White Doesn't Make Right

Judge rules that GOP officials' long campaign against Mexican-American Studies was driven by "racial animus"

Banning Tucson's Mexican-American Studies program was motivated by racial animus, a federal judge ruled last month.

Judge A. Wallace Tashima's ruling reads that the plaintiffs, in favor of MAS, "have proven their First Amendment claim" because in banning MAS, "both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus." It also reads that state officials violated plaintiff's rights for "illicit reasons, rather than out of pedagogical concern," and were additionally "pursuing these discriminatory ends in order to make political gains."

But the ruling is unlikely to bring the program back because Culturally Relevant Courses have largely filled the MAS-shaped hole.

Proponents who fought to keep the program alive feel vindicated but angry about the struggle and loss students in the program endured six years ago when the Arizona Department of Education found that MAS violated HB 2281, the Arizona law that stated schools couldn't teach classes that are intended for a particular ethnic group, advocating ethnic solidarity, promoting resentment toward a race or promoting the overthrow of the U.S. government.

Some say the CRC is a watered-down version of MAS, but many familiar with the program don't think so. CRC educator Maria Federico Brummer said the program has room to grow and refine, but it's doing a good job. She was a project specialist in the MAS Department and one of the original 11 plaintiffs in the case.

"We took the Mexican-American perspective from MAS—the U.S. history—and we very much incorporated it into the CR curriculum," she said. "In terms of the content and the timeline and the critical events and social issues, those are all in there."

When the CRC was developed, the district was in a rough spot. They had created MAS, in part, because of a federal mandate in a decades-long desegregation case that requires the district teach culturally relevant courses, although the state had just prohibited their attempt to do so.

Now, almost all of TUSD's 89 schools have a CRC while MAS was only functioning at six schools. As well, senior teachers are training new teachers to the program, something else MAS didn't have. Federico Brummer said with MAS, they were reaching 2,000 students at most, but more than 6,000 students are currently involved in the CRC. Also, they've now included an African-American viewpoint as well as Mexican-American.

Federico Brummer, along with other MAS educators, helped develop the CRC. They also got input from "respected and renowned practitioners in the field," said Kristel Foster, TUSD board member and vocal supporter of MAS.

Foster said what's different is the tightknit relationships the MAS teachers had with each other, working together to examine data, question practices and further their knowledge in the field.

"The former MAS program was the best, most quintessential example of a professional learning community," she said. "The MAS teachers at the time, they were the most effective and the most PLC (Professional Learning Community) that I've ever seen."

Students who were enrolled in MAS were much more likely to pass state standardized tests and graduate high school, according to a 2014 University of Arizona study that analyzed district data. TUSD hasn't collected any data on the efficacy of the CRC, said Michelle Valenzuela, the district's interim communications director.

TUSD Board Member Rachael Sedgwick said she's not surprised by the ruling, saying it was "obvious to everyone that the law was implemented with a discriminatory purpose." But she thought it was strange the ruling seemed to be about the people who enacted the law rather than the law itself.

Driven by successive State Superintendents Tom Horne and then John Huppenthal, HB 2281 was passed with the intention of shutting down MAS. While Horne and Huppenthal said the classes were racist against whites, MAS proponents said shutting it down was racist against Latinos, pointing out that none of the other ethnic studies classes were being banned.  

Some anonymous online comments Huppenthal made on the Tucson-based Blog for Arizona website were a big factor in the judge's ruling of racial animus. Huppenthal's comments, linked to him in 2014, included calling MAS a "different color" Ku Klux Klan and referring to its teachers as skinheads.

After he was unmasked by Blog for Arizona, Huppenthal gave a tearful public apology. But at the recent trial he backpedaled, saying he wasn't sorry but wished he had been more deferential in his wording.

The judge's ruling also took into account the language used by lawmakers in their campaign to enact HB 2281. When Horne first recommended the program be shut down, in 2007, he wrote an open letter in which he referred to MAS as "La Raza Studies" and the educators as "Raza teachers," adding that "raza," which means "race" in Spanish, used to be part of the program's name.

After passing the law, Horne decided MAS was breaking it. Although, by his own admission, he never attended a class or conducted an audit of the program. He also said that modifying the program to be in compliance was impossible.

During Huppenthal's testimony, he said the term "Raza" became "shorthand for...communicating with Republican primary voters," specifically for stopping the "slandering" and "unbalanced examination" of the founding fathers and the "indoctrination of students into a Marxist oppressed/oppressor framework."

Code words, including raza, un-American, radical, communist, Aztlán and M.E.Ch.a, which stands for "Chicano Student Aztlan Movement" in Spanish "operated as derogatory code words for Mexican Americans in the MAS debate," according to the testimony of the plaintiffs' expert and Yale University History Professor Stephen Pitti.

Pitti testified the words tapped into people's concerns about illegal immigration and the "Mexicanization of Arizona." He said that since the 1990s, an increase in the state's Latino population became a focus of political tension, with a common assumption being that a majority of Latinos weren't U.S. citizens.

These code words were born of this fear of "Mexicanization" and were used "in conjunction with mischaracterizations" of MAS, its educators and students, Pitti explained.

Huppenthal said the idea he has racial animus "is just silly," in an editorial he wrote for the Arizona Daily Star.

"I grew up immersed in Hispanic culture in south Tucson, I was one of the few whites in a classroom of Hispanics, they came to my sleepovers and birthday parties, I went to their quinceaneras," he wrote, detailing all the time he spent with Latinos as a child and into adulthood, adding that he has "nothing but love for my brown brothers and sisters."

He ended the editorial by pointing out TUSD's decline over the last 17 years and saying that the "judicial opinion is irresponsible and will likely trap TUSD in another decade of dysfunction."

In an interview with the Tucson Weekly, Huppenthal said going forward, he thinks school principals should "have control and responsibility for the quality of all subjects in their schools," the board should make all decisions on MAS in public meeting, schools should be given time to correct any infractions of the law, any changes should be gradual to avoid disruption and "principals should more closely review the MAS seminars for teacher training. Some of them are absolutely repugnant."

Foster and Board Member Adelita Grijalva pushed for addressing MAS at the Sept. 12 board meeting. Foster wanted to have it on the agenda so they would be ready to discuss it in case the judge had made a final ruling on how to proceed, which should come any day.

She wants to let the CRC director know that "the oppression from that law is no longer," and all the work they've done is no longer at risk. The board voted to table the item for now, most likely until the final ruling.

The Arizona Department of Education has said there's been no talk of appealing it.

"I hope we get to move forward and not have that veil of fear that someone will come say, 'This is illegal,'" Foster said, about the CRC.

The struggle to save MAS was the hardest part of losing the program, said Federico Brummer. Her students had put so much into saving the program. In the end, educators were instructed to take the MAS books out of the class while the students watched.

"That's something that I carry with me, just the emotional torment that they had to go through," Federico Brummer said. "It was a programs where they saw themselves as truly academic beings and intellectuals, and it was being taken away from them."

Federico Brummer saw the positive benefits of the program on her students and the immediate negative outcome when it got taken away. After MAS was banned, she was trained to teach traditional U.S. history and government. Those classes didn't include the Mexican-American perspective.

Soon after, she helped develop the CRC curriculum. In 2013, the TUSD Governing Board approved it, and the old MAS books were brought back into the classroom. She says this program is more comprehensive than MAS.

"It's been a long struggle," she said. "You're joyful—that validation, that vindication is there—but there's also anger too. How could these people have put our community, our families and our students through so much?"

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