This post was originally published by Campus Progress.
Last May, Arizona passed HB 2881, a bill that implicitly bans ethnic studies classes in publicly funded schools—courses in African American history, for instance, or Chicano literature. The justification? That these classes promote racial divides, “ethnic chauvinism,” and "the overthrow of the US government," according to Arizona school Superintendent Tom Horne.
The bill came as the ideological follow-up to SB 1070, the immigration law that would have allowed police to detain anyone who looks like they could be an illegal immigrant, had a federal judge not blocked the most controversial parts of the bill from going into effect.
This week students and teachers in 27 states are holding events in support of ethnic studies departments at universities and multicultural education in high schools.
Brittany Lewis, one of the student organizers of Ethnic Studies Week events in Minnesota, thinks the real motive driving the ban is fear about who gets to craft the country’s historical narrative, and about giving different people a voice to tell their side of the story. “We all document this American space in a different way,” she says. “The only ones who were here from the start were Native Americans—we all came here in a different way, and ethnic studies programs want to question how our narratives as American people and our racial categories were crafted.”
Ethnic Studies classes exist to fill gaps in the core curriculum, particularly the lack of discussion of the history behind the realities of racial inequality that minority students live with every day—and to teach about the history of people who’ve pushed back against those realities.
Lewis studied race and ethnicity as part of her undergraduate degree at Macalester College because she felt the history she’d learned was fairly one-sided. “When I got to undergrad and learned about all these other powerful black women who look like me doing all these amazing things, it was inspiring for me. It made me think I don’t have limits, I don’t have to feel limited by this narrative I’ve been given,” she says.
Lewis has some theories about why people would want to prevent that. “It’s the fear of exposing that we’re not a perfect nation,” she says. The ban on Ethnic Studies is driven by the same kind of fear present in Texas’ move to limit the content of textbooks earlier this year—anxieties about facing up to uglier parts of our history, but also about the changing face of the country. The ban also prohibits teachers with accents from public schools.
The Village Voice tried to shed some light on why these fears are surfacing now in its cover story this week, in which Stephen Thrasher argues it’s all about baby boomers feeling their previously unchecked power to define the national conversation slipping away:
For the first time in their lives, baby boomers are hard up against it economically, and white boy is becoming outnumbered and it’s got his bowels chilled with fear.
"In an age of diminished resources, the United States may be heading for an intensifying confrontation between the gray and the brown," writes Ronald Brownstein in his July National Journal article, "The Gray and the Brown: The Generational Mismatch." That’s a polite and understated way of saying that older white folks are losing their shit as they’re being replaced by young brown and black kids while the economy is in the crapper.
Brownstein notes that 40 percent of the nation’s population under 18 is already non-white, with that number significantly higher in the Southwest (read: Latinos!). By 2023, that number of young non-whites will be an outright national majority.
At the same time, the baby boomers are getting older. At 80 percent white, boomers have gotten pretty used to dominating nearly every field of endeavor in this country since they came of age—politics, business, education, the arts—just about everything but MTV programming. Boomers set the national agenda in so many ways that we can forget how much the national economy and national media cater to them.
Lewis stressed that in the other 49 states of the Union, while Ethnic Studies isn’t threatened by bans, it is definitely threatened by funding cuts, and often ends up being one of the first programs to go. But Ethnic Studies has been growing in popularity since the ban—perhaps a sign that it does fill important gaps in the standard curriculum, and that young people do have a different set of priorities than those making the funding decisions.
Ethnic Studies Week starts today and runs until October 7. To find out about events in your area, visit ethnicstudiesweekoctober1-7.org.