Sunday, January 09, 2011

Getting Chippy

I was going to post on this yesterday, before the Giffords shooting became the key story.

Claiming it promotes racial hostility and "ethnic solidarity", the Attorney General of Arizona has ordered Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies program shut down. Similar Arizona programs targeted at the life and history of Asian-Americans, African-Americans, and Native Americans were unaffected. The program is open to students of all backgrounds, although most of the students partaking are Latino. The Arizona AG, Tom Horne, has a history of tension with the Latino population in general and this program in particular -- students enrolled responded to a speech by one of Mr. Horne's aides designed to argue that Republicans were not anti-Latino by turning their backs and raising their fists in the air. And of course, this decision comes at a time when tensions between the White and Latino population of Arizona are at their peak. It's almost impossible to view the decision to outlaw this program as simply another salvo in the ongoing battle between White and Latino Arizonans as to whether the latter are truly equal members of the state.

Richard Jeffrey Newman has a good post on the topic at Alas, a Blog, and I wanted to riff a bit on a point I made in the comments over there.

There's a lot of talk regarding these sorts of programs that they play towards a politics of victimology, that they encourage these kids to see themselves solely as the beaten down, crushed, hopeless objects of White racism. As an alternative, the proposal is that we teach American history as the story of a bad past, albeit with some Whites who "got it", and then a progressive shift towards more and more White people "getting it" until today, when racial problems are mostly a thing of the past.

What is strange, though, is that this latter program seems to me to be sending a considerably stronger message of passivity towards Latino students. Teaching the history as the story of White people progressively "getting it" doesn't provide any agency to the Black or Latino or Native American communities. It reinforces their status as objects, passive recipients of the abuse and later grace of the White majority, and it doesn't provide any narrative elements by which they can build themselves up, as opposed to waiting for White justice to strike again. If anything, it is a far more "victimizing" narrative than the ethnic solidarity alternative, which tends to be very si, se puede (or, as the Black nationalists put it, “do it for self, brother”).

That's why these programs are typically associated with higher achievement levels, not lower ones (and that seems to be the case in Tuscon, where the students enrolled outperform those who are not). Sure, these programs say "you've gotten fucked over, hard". But any remotely historical program will teach that, and moreover, these kids are living their lives, so they’re going to know that anyway. But instead of saying "but then the White folks saw the light and it all got better, and if you're good boys and girls they'll do right by you too" — a very passive, objectifying, stultifying way of looking at it — it says "but our people fought back, and won our rights, and earned our spot, and if they can do it, you can do it too, no matter what obstacles you face." It's the educational equivalent of a halftime pep talk. "White people are racist, ergo, you're doomed" is a bad message. "There is racism out there, and it's still a big problem -- but look at all the people who fought it, and beat it, and made the world better for themselves and everyone around them," is a salutary, inspirational message.

The other sentiment floating around here is that these programs turn the enrolled students into radicals of some sort or another. This does seem to rest uneasily with the claim that it enforces Latino passivity -- radicals aren't exactly known for sitting on their hands -- but put that aside. As I noted a few years ago in a similar case, a young student being a radical for awhile isn't exactly the worst outcome in the world. Many of our great intellectuals (liberal and conservative) spent time as youthful radicals. I was far more radical when I was in high school than I am now, and I think I turned out alright.

We can say that maybe turning your back on a public official and raising a fist isn't the most mature act in the world, but guess what -- teenagers aren't really known for their maturity. Certainly, this manner of acting out -- seeking to make a political statement, however misguided or inappropriately expressed -- is a far cry better than many of the other ways 17-year-olds can act immature. I'll trade a little juvenile political theater for higher graduation rates any day of the week.

Finally, lest we forget, we live in capitalist, competition-driven system. There's not only no harm in teaching kids to come out of school with a burning desire to fight for what they want, it's the whole point. If you're coming from a place where you don't have a lot of advantages and don't have a lot of social capital backing you up, it's probably a good thing to come out of school and into the real world with a bit of a chip on your shoulder -- a belief that you've got something to prove and a determination that you're capable of doing it. That, again, is something salutary. It shouldn't be discouraged.

1 comment:

joe said...

Plenty of youthful radicals just grow up to be jerks (liberal or conservative), "great" intellectuals or not. You've got your Christopher Hitchens. Hell, you've got your David Horowitz. Angry old men, re-purposed agitprop as their Viagra.

But even if there is a similar problem here (far from proven), I would hardly trust the government of Arizona to address it equitably.