But before any study of the classroom social relations is put forth, it must be made clear that the content of what is taught in social studies classes plays a vital role in the political socialization of students.
—Henry Giroux, Teachers as Intellectuals
“It divides students up by race,” Tom Horne, Arizona state superintendent, bumbled to CNN host Anderson Cooper in the midst of the controversies over ethnic studies. Cooper was curious: “If African-American kids want a class that has a focus on African-American studies, what’s wrong with that?” Horne couldn’t supply a cogent answer, so he took to stomping out imaginary bugs littered across the floor, grouching about Marxist public school teachers who hope to “infuse” kids (mostly Black and Brown ones) “with ethnic-chauvinism about a particular race, and teach them narrowly just about the background and culture of the race they happen to be born into.”
These teachers, he insisted, have been running a racket for decades. Only now has justice, and the wide-eye of public scorn, caught up with them. For all these years, under the unjustifiable ignorance of the dominant public, many of them had applied strange texts in the classroom to engage their students—some of whom are immigrants, some of whom are citizens. Texts like Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by the renowned Brazilian philosopher Paulo Freire (invoked as the “well-known Brazilian Communist”), had found good use in these hands.
For students from neglected Black and Brown communities, realization that they are “oppressed” sends the likes of Tom Horne dashing into secret basements, spit-polishing their rifles. If they learn they’re oppressed, so go the grunts, they might do something about the oppression. So, “don’t teach them that they are oppressed,” Horne advised Cooper. “Don’t teach them that they should be angry against their governments.” Tinkering with this “downer philosophy” could cause great harm to the social stability of the country, he warned.
For endorsement, Horne reached out to none other than a long-dead, civil rights leader who in 1967 admonished: “We must come to see now that integration is not merely a romantic or aesthetic something where you merely add color to a still predominantly white power structure. Integration must be seen also in political terms where there is shared power, where Black men and White men share power together to build a new and a great nation.”
“I was on that March on Washington in the summer of 1963,” Horne admitted, “where Martin Luther King gave his famous speech saying we should be judged by the quality of character and not the color of our skin.”
King wouldn’t tolerate none of this “race-obsessed” philosophy currently in use in public schools, he shot out. No way the guy who called for holding of hands between kids of diverse shades would sit quietly and watch teachers, educators, and intellectuals espouse theories to students about longstanding, thinly-veiled, normalized oppression, and equip them with just the right tools to overthrow it and liberate themselves.
Of course the King remembered by Tom Horne and his acolytes strays greatly from the one who from 1965-1968, as documented brilliantly in Taylor Branch’s epic Canaan’s Edge, railed audaciously against the Vietnam War; sought to exorcise the triple demons of Racism, Extreme Materialism, and Militarism; stuck his neck out on the line for trash-collectors; morphed consistently into a radical critic of domestic and foreign policy (especially when harmful to poor people): the king who grew highly distrustful of White liberals who were willing to shell out cash in Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia but swore the North was safe from the fangs of racism.
The same amnesia that makes such revisionism- and isolation-of-history possible is at work in this current battle threatening to wipe out ethnic studies from school curricula in Arizona and several states nationwide. Central to the battle, as revealed by Horne and his troopers on the frontlines, is “division” of students by race.
So that, White students are less likely to take courses specializing in African-American or Mexican-American history and heritage. Facts backing this theory up have yet to fall from the hands of proponents, but it’s been ballyhooed enough times in conservative columns and on mainstream cable news shout-fests to arouse curiosity. Great concern has also been leveled against the “separation” of students based on tax-bracket.
The argument, though crippled, is plain enough: if students are taught stories about migrant farmers of the past taking up protest to demand better of their government and of the corporate oligarchs exploiting them, public school students from the upper-ranks of society might feel insecure and, here comes the hammer, guilty.
However sympathetic the pleas for “bias-free” pedagogy sounds, it should rub ironically that the same batch of legislators and superintendents and talk-show hosts and column writers and bloggers, whose daily circus acts have ushered into centerfold this debate over “division of race,” never once lifted their voices during the last 40 years, as Brown v. Board was squashed, as Reagan’s army snatched resources from inner-city public schools, as charter schools and voucher schools cropped up to replace public schools, as schools in districts peopled by Black and Brown students increasingly received half the financial backing thrust to schools with overwhelmingly White students.
This marked tall order for decades, as today’s warriors kept their peace, stayed silent, and stared blank into the screen of reality.
It would offer a good laugh if this assault against critical education weren’t so calculated, measured, and intentional. Sadly, it is. And for this, people of good conscience must rise up and defend their schools, children, and communities from the amnesiac gladiators who, so suddenly, have grown concerned about segregation of students in public schools.
Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic whose work appears in various online journals. He can be reached at Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com.