Moral Low Ground

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Tucson Unified School District’s Banned Books List: All Mexican-American History Texts, Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’

On Friday, the Tucson Unified School District released its list of books banned under a new Arizona state law prohibiting the teaching of ethnic studies in public schools. Among the banned titles is every Mexican-American history textbook as well as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. 

The Bard is banned in Tucson.

Indian Country reports that also banned are seminal works such as Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuña, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by renowned Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and Bill Bigelow’s Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years, which contains an essay by local Native American author Leslie Silko.

“By ordering teachers to remove Rethinking Columbus, the Tucson school district has shown tremendous disrespect for teachers and students,” Bigelow said. “This is a book that has sold over 300,000 copies and is used in school districts from Anchorage to Atlanta, and from Portland, Ore. to Portland, Maine. It offers teaching strategies and readings teachers can use to help students think about the perspectives that are too often silenced in the traditional curriculum.”

The banned books were removed from Tucson schools, where more than three out of every five students is Mexican-American, during school hours, prompting many students to believe officials were “rubbing it in their faces.” One student lamented that watching books being carted off was “disheartening… just watching them box them all up is definitely Nazi-Germany-like.”

These police-state measures are being taken in order to comply with HB 2281, a state law that went into effect on January 1 which states that no classes may be taught 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; advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”

State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal is a staunch supporter of HB 2281. Under the law, the Arizona Department of Education can withhold 10% of a school district’s state funding if it is found to be in violation of the measure. That would mean $15 million less for Tucson’s public schools.

Last month, a state administrative judge ruled that Tucson’s ethnic studies program was in violation of HB 2281’s prohibition on “divisive” courses.

But something larger than preventing “divisive” classes is going on here. Remember, Arizona is the “show me your papers state” that enacted SB 1070, a harsh anti-”illegal” immigration law that gives police broad and intrusive powers to demand proof of citizenship from people they believe may be in the country illegally. Whereas SB 1070 was designed to harass and expel human beings deemed “undesirable” by the state of Arizona, HB 2281 is about controlling people’s minds. It is literally a whitewashing of Mexican-American history in a state that was part of Spain and Mexico for much longer than it has been part of the United States. The U.S. conquered Arizona from Mexico, just as it conquered every inch of the current United States from indigenous peoples.

“The banning explicitly and pointedly shows it is not only Mexican-American Studies and people and so-called illegal immigrants that are targeted, but indigenous studies and people as a whole,” Arizona State University professor Simon Ortiz is quoted in the New York Daily News

Dr. Randall Amster, a professor at Arizona’s Prescott College, writes:

“The libertarian and individualistic foundations of Western culture are viewed as iconic in Arizona, and it is no coincidence that the more communitarian impulses of Raza [Latino] peoples are denigrated as politically dangerous and pedagogically bereft. Again, the worldview of the oppressor is normalized in its rugged individualism and attempts to break down any movement toward solidarity and unified action among people of the disfavored class. This also expresses contemptuous judgment toward solidarity-based movements grown in the Western world, including the rise of union organizing, anti-globalization and antiwar activism and the mobilizations of people against totalitarianism in the Eastern bloc nations. What the Arizona legislature completely fails to grasp is that individual identity arises out of cultural consciousness – in other words, that it is ethnic solidarity in itself that provides people with the grounding necessary to know who they are as individuals.”

Banning ethnic studies classes will only increase resentment against the very people that conservatives claim they’re trying to avoid inter-ethnic tensions with. And by denying students the right to learn about their heritage, Arizona makes a mockery of the American freedoms it is so keen to promote at the expense of alternative narratives. “Who are the true Americans here– those embracing our inalienable rights or those trying to diminish them?” asked Augustine Romero, director of student equity for Tucson schools. “There’s a fierce anti-Latino sentiment in this state,” he told the New York Times. “These courses are about justice and equity, and what is happening is that the Legislature is trying to narrow the reality of those things.”

Arizona, a state that didn’t even observe the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday until the 1990s, has been whitewashing its history for as long as anyone can remember. But now the state has ventured into totalitarian territory by banning and removing books, including Shakespeare, from its schools.

“The only other time a book of mine was banned was in 1968, when the apartheid government in South Africa banned ‘Strangers in Their Own Country,’ a curriculum I’d written that included a speech by then-imprisoned Nelson Mandela,” Bigelow told the New York Daily News. “We know what the South African regime was afraid of. What is the Tucson school district afraid of?”


Here, Yolanda Sotelo, 30-year teaching veteran and Mexican American Studies teacher at Tucson’s Pueblo High School, discusses the books she can no longer teach from:

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One Comment

  1. Ruthe OlmstedJanuary 22, 2012 at 3:15 amReply

    Why was THE TEMPEST removed? My husband is a descendant of Stephen Hopkins.
    From Wikipedia:
    There is one idea that he was modeled after Stephen Hopkins from London. Hopkins was aboard the Sea Venture when it was shipwrecked on Bermuda. He attempted to start a mutiny while stranded on the island. He eventually made it to Virginia and back to England, then went to Plymouth aboard the Mayflower.

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