Commentary: Ethnic studies still needed
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 13, 2010 - Arizona continues to be in the news for legislation that is possibly racially charged. The most recent source of controversy is House Bill 2281 (pdf), which would ban ethnic studies classes. More generally, it would write colorblindness into the law.
The bill states that schools cannot include courses that (1) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group and (2) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.
Colorblindness is generally the idea that race shouldn't and doesn't matter. Numerous studies have suggested that this perspective is problematic. In fact, the American Psychological Association (pdf) has gone so far as to critique the colorblind approach citing research that found White students who were instructed in the colorblind approach held stronger stereotypes than White students with a multicultural approach.
Legislation should be rooted in informed research rather than personal opinion. Tom Horn, state superintendent of schools in Arizona, asserts that we should be teaching children to treat each other as individuals and not separate children based on race. Yet this statement is steeped in his personal beliefs in the American myth of rugged individualism . He stated that he has fought for the bill for years and believes "very deeply people are individuals." He goes on to use his presence at the march on Washington as evidence that his opinion is valid.
Using Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s words out of context, Horn attempts to suggest that he is merely fighting for people to be "judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin." Yet Dr. King's dream was about what would happen after we as a nation stopped creating disparate outcomes based on race and class.
This bill is based on faulty assumptions. One faulty assumption is that ethnic studies courses exist only to be taken by students of a specific ethnic group. That assumption is false. The specific courses in Tucson that the bill is meant to target are open to all students regardless of race.
In my own classes on race, it is White students along with students of color who are hungry for a different perspective. It would be best if our schools integrated ethnic studies into the mainstream coursework so there would be no need for separate courses and all students would be exposed to various perspectives. That shift has yet to occur, so in essence, our public school curriculum could run counter to this law by teaching courses that are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group (Whites). I make the statement to highlight the contradiction the bill fails to see and the proponents certainly fail to address.
The second faulty assumption is that something is inherently wrong with ethnic solidarity when in fact it is a normal phase of development. In fact, racial identity has been found to be a normal process that often involves strong ethnic identification. Research has suggested that having a sense of racial identity can buffer deleterious effects of discrimination and facilitate positive psychological well-being. We all have aspects of identity through which we connect with others, and to ban ethnic solidarity is ill informed.
I run across this rationale in my teaching of race to White students. There is often a correlation made between ethnic solidarity and hate. That belief is inaccurate and only focuses on extreme manifestations of destructive racial pride (i.e. Nazis, KKK). Irish are espousing ethnic solidarity when they celebrate St. Patrick's Day. Yet we should not ban the holiday nor shame the Irish for daring to acknowledge their history.
I can understand a kernel of the bills' stated impetus: to minimize racial separation. However, this legislation is misguided and might ultimately lead to more racial polarization, which is exactly the opposite of its supposed intention.
Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.