Federal Judge Finds Racism Behind Arizona Law Banning Ethnic Studies

Aug 22, 2017
Originally published on August 23, 2017 9:56 pm

An Arizona law banning ethnic studies violated students' constitutional rights, a federal judge said Tuesday. His ruling made clear that the state showed discriminatory intent when it essentially shut down a Mexican-American studies program at Tucson Unified School District.

"Both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus," federal Judge A. Wallace Tashima said in the ruling.

With this news, a portion of the law, prohibiting classes designed for students of certain ethnic groups, has been struck down, but the federal judge has yet to issue a final judgment and redress for the violation.

Despite this decade-long debate in Arizona, ethnic studies programs have grown in popularity throughout the country.

Here's what we reported earlier this month:

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A federal judge has lifted a seven-year-old ban on ethnic studies in Arizona public schools. This case has had national implications because it raises questions about how schools teach history and how teachers can engage students who don't see themselves represented in textbooks. NPR's Claudio Sanchez has been reporting on this issue and joins us now. Hey, Claudio.


SHAPIRO: This case centers on a Mexican-American studies program in Tucson's public schools that was created back in the 1990s. Give us the background here.

SANCHEZ: Well, it started as an effort to fill what many educators call the historical void and the absence of Latinos in history or history books. But it was also an effort to build kids' self-esteem. So as part of the coursework, students at Tucson High School were reading books like "The Pedagogy Of The Oppressed" by Paulo Freire and Rudy Acuna's "Occupied America."

I remember visiting the school and sitting in on a couple of classes. The classrooms were plastered with Mexican artwork and posters of Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, heroes of the Mexican Revolution, Chicano Civil Rights leaders like Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta. But the program's focus was basically to supplement the district's history curriculum by focusing on the cultural contributions, specifically of Mexican-Americans, which are often absent from traditional history classes. The classes were not mandatory, by the way. They were more like electives and very popular.

SHAPIRO: And tell us the story of the ban.

SANCHEZ: Well, the ban really came about because when Arizona state superintendent of schools at the time, Tom Horn, got wind of the program, he vowed to shut it down, saying that the program was anti-white, that it was racializing kids - that was his term - by identifying whites as oppressors and Latinos as the oppressed.

In 2010, thanks to the superintendent's relentless the lobbying, state lawmakers passed legislation banning ethnic studies statewide. They singled out the Mexican-American studies program at Tucson High. Lawmakers basically said the ethnic studies promote resentment towards a race or class of people. Now, teachers and students of course sued, arguing that the program was not anti-white and that the ban was a violation of their constitutional rights.

SHAPIRO: And that lawsuit brings us to this latest ruling. Tell us more about what the judge said.

SANCHEZ: Well, Judge A. Wallace Tashima agreed that the ban showed discriminatory intent. He said both the enactment and enforcement of the statewide ban on ethnic studies was motivated by racial animus and that it violated the constitutional rights of students who apparently were benefiting from such programs.

SHAPIRO: And so what happens now? Do the programs immediately go back into effect?

SANCHEZ: That's not clear. Judge Tashima, first of all, has to issue a remedy. But again, it's not clear whether the Mexican-American studies program at Tucson High will be restored. We should note that the ban had little or no impact on other ethnic studies programs across the state. African-American studies, for example, continued uninterrupted.

SHAPIRO: We said this has national implications. Tell us how this may impact programs in other parts of the country.

SANCHEZ: Well, remember that this decision is limited to Arizona, but many educators suggest that because of all the publicity the Arizona case received over the years, ethnic studies programs in school districts across the country have actually spread according to the National Association for Ethnic Studies.

SHAPIRO: How have Arizona education officials responded?

SANCHEZ: Standard education officials have been mum thus far. But John Huppenthal, a former superintendent of public instruction who pushed for the ban, told NPR, quote, "the ruling by the courts is not surprising, but it's disappointing. If radicals take this as a greenlight to once again seize control of the curriculum, once again hatred will be taught in our high schools."

SHAPIRO: NPR's Claudio Sanchez. Thank you.

SANCHEZ: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.