Tucson School District: Pulling the Plug on its Mexican American Studies Program

By Abraham Perez

This past semester of law school I was introduced to Critical Race Theory (CRT) for the first time. Although I just found out about CRT, its definitive start happened in the mid 1970’s through the scholarship of Derrick Bell and Alan Freeman.[1] Today CRT has spawned numerous subgroups like Latino CRT (“LatCrit”), Asian and Pacific American CRT, and Queer CRT (“Queer-crit”), each with a specific focus.

There is no canonical set of doctrines or methodologies that all CRT authors subscribe to.[2] There are, however, two common goals that connect them.[3] The first is to understand how a regime of white supremacy and its subordination of people of color has been created and maintained in America; and, in particular, to examine the relationship between that social structure and professed ideals such as the “rule of law” and “equal protection.”[4] The second is a desire not merely to understand the vexed bond between law and racial power but to change it.[5] Basically, CRT asserts that the law plays an important role in constructing and maintaining social domination, and subordination of nonwhites.[6]

As CRT progresses towards accomplishing the two interests set out above, there are also thematic elements that most CRT scholars believe.[7] First, that racism has become so ordinary in American society that the ordinariness protects it from serious criticism.[8] Insisting on rules, for example, which highlight equality and promote treatment that is the same across the board, only seems to remedy blatantly racist actions like hiring a white high-school dropout over a black Ph.D. graduate.[9]  Conviction rates between races, meanwhile, remain blatantly disparate.[10] Second, CRT scholars believe that racism serves such important psychic and material interests that there is little incentive to eradicate it.[11] Their final belief is that race itself is a social construction; that it is a product of social thought and relations.[12]

One recent example that brings all these ideas together comes from the ongoing debate over Arizona Revised Statute §15-111.[13] This statute prohibits courses or classes that promote the overthrow of the United States government; promote resentment toward a race or class of people; are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group; or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.[14] The policy behind the statute is a belief 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.[15]

Although some might find this statute ambiguous enough to exclude the singling out of one race, the roots of the statute are more racially focused. [16] Tom Horne, the current Attorney General for the state of Arizona, was Arizona’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2003 to 2010.[17] Mr. Horne vociferously pushed for the bill since 2007, with the goal of terminating the Mexican American Studies Program (MASP) within the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). [18] During the final hours of Mr. Horne’s position as Superintendent―and right before John Huppenthal, the new and current Superintendent of Public Instruction was sworn in―Mr. Horne declared the TUSD in violation of Arizona Revised Statute §15-111.[19]

One of the first things that John Huppenthal did in his new position was to launch an independent study of MASP and visit some of the classes to determine if it truly was in violation of the statute.[20] Mr. Horne did not visit a single class before he determined that the program was in violation of §15-111. The act of visiting classes seems like a reasonable response to the myopic aims of Mr. Horne.[21] However, even though the study came back with a finding that not a single course within MASP violated §15-111, Mr. Huppenthal still found MASP, and correspondingly TUSD, in violation of §15-111.[22]

Why has this debate been allowed to continue this long? The MASP can be analogized to any number of programs within the TUSD.[23] For example, African American Student Services, Asian Pacific American Student Services and Critical Languages, and Native American Student Services, are all programs currently within TUSD. [24] Nevertheless, a $15 million dollar budget cut is at stake for a district that is comprised of approximately 60% Hispanics.[25] Even if you do not believe that the motivations underlying the actions of Mr. Horne and Mr. Huppenthal were racist, the outcome of those actions certainly is.

I wonder, in the eyes of Mr. Horne and Mr. Huppenthal, how being Mexican is so different from being Caucasian, Asian, or Native American. Why is a Mexican studies program being singled out? I believe it is because racism has become so ordinary that certain people, and states like Arizona, do not even fight it anymore. There is some material benefit that racism serves for them.

[1] Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Annotated Bibliography, 79 Va. L. Rev. 461, 461-462 (1993).

[2] Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, xiii (Kimberle Crenshaw et al. eds., The New Press, 1995).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at p. xi.

[7] Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, New York University Press, 6-7 (2001).

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration By Race and Ethnicity, (The Sentencing Project, July 2007) available at http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/rd_stateratesofincbyraceandethnicity.pdf.

[11] Delgado and Stefancic, n. 8, at 6-7.

[12] Id.

[13] Emily Gersema, Arizona Ethnic Studies Ban Reignites Discrimination Battle, The Ariz. Republic, May 19, 2010, available at http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/news/articles/2010/05/19/20100519arizona-ethnic-studies-lawsuit.html (last visited 2/27/12); see also

Howard Fischer Capitol Media Services, Bill Would Outlaw Classes that Stir up ‘Resentment’, Legislators Take Aim Anew at Ethnic-Studies Programs, The Ariz. Star, April 9, 2010, available at http://azstarnet.com/news/local/education/precollegiate/article_c1f53405-acab-5f21-a580-a199a68ff76c.html (last visited 2/27/12); see also

Valerie Strauss, Arizona Strikes Again: Now it’s Ethnic Studies, The Wash. Post, May 4, 2010, available at http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/history/arizona-strikes-again-now-it-i.html (last visited 02/27/12).

[14] Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 15-112.

[15] Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 15-111.

[16] Nicholas B. Lundholm, Cutting Class: Why Arizona’s Ethnic Studies Ban Won’t Ban Ethnic Studies, 53 Ariz. L. Rev. 1041, 1043 (2011)

[17] Meet the Attorney General: Biography, http://www.azag.gov/bio.html (last visited Feb. 27, 2012).

[18] See Gersema, n. 14.

[19] Tom Horne, Finding by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction of Violation by Tucson Unified School District Pursuant to A.R.S. § 15-112(B), Tucson Sentinel, Jan. 3, 2011, available at http://www.tucsonsentinel.com/documents/doc/010311_horne_tusd_finding/ (last visited, 02/27/12); see also,

Luis Carrión, Ethnic Studies Classes in Legal Limbo, Ariz. Pub. Media, Feb. 4, 2011, available at http://azpm.org/news/story/2011/2/4/173-tusd-ethnic-studies-classes-deemed-non-compliant/ (last visited 02/27/12).

[20] Alexis Huicochea, Move Comes as Horne Deems Program Illegal: Huppenthal Sets Own Review of TUSD’s Ethnic Studies, Ariz. Daily Star, Jan. 4, 2011, available at http://azstarnet.com/news/local/education/article_971da745-775f-505d-a8fb-51ad194b01aa.html (last visited 02/27/12).

[21] Alexis Huicochea, District Facing Crippling Loss of State Funds: Huppenthal: TUSD’s Ethnic Studies Program not in Compliance, Ariz. Daily Star,  June 15, 2011, available at http://azstarnet.com/news/local/education/article_0b22e4f4-97a7-11e0-ae9d-001cc4c002e0.html (last accessed 02/27/12); see also Statement of Superintendent of Public Instruction, John Huppenthal, regarding Tucson Unified School District’s violation of A.R.S. §15-112, available at http://saveethnicstudies.org/assets/docs/state_audit/John_Huppenthal_Statement_of_finding.pdf (last visited 02/27/12).

[22] See Huppenthal Statement

[23] TUSD Multicultural Student Services, Flyer About Multicultural Student Services, available at http://www.tusd.k12.az.us/contents/depart/mss/Documents/overview.pdf (last visited 02/27/12).

[24] Id.

[25] Id.; Huicochea, n. 22; see also Transcript: CNN Newsroom, Cable News Network, aired at 5:00AM on Thursday, May 13, 2010, available at http://www.livedash.com/transcript/cnn_%20newsroom/4998/CNN/Thursday_May_13_2010/295475/ (last visited 02/27/12); see also TUSD Multicultural Student Services at n. 23.

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