Telling White Lies: Patriotic Correctness and the War on Ethnic Studies

You’re tellin’ white lies
You’re tellin’ white lies
Well I can see right through that thin disguise
Can’t you tell I can tell when you’re telling’ white lies?

—Jason and the Scorchers, “White Lies”

Forget so-called “political correctness.” In Arizona, there is a far greater threat to free speech and educational integrity — a new P.C. if you will — that we might label, “patriotic correctness.” The fact that conservatives will not only not be bothered by it, but indeed are thoroughly responsible for it, only signifies, once and for all, that their much ballyhooed devotion to the Constitution (which the Tea Party types have sworn is the principal motivator for their activism), is a monstrous fraud.

And whereas the thing they derisively called political correctness was really never more than an attempt by we on the left to get people to not be assholes (by doing blatantly racist, sexist and heterosexist things), patriotic correctness threatens to remake the way schools operate, and limit the access that students in Arizona have to accurate historical information and multiple perspectives.

This week, administrative law judge Lewis Kowal ruled that the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) is in violation of state law because of its Ethnic Studies program. Specifically, Kowal, whose position likely requires less understanding of the law than that displayed daily by Judge Judy on her eponymous television program, decreed that Ethnic Studies violates state statute for three reasons: first, because it was designed principally for one ethnic group alone (and thus, ostensibly promotes a form of segregation); second, because classes in the program promote racial resentment against whites; and finally, because Ethnic Studies as taught in the TUSD promotes racial and ethnic solidarity amongst Latinos, rather than treating everyone as an individual. As an additional aside — and one to which we will return — Kowal added his own grievance to the decision against TUSD, by noting that the district had failed in its obligation to teach about oppression “objectively.”

Unless and until the ruling is overturned on appeal, the state has the power to withhold up to 10 percent of the TUSD’s budgetary allocation, thereby jeopardizing the cash-strapped schools there and casting its students and teachers into an even greater institutional crisis. All this, because of a program in which a few thousand students each year were enrolled, and which, according to the available evidence, was boosting retention, graduation and college-enrollment rates for those kids who came through it, as opposed to the other Latino students who did not. But success doesn’t matter. Because that success, to hear Kowal tell it — or to hear other Arizona conservatives tell it, some of whom have been trying to eradicate the program ever since its inception — was at the expense of patriotic correctness, at the expense of national pride, and at the expense of unity, however contrived.

Having met with teachers, administrators and students involved with the TUSD’s Ethnic Studies program — and having seen much of the curriculum they were using with students for years — I can say without fear of contradiction that Kowal’s ruling was littered with absurdities. First, to say that the program was designed for one ethnic group is ridiculous: it was designed to teach a variety of subjects through the lens of the state’s fastest growing population (and one whose members have been in the area far longer than whites). This is no more exclusive than Asian studies, African American studies, or any other class intended to introduce perspectives that are too often overlooked in regular “American” history and literature classes. Any student could enroll in the program and some non-Latinos did. That most chose not to do so, speaks to their lack of interest in broadening their horizons, not the pernicious intent of the program’s designers and participants.

And to say that the TUSD program promoted racial resentment is equally preposterous. That it might have led to a more complete understanding of the role of white supremacy and racism in the shaping of American history (and Arizona’s) is undeniable. But there is no reason to assume that subjecting white supremacy to a well-deserved critique will, by necessity, subject white people as people to the same hostility as that reserved for the institutions of oppression. Indeed, well-crafted ethnic studies programs (and Tucson’s was one) typically make clear that there have been white allies in the fight against racism, colonialism and oppression of all kinds. Ironically, while the kids in TUSD could learn of those antiracist white allies in the Ethnic Studies program (like those whites who opposed the war with Mexico and viewed it as an unjust war for Anglo-Saxon domination, or who supported Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers), down the hall in the regular history classes — the ones conservatives consider “objective” — these antiracist whites are almost entirely ignored, calling into question not only the standard narrative’s accuracy, but also the degree to which the reactionary forces in Arizona are really concerned about diminishing racial strife.

Even at a more basic level, if we are to prohibit teaching about the truth of white supremacy, just because it might lead some folks to be angry with whites, then we would have to avoid teaching most everything accurately. History, after all, happened, and the history of the United States is one in which white supremacy was a daily and quite legal reality for hundreds of years, maintained by the active involvement, or at least passive participation of most white people. That isn’t said to promote racial hostility, but rather so as to promote historical literacy, the latter of which is apparently a grave threat to some, and especially those whose desire to “take their country back” from the forces of multiculturalism requires that they prevaricate about the most incontestable truths of their national experiment.

Yet in the interest of avoiding the stoking of resentments, I quite doubt that the Tucson schools will be instructed to cease teaching about, say, the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1941. And this is true, even though it is certainly conceivable that some weak-minded sixteen year old in an American history class could come to see all Japanese through the lens of that horrific act, including some of his or her own Japanese American classmates, who may be descended from families herded into concentration camps (or rather internment camps, because the other term sounds so German) by his or her own government not so long ago.

Nor will Tucson students be denied the opportunity to learn all about 9/11, even though there is no question that such a lesson could well lead to suspicion (even hatred) of Muslims, or Arabs, or both. No indeed, we will not only not prohibit the teaching of such things, we will forever and always mandate their primacy within the curriculum. Anything done to us as a nation by others will be fodder for classroom discussion, no matter the prejudices that could, as a result, be given renewed animation. But for those things done by us as a country, or by white elites even to their own countrymen and women? That and only that will be dumped down the memory hole for fear of creating untoward biases against the perpetrators. It is every bit as convenient as it is venal and without the least bit of intellectual or ethical honor.

Perhaps the most disturbing and utterly Orwellian aspect of Kowal’s ruling was the part where he insisted that it was perfectly acceptable to teach about oppression — as the Ethnic Studies program certainly did — but only insofar as that oppression was discussed “objectively.” The problem in the TUSD, according to Kowal, is that oppression was being discussed in a “biased, political and emotionally-charged manner.” Imagine: oppression being an emotionally-charged or even political subject.

Perhaps we can be forgiven for wondering in complete stupefaction how things like conquest or the deportation of some half-a-million Mexican-American citizens from the United States in the 1930s (so as to free up jobs for white men), can be discussed objectively, as if their perpetrators perhaps had a point, or dispassionately, as if they were no more fraught with moral meaning than, say, the Pythagorean theorem. For that is what Kowal would have us believe: that even in the teeth of historical horrors unimaginable to the average white Arizonan, there are always two sides, and one must give the Devil his due, even while refraining from calling the Devil by that name, lest we encourage an unhealthy aversion to his repeated and iniquitous machinations.

That the Arizona law of which Ethnic Studies has been found in violation would never be used to restrict teaching about the historical crimes of others — for instance, the horrors visited by Nazi Germany against the Jews of Europe (as well as Romani and homosexuals, though the latter two receive little attention) — only compounds the fetid nature of the statute and the rank affectation of its supporters. Even though learning of the European Holocaust could, one supposes, cause a degree of antipathy towards Germans, or even whites more broadly (since the crimes of the Shoah were, after all, committed by whites in the name of Aryan supremacy), never fear: the Jewish community of Tucson (numbering perhaps 25,000 at most), will have its pain and oppression discussed. Jewish children will not be denied the status of victim in the TUSD, nor will anyone insist that their pain be handled “objectively,” which, I suppose, would require the teaching of Mein Kampf, or classroom role-playing exercises in which at least some of the area’s teens would be expected to portray Mengele or Speer or Goebells just for balance.

No, it is only the brown-skinned who will be denied the ability to learn their history from the perspective of their own people. It is only Latinos and Latinas (roughly 215,000 strong in Tucson, or almost ten times as large as the Jewish community) who will be required to learn the rationalizations for their oppression, and to give those rationalizations equal weight with their own lived experience, all in the name of academic equanimity. It is only they who will be forced to treat their history like an Etch-a-Sketch, upon which the errant lines can be erased by way of a vigorous shake or two, orchestrated by small-minded white men in judicial robes whose own grasp of history is apparently no more adequate than their understanding of the law, and specifically that pesky First Amendment which any rational jurist could see quite readily as prohibiting the banning of inconvenient history, no matter how true it be.

Finally, to suggest that Ethnic Studies promotes an unwelcome “ethnic solidarity” as opposed to treating everyone as an individual is the kind of nonsense that could only emanate from the mind of a member of the dominant racial or ethnic group in America — namely a white person — who by virtue of that membership has actually had the luxury of thinking of the world as merely comprised of individuals in the first place. Fact is, and every Latino or Latina in Tucson — indeed, pretty much every person of color in the country — knows it, we do not experience life in America as individuals. So to speak of us as if we were atomistic, isolated “minorities of one,” is to ignore the real-life experiences shared by millions of those individuals because of their group identity. In short, black and brown folks have experienced America differently than whites, on balance, and this is not some coincidental accident of history. Likewise, whites, in the main, have experienced a relative degree of advantage and opportunity compared to persons of color, and this too did not just happen, as if the outcome of a random roll of the proverbial dice. No, these truths owe their veracity to a set of systemic conditions, within which individuals who just so happened to be brown were not allowed to be the individuals they were, but were, instead, constrained and marginalized precisely because they were brown.

For Judge Kowal to condemn any attempt to instill pride, purpose and solidarity among the oppressed — worse still in the name of the very individualism that white supremacy has persistently made into a cruel farce — is the ultimate historical obscenity. To suggest that students of color should be required to ingest a history and literature curricula in which their own people’s voices are seen as divisive is cruel and callous and unconditionally craven in its reactionary tenor. Judge Kowal, like others on the right in his state, simply panders to the lowest common denominator, scapegoating ethnic studies for problems long since created by our people, in classrooms dominated by a Eurocentric narrative for generations.

You know that narrative of course, indeed you can likely recite it in your sleep. It’s the one the Judge Kowals of the nation prefer, and it goes roughly like this:

America was founded by people who were escaping oppression and yearning to be free. Upon arrival in the New World they established religious freedom, except for those people who weren’t religious enough, or were suspected of witchcraft, or were Catholic, or who adhered to some silly pagan faith like those practiced by the Indians whom the colonists encountered. The colonists then set about building a new nation in which all men were created equal, as long as those men weren’t women, or something other than European, or poor. Along the way, mistakes were made (haven’t you ever made a mistake?), and sadly, Native Americans died in large numbers because they didn’t have resistance to the diseases brought over from Europe, or the bullets we occasionally were forced to fire at them when they weren’t willing to let us live on their land, or when they didn’t show sufficient appreciation for the nice spot we had made for them in Oklahoma.

Also, Africans were brought to America and held in bondage as slaves, which was wrong. But most were treated reasonably well by their masters because you can’t get much work out of a slave if you kill him or chop off his arms or his foot like John Amos in that movie, Roots. And remember, slavery has existed everywhere, and back then everyone believed in slavery — well, except the slaves or the abolitionists — so, ya know, you can’t judge that period by today’s moral standards. It’s not like the human brain was capable of supporting liberty and freedom as far back as 200 years ago! So stop living in the past. At some point we have to move on. Mistakes were made. Haven’t you ever made a mistake?

And yes, after slavery, we had a new racist system known as segregation, but that too was ultimately defeated because Americans stood up and said “no” in the civil rights movement, after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. tell them about his “dream.” So even though mistakes were made, the system was corrected. I bet you’ve made mistakes. And I bet you didn’t correct them as quickly as America.

Also, we have never started a war with anyone. We have only acted in self-defense or in defense of our immediate interests. Mistakes have been made, (and haven’t we all made mistakes?), but our intentions are good and we are always defending ourselves.

This was true with the Indians whom we had to kill to keep them from scalping us when we would try and take their land.

And it was true with Mexico, when they tried to keep us from annexing part of their country known as Texas, which we had to annex, because some of our slaveholders had gone there and declared the area independent of Mexico, and we had to defend those slaveholders because Mexico was led by a corrupt dictator, and because they might have tried to retake the territory that our slaveholders had taken from them, and that would have been unfair, because the slaveholders had only been able to enjoy it for like a year.

And it was true when we intervened to support the overthrow of the government of Hawaii in 1893, after the Queen decided not to abide by the previous Constitution stripping most non-whites of the right to vote, which some American businessmen (also known as “job-creators”) had previously forced upon the nation. Although some mistakes were made (like you’ve never made a mistake), we had to defend our interests. We needed pineapples and nice beaches. I mean, have you ever actually been to Panama City, or Rockaway?

And it was self-defense that motivated us in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, when we had to kill around a million men, women and children just to make sure that we would have control of that country, rather than the Spanish imperialists who had been in control of it before. We were liberating the Filipinos from those awful Spanish who were trying to control them, so that we could show them the proper way to run a country. Mistakes were made, but we did it for their own good. I bet when you’ve made mistakes it wasn’t for someone else’s good, it was all for you, you, you. Because you’re selfish, unlike America.

And it was self-defense that propelled us forward in Nicaragua in the 1920s, when we sent Marines there to capture a horrible, evil terrorist who had the support of the citizenry, but only because they didn’t understand that he was a horrible, evil terrorist. After we invaded their country, Nicaraguans began shooting at us, so we had to shoot back. I mean, that’s self-defense. What would you have done? Let them shoot you? That was one mistake America was not going to make, that’s for sure.

And when we went to war in Southeast Asia, it was all about self-defense too. We had to protect the South Vietnamese from the communist leader in the north, and so we bombed them. No, not the north. We bombed the south. So they would realize what a bad guy that communist in the north was. But some people are hard-headed and don’t learn the lessons we’re trying to teach them in a timely manner. So we kept at it for a decade, bombing Laos and Cambodia too, because they were also insufficiently scared of the communists, and if they became communists, pretty soon, we’d have all been speaking Vietnamese, or Chinese, or Lao, or something else Oriental, because it’s like dominoes. If one falls they all fall. And yes, mistakes were made in the war, and we ended up losing, but that’s because we didn’t bomb them enough, because hippies wouldn’t let us. So we lost, and Vietnam went communist. And yes, we’re still speaking English but that’s not because the domino theory was wrong, it’s just because English is better.

And Iraq in 1991 and again in 2003? Both self-defense! In 1991 we had to attack them because they invaded Kuwait and might have taken Kuwait’s oil, which we need to drive our cars and stuff. And in 2003, we had to invade because Saddam Hussein might have had the ingredients to make weapons of mass destruction, since we and our companies had sold him the ingredients, and then he might use them like that time he used them against Iran, or the Kurds. Only this time, we’d actually give a shit, because he might sell them to al-Qaeda, and then they might use them on us the next time they fly planes into some of our buildings, because even though Saddam and al-Qaeda hated each other, you can’t really trust Muslims, because Mohammed commanded them to kill us all, like on 9/11.

Oh yeah, and speaking of that: 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11. Did we mention 9/11?

In other words, we’ve had our problems and mistakes have been made, but we’re still the greatest nation that ever existed and ever will exist. God bless America.

This is what conservatives believe to be objective history. In fact, as I’ve recited it above would likely be seen as not nearly fair enough to the likes of those reactionary forces who would ban Ethnic Studies, and not only for the sarcasm with which I’ve said it. To them, discussing genocide, slavery, or the slaughter of people around the world at the hands of the United States military at all, even if prefaced with the obligatory phrasing about mistakes being made, is ipso facto a heritage offense, a violation of patriotic correctness, a sign that one hates one’s own country and should be presumed traitorous. They would hardly approve of even the above-displayed level of national apologetics, so willing is it to nonetheless reference some of the sordid underbelly of our imperial existence.

No indeed, to many of them, only a sanitized, hyper-nationalistic narrative scrubbed of all reference to injustice will do. They are like Michelle Bachmann, for whom there is apparently no event in American history that she cannot manage to splendidly mischaracterize; or like Glenn Beck, who apparently believes there is a straight line between the Biblical Israelites and the Founding Fathers because a fanatical Mormon (whom the LDS church had to disavow so extreme were his views), said so.

If Judge Kowal’s ruling is allowed to stand, students in Tucson will be the worse for it, and the floodgates will be opened for similar reactionary laws to be passed in other states, where whites feel threatened by the growing population of Latinos, and the demographic transformation of the white republic for which they so fondly and wistfully long. The America of their youth — that small town, Leave it to Beaver, Boy Scout troop idyll, which relegated racial others to the margins of national existence — is dead, and they cannot, will not, let it go. So they lash out against those who would teach truth, who would expose students to a critical examination of the history so nostalgically revered by the aging, fading hegemon. Their path is the politics of white resentment, white anxiety, and the last gasp of a white supremacy that demographic and cultural trends suggest is living on borrowed time. But until that system blessedly takes its last breath, its committed practitioners and defenders are capable of doing much damage.

For us, the path is clear. Not only should we demand the reversal of Kowal, and the continuation of Ethnic Studies in Tucson, but we should take matters into our own hands. If truth cannot be taught in schools then let us teach it to our children, in after-school programs, weekend workshops, in our homes, churches, mosques, synagogues and community-based organizations. Relying on a public school system to do the job for us — especially when that system was established by, and ultimately for members of the dominant group, and has persistently perpetuated inequity from the beginning — is a fool’s errand.

Just as a sausage factory should be expected to make sausage — and not trusted to turn out chicken nuggets — so too, schools that were set up to generate inequality (thanks to tracking, local control of funding and standards, and norm-referenced standardized testing) should not be counted on to bring about its opposite. If schools are to serve the purpose of justice, it will only be because we have remade them from the bottom up or created our own. Waiting for the courts as currently constituted to do the right thing — even less so state legislatures or Congress — will only frustrate the struggle for equity. There are few brave leaders to be found in any of those places, so committed to patriotic correctness are they as well.

It is time for the rest of us to stop asking for their support or their blessing, and instead, to make the teaching of social justice a first order of parenting and raising a new generation of youth for the America of the future. While the white right tries to take the country back, let the rest of us continue moving forward, with or without them.

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