Arizona is on a roll. First, it passes one of the most restrictive anti-immigration laws in the country, on the (false) premise that the federal government is becoming lax in its enforcement of existing immigration laws. Its largest county continues to elect a sheriff who blatantly disregards the constitution, and fails to investigate hundreds of sexual assault cases because he’s devoted all his resources to going after immigrants.
And now, another one of that state’s brilliant and not-at-all-racist laws is having some…interesting consequences. A recent state law bans public schools from teaching ethnic studies courses. This effectively bans schools from teaching subjects like Mexican-American studies.
The law officially bans public schools from teaching any subjects that “promotes 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.” Taken at face value, this law seems pretty reasonable. However, it’s had the effect (which was its intended effect) of banning just about any class that seeks to educate students about other cultures.
An Arizona court has just ruled that Shakespeare’s play The Tempest cannot be taught in class. This is because The Tempest is about a banished duke who seeks revenge through magic, and deals with themes such as colonialism, slavery, and racism. Apparently, it’s just not OK to discuss those subjects in the classroom.
As you can imagine, I’m not in favor of this action, or the law that prompted it. I’m not sure what’s going on in Arizona, but it’s definitely nothing good. In a school district where close to 60 percent of the students are Latin American, a law that effectively bans schools from teaching students about that group’s history and culture sends a pretty clear message, whether it was intended or not: your culture has so little value that we feel the need to ban public schools from teaching any classes about it.
Laws like this will probably be short-lived, as Latin-Americans are by far the fastest growing demographic in Arizona, and contrary to the apoplectic ravings of talk radio hosts, most of them are there legally, and of those, a large percentage are U.S. citizens, meaning that they can vote.
To be honest, I don’t even have much of an opinion on the educational value of ethnic studies programs in public schools. However, this law pretty obviously is not motivated by an honest, good-faith belief that these programs lack educational value and that school resources are best spent elsewhere. It seems to be motivated by antipathy towards, or at least suspicion of, Latin-American culture, and Latin-Americans in general.
From a legal standpoint, however, I don’t know if there’s anything that can be done to stop this. States are free to regulate the curriculum of public schools, and there’s nothing in the Constitution that stops them from doing so. Unless Arizona begins segregating its schools by race, it’s unlikely that the federal courts can do anything about it. And, frankly, I think it might be counterproductive for the federal courts to intervene at this time.
We live in a time where many people are extremely suspicious of the motives, and even the very legitimacy, of the federal government. So, if the federal courts were to intervene, there’s a chance that Arizona officials could simply refuse to comply with whatever the court orders, regardless of the order’s legal merits. This would leave the federal government with an incredibly unpleasant decision: give the government of a state a pass on obeying the law, or taking more forceful measures to enforce a court order.
Given the current political climate, nobody wants that.
Ultimately, I hope that our country moves past this nativist, xenophobic phase we’re going through. It seems that we go through a phase like this every few decades, and they usually coincide with economic hardship and/or social unrest. And they eventually pass.
Hopefully, what we’re seeing now is also just a phase. Of course, I should note that the concerns that these laws, and others like them, mean to address are not entirely imaginary. Illegal immigration is a real issue, and we need a sane policy to deal with it. Personally, I think that the solution to illegal immigration, to the extent one exists, is to simplify the entire immigration process, and to make it easier to come into this country legally.
I hope, in the long run, that cooler heads will prevail on the issue of immigration.