Guest Commentary

A few words in praise of ethnic chauvinism

TUSD's ethnic-studies programs are in serious trouble. It doesn't matter that they seem to work—that students' attendance and test scores improve, and they do better in college.

Superintendent of Public Instruction-elect John Huppenthal, whose hatred of ethnic studies was one of his campaign platforms, says it must be stopped, because it teaches Hispanic kids—let's be honest here, Huppenthal only cares about raza studies, not all ethnic studies—to hate white people and indulge in ethnic chauvinism.

Except that studying, among other things, the oppression of Hispanics in this country isn't teaching hatred. It's teaching history. And giving students a reason to be proud of themselves and their culture isn't chauvinism.

But, you know, if ethnic studies ventures into some ethnic chauvinism now and then, I say, so much the better.

I'm Jewish. We Jews have suffered horrific anti-Semitism over the centuries, but right now in the United States, we're a privileged minority. I can honestly say that being Jewish has not shut a single door for me, so I have no complaints. That said, I can be chauvinistic as hell.

When I was young, my chauvinism was a valuable asset. Excessive pride in being Jewish made me feel less like the odd kid out when everyone talked about Christmas. And when someone made an anti-Semitic comment, I told myself, "It's great to be a Jew! Look at what we've accomplished, even when the world hated us!"

Now I'm a grown man, so this stuff shouldn't matter anymore. But a few months ago, I watched a documentary about Hank Greenberg, the great Jewish baseball player in the 1930s and 1940s. I'm not a sports fan, so this isn't my normal fare. But a Jewish home run king? How great is that? I was moved to tears more than once.

Hispanics are not a privileged minority, not by a long shot. Sure, Hispanic kids can find prominent role models, but the larger society brands Hispanics as failures and treats them as second-class citizens. That can be tough on a young person's emerging self-esteem. Life can grind the enthusiasm out of kids in a thousand ways—death of hope by a thousand cuts. After awhile, it can feel like it's just not worth all the effort to excel in school and think about going to college.

So what could be better than a school program designed to teach, among other things, about the ways this country has robbed Hispanics of the chance to advance professionally and economically, while at the same time giving students a thousand reasons to be proud of who they are and what they can accomplish?

There's a scene I love in the film Stand and Deliver, about a math teacher at a Los Angeles high school with mainly Hispanic students who transformed his classes of "losers" into math whizzes. It's when he was telling his students what great mathematicians the Mayans were, and how they invented the zero while the Greeks and Romans didn't have a clue. He looked at his students and said, "You have math in your blood."

From my 30 years of teaching high school and my experience growing up Jewish, I think I know what was going on inside those students when they heard that: They were overwhelmed with a sense of joy and relief. During that shining moment, those kids knew they could be anything they wanted to be. Math is in their blood!

If I were a raza-studies teacher, I would probably tell my students, "You know the best way to get even with the people who want to keep you down? Succeed! Work your ass off; get good grades; ace your SATs; then go to college, and earn a degree. Take that degree, and flash it in the face of anyone who said you wouldn't make it!"

Huppenthal might call that teaching hatred and chauvinism. I call it motivation.

If you want to see chauvinism in its purest form, look at people like Huppenthal—white European Americans who believe they transcend ethnicity. They see themselves as the pinnacle of civilization, blamed for nothing and given credit for everything that's wonderful in the world. It's ethnic chauvinism on steroids. No wonder they hate a program like raza studies. It challenges their sense of innate superiority by empowering others to take pride in themselves.

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