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Arizona Targets Immigrants and Ethnic Studies

In Arizona, state legislators recently passed SB 1070, which requires law enforcement officers to investigate the citizenship status of everyone they suspect might be "illegal," and arrest those lacking proof of their legal status.

In Texas, some people are filing lawsuits seeking to bar undocumented immigrants from qualifying for in-state tuition at state universities. A 2001 law made this possible if the student attended school for at least three years in Texas, and graduated from a Texas high school.

And now, again in Arizona, conservative lawmakers have taken aim at Ethnic Studies, passing a law that will fine any school district that "offers classes designed primarily for students of particular ethnic groups, advocate ethnic solidarity or promote resentment of a race or a class of people." This law is targeting the Tucson Unified School District's successful Mexican American Studies Department. Fortunately, the schools there intend to continue their course offerings, because they do not believe they are teaching resentment towards anyone. The state Department of Education is also putting pressure on Districts to reassign teachers with accents so that English learners will learn the language properly.

My first experience with ethnic studies was as a student at Berkeley High in the 1970s, where I filled my US History requirement with a class in Chicano history. I also took a class called "What is White?" where we looked critically at the nature of European-American identity. I later attended Laney college in Oakland, where I took classes in African American history, and UC Berkeley, where I once again studied Mexican American history. In spite of all this exposure to American history through the lens of these often mistreated peoples, I never came to resent myself, nor did I feel resented by my fellow students - no matter their ethnicity.

Clearly some people in our society are feeling threatened by the number of Latinos now living in many of our states. Census projections predict that whites will be less than half of the population by 2050, and Latinos - now about 50 million in number, will grow to 133 million. These numbers may explain why a majority of Arizonans support the recent laws targeting immigrants.

Our public schools are obliged to respond creatively and constructively to the challenge of a changing student population - as they have done in Tucson. There, the Mexican-American Studies department has sought to create a culturally relevant curriculum that responds to the needs and experiences of their students.

We are also seeking to prepare as many students as possible for the opportunity to attend college. We know that some portion of our students are here without documents. Many came as young children with their parents, and have attended our schools for more than a decade. They may speak perfect English, and share the same aspirations as any other student. But their futures may look very different, especially if the sentiment against immigrants continues to grow.

As a teacher, I want what is best for all my students. I would never check their immigration status before I taught them. I want them to know the history of their own people, as well as the history of the US as a whole. The economic forces that draw immigrants across our borders are not likely to be overcome by political or legal repression. Our schools can be a way that diverse groups of students come together and learn about one another, so as to work to build a common future. This takes real thought and conscious effort. An incident in Morgan Hill, California, shows how fast these conflicts can arise. Five students there wore American flag shirts to school on Cinco de Mayo, and were sent home by school administrators because of a fear of conflict.

Schools are drawn into these issues, even if we would rather just focus on teaching science or math. Our students need to learn their history, and ways to creatively resolve conflicts between one another. One great resource for schools doing this work is the Challenge Day program, which comes to schools and works with a team of students to create an event that builds dialogue and caring between different individuals and groups of students. Courses that teach students about the particular experiences of various ethnic groups are also of great value -- and not only for the students of whatever group is the focus of the class. I believe all students should learn about the history of the diverse people of our country. That is what gives beauty and complexity to our nation. The end result would be more understanding, not resentment.

What do you think? Should our schools teach courses in ethnic studies? How should teachers respond to recent anti-immigrant laws?

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