST

The students wanted to be heard and so they chained themselves. The symbolism at the emergency meeting of the Tucson Unified School Board – held, in effect, to destroy the nation's premiere K-12 Mexican American Studies programme – could not have been more powerful. And yet it was more powerful. Leading the charge of the mostly Mexican American students from the high school group Unidos was an African American and Native American student.

African American, Native American, Mexican American and Central American students intentionally chaining themselves, along with white students, too? Chains have a special meaning for people of colour: they oppress, imprison and dehumanise – and yet these students decided that after continually being silenced and after being subjected to years of continual attack, chaining themselves to the school board members' chairs was the means to achieve voice. And they were definitely heard.

The symbolism doesn't stop there. Akin to the Los Angeles high school walkouts of 1968, among the student leaders was also a Chilipina (Chicana and Filipina). Leaders in the years-long struggle include Yaqui, Tohono O'dham, Mexican and Chicana and Chicano students. This is the Tucson community.

The action this week has come after students and community members have testified before the state legislature, after having run from Tucson to Phoenix, after getting arrested en masse inside the state building, after having walked across the city, after countless protests, vigils, rallies and marches … and after having attended numerous school board meetings where the board members hear, but do not listen, and where they seemingly always act against the interests of the majority (about 80% of students being of colour).

While this was primarily a high school student planned and executed action, hundreds of middle school, high school, community college and university students and community members of all races and cultures laid siege to the TUSD headquarters. All risked arrest, but rather than getting arrested, they shut the meeting down.

The massive, yet peaceful takeover of the TUSD headquarters, was precipitated by the school board capitulating to the efforts to terminate ethnic studies statewide via HB 2281. The bill, shepherded by former state schools superintendent, Tom Horne (now state attorney general) and passed by the state legislature, was signed by the governor last year. On 3 January of this year and minutes before leaving office, Horne declared TUSD's highly successful Mexican American Studies (MAS) programme out of compliance with HB 2281. Per Horne – who claims to be guided by Martin Luther King Jnr's philosophy – the only means to comply is by elimination of the programme. Horne's successor, John Huppenthal, who campaigned to "eliminate La Raza" soon chimed in. His response has been to audit this highly successful programme, while leaving untouched the state's many failing programmes.

The initial response by the school board was to declare that the MAS-TUSD was already in compliance. However, after 3 January, the new mantra from the board is that it will do whatever it needs to in order to ensure that MAS-TUSD will be in compliance with HB 2281. This has culminated in a series of efforts, by what amounts to an apartheid-style school board, to appease the state. The latest move by the board is a resolution that calls for designating MAS courses as electives – as opposed to core curriculum courses. This would cause students to take double courses, which amounts to the first step towards elimination.

Despite the huge protest, the board meeting has been rescheduled for 5 May, yet the resolution has not been withdrawn.

The untold story here is the rise of youth community leadership; the takeover and occupation showed evidence of disciplined organisation. And now, added to this story is the solid support by the all-important Native and African American communities, which are denouncing the efforts to invoke the name of Martin Luther King to destroy ethnic studies. All communities of conscience appear to be coalescing against the state's efforts to demonise and dehumanise the brown peoples of this state. This includes the state's business community. The anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant and anti-indigenous ("racial profiling") laws attack the physical characteristics of brown peoples ,whereas HB 2281 is an assault on their intellectual and spiritual being.

It is no coincidence that in this struggle, it is the students who have invoked both the UN's declaration of human rights and the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. They see these as the moral and legal documents that guarantee and safeguard this embattled studies programme. But they also understand that no one gives human rights away; we may be born with them but it is up to people to assert them. In Tucson, in Arizona, they will continue to be asserted – with or without chains.

Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Arizona, can be reached at:

To contact UNIDOS, go to:!/pages/UNIDOS/205203589501640

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Apartheid Board Complicit in Destroying Ethnic Studies

By Roberto Dr. Cintli Rodriguez

In a previous column, I used the term CULTURAL GENOCIDE to describe the attempt by the state of Arizona to criminalize and to eliminate the teaching of Ethnic Studies. The use of the term unnecessarily set off a firestorm across the Atlantic. Incidentally, the similar attempt to destroy native cultures in the Americas in a previous era was called: REDUCCION. The term may not have been controversial, but the dehumanizing practice certainly was.

Perhaps its time to set off another firestorm, a necessary one this time. This effort has now devolved into an attempt by an APARTHEID school governing board in Tucson, Arizona to eliminate Mexican American Studies via a thousand bureaucratic cuts. The use of the term Apartheid is not used lightly; it is what we are up against in this historic Indigenous city (Chuk-son) in our battle to defend Ethnic Studies.

Admittedly, the term cannot be accurately used in relation to Arizona’s draconian anti-Mexican, anti-immigration and anti-Indigenous laws (racial profiling). Apartheid is a system of legalized discrimination by a minority upon a majority (South Africa’s former system of oppression). In Arizona, people of Mexican origin are still a minority, comprising approximately 30 percent of the state’s population, and growing. Because these laws have the same intent, it can perhaps more aptly be described as pre-apartheid.

The State’s effort to eliminate Ethnic Studies also qualifies as pre-apartheid, though the percentage of White students in Arizona schools is already less than 50 percent. The statewide Mexican American K-12 population is approximately 40 percent and growing daily. On the other hand, the term Apartheid is arguably accurate when describing the internal effort by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) to degrade and essentially terminate its highly successful Mexican American Studies (MAS) program, especially considering the state’s political climate.

Rather than contest the constitutionality of HB 2281, TUSD’s board has elected to comply with the new anti-Ethnic Studies measure, which was signed on May 11, 2010, even though on that day, TUSD affirmed that the TUSD program was already in compliance (Supporters of the program locally are calling for a national day of convergence on Tucson May 11, 2011 in support of Ethnic Studies).

While this board should be contesting this law, instead it is rushing to what appears to be an effort to dismantle MAS-TUSD from within. The obvious question is: who is this board representing? For the record, the district superintendent is white, as are three members of the governing board. Two members are Mexican Americans. TUSD’s K-12 student body is close to 70% Mexican American and at least 75% students of color. TUSD’s K-6 is close to 80% Mexican American and growing. Unquestionably, the community that TUSD serves is not being adequately represented. At each meeting, while board members don’t always vote according to their race/ethnicity, it becomes more and more obvious; students, parents and community members (majority brown) are forced to literally beg the board for support. Like overlords, the board members “listen,” but never comment.

In the past few months, critics have resorted to voodoo statistics to claim that MAS is not in fact a successful program. Statistics recently released by TUSD’s statistician does in fact confirm that its MAS students district-wide do substantially better than students not enrolled in the program.

Despite this, the effort to dismantle the program continues. Recently, the superintendent has moved the program (and its directors) under a bureaucrat who is openly hostile to the besieged MAS program. It has next moved to designate MAS classes as unaccredited elective courses, which has the effect of dismantling the program. This move is imminent. Additionally, the state has ordered a curricular audit by a firm that specializes in turning around failing programs. MAS-TUSD graduates more than 90 percent of its students, this at a time when dropout rates nationwide for students of color range between 40-60 percent (The firm is not auditing any of the state’s many failing programs). On top of this, a financial audit has also been ordered by TUSD. To shut the nails on the coffin, the program’s highly acclaimed summer transformative educator’s conference – 12 years running – is now history.

Despite all these attacks, Mexican American Studies is not dead; the HB 2281 lawsuit against the state by 11 educators is moving forward. Also, the transformative conference will still be held this summer, with nationally and internationally acclaimed speakers, but independent of the TUSD. And the program continues to gather support; this past month, it received unanimous endorsements from the annual conferences of the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies and the National Association of Ethnic Studies.

Because the attempt to eliminate Tucson’s MAS program comes falsely wrapped as an effort to achieve Martin Luther King’s dream of achieving a color-blind society – in the state that was last to recognize the MLK holiday – people everywhere recognize the importance of defending this program. After 40+ years of harassment, the discipline will be defended in the desert. Yet people everywhere also understand that this isn’t simply a debasement of King’s dream or simply an attack against Ethnic Studies, but that it is an effort to destroy the very precept of education itself. If uncontested, what’s next? Women Studies? European Studies?

Once government is in the position to decide what is acceptable curriculum and what are acceptable books, then the right to a free and uncensored education will have been compromised. This is the true specter of BIG GOVERNMENT. In Tucson, it comes wrapped in APARTHEID.

Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Arizona, can be reached at: