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Myths about Ethnic Studies, the Theory

OK, now we’ll get a little more serious about this AZ Ethnic Studies ban, digging into some of the assumptions and misconceptions about race and the study of race that the whole thing and debate is based on.  Though maybe I’m spending too much time offering an intellectual perspective, because, as Talking Points Memo suggests, the ban is probably just a cynical political ploy by the man behind it all, Tom Horne, who’s running for even higher office as Attorney General of the state.

1. “Reverse discrimination”: One of the common arguments against Ethnic Studies and Affirmative Action is they promote “reverse discrimination” that favors minorities and disadvantages non-minorities.  “Reverse discrimination,” as the name suggests, presumes a one-to-one correspondence between individuals and a zero-sum game between them: anything that benefits me, hurts you, never mind what aspects of our lived experiences and social backgrounds make up our identities.  The basic “logic” behind this line of attack is spelled out in the AZ law when it “declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals,” with the premise being that all individuals should be treated equally and appreciated for their individual merits.

To pursue this line of argument a little further, the false claim being made here is that an Ethnic Studies class undermines the respect for the “individual” because it’s about race, ethnicity, and group identity–never mind that any civics class that’s about national community or class about U.S. history also depends on some notion of group identity.  This model of “group identity vs. individualism” is also the assumption behind anti-Affirmative Action positions that suggest any reference to race as a group identity infringes on individual rights.  OK, all this seems (falsely) “logical” enough, right?

See how the myth of “reverse discrimination” is debunked below the fold...

One of the many problems with such arguments is they have a blind spot to history and actual social conditions, where many people who belong to groups–be it the neighborhood they live in, economic status, and, yes, socially constructed racial identities–put them very difficult situations, structurally speaking.  The “individual” argument overlooks all this, as if each person was abstractly equivalent and that our social status wasn’t the product of a lot of other forces shaping our identities, like historical and economic conditions–it’s as if race doesn’t exist, even though it’s pushing race to the forefront is the term of debate!  This seemingly appealing “logic” is what legal scholar Neil Gotanda calls “Formal-Race Unconnectedness,” formal in that it sees race as an abstract form and unconnected in that it is unconnected from history and even social reality (you can check out his essay in the Critical Race Theory reader for yourself, thanks to Google Books).  Part of Gotanda’s powerful critique of formal-race assumptions debunks the notion of “colorblindness” because history trumps abstract legal theory.  While this isn’t to say the ideals of abstract equality aren’t goals we shouldn’t be working towards and may (or may not be) future possibilities, one would ask why is it that colorblindness and formal-race definitions are imposed in the present, when neither have been historical facts?  So even if we were going to take Horne’s word on this (don’t worry, I’m not), his appeal to individuality is separated from reality.  Which brings us to the context argument next…

2. Abstraction vs. Historical Context: If you watched the Michael Eric Dyson vs. Tom Horne “debate” we linked to yesterday, you’ll notice that Prof. Dyson makes an appeal to context when Horne soundbites Martin Luther King’s famous quote that “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” to use *against* Ethnic Studies.  Formal-race logic, as described above, depends on there being no context, so Horne is able to invoke MLK as if he wasn’t speaking out against oppression and systemic discrimination–as if the quote wasn’t even part of a speech about those issues!  Actually, Horne also pretty much misreads the quote in a literal sense too, since MLK uses *future tense* to describe a dream or future possibility of equality that implies that that’s not a reality.  Prof. Dyson is clearly taking a page from the Critical Race Theory playbook by providing the necessary historical context for both MLK’s speech and for the current law.

If Horne were to make a historically grounded case that MLK’s dream had been fulfilled, maybe he and Dyson could debate that on concrete terms.  But Horne’s soundbiting of MLK in a vacuum shows just how the sophistry of abstract terms keeps any historically or sociologically informed discussion from happening.  Instead, Horne keeps going back to his same bag of tricks, suggesting that Ethnic Studies is a “downer” that only teaches minorities that they are “oppressed.”  Well, you know what, how could you teach American history without teaching students that minorities have been oppressed?  Like Dyson suggests, I’m not sure how you’d teach American history without teaching that the nation was founded on both a response to political oppression and on the foundation of racial oppression–even Anderson Cooper can’t help acknowledge this in the interview!  And if what’s going on in Arizona with both this Ethnic Studies ban and the SB-1070 law is the start of something, I imagine U.S. history will have plenty more to say about oppression.

Again, it would probably be great if U.S. history had always been based on the terms of abstract formal-race equality and that case was closed.  Actually, it would just be great if we could have a debate on whether that ideal has been attained in the present without bad faith “reverse discrimination” arguments.  But to take abstract equality on its face would be not only to ignore the past and the present, but also set a bad precedent for the future.

I didn’t expect this post to be so long, but we’ll get to the misconceptions about the actual practice of Ethnic Studies that the AZ ban is based on next time.

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3 Responses to 'Myths about Ethnic Studies, the Theory'

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  1. Len said,

    This is an exquisite answer to the most recent Arizona law. I want to be optimistic and say that a lot of good activist scholarship will come out of the critique of the law, as well as some “teachable moments,” dismayed though I am to have to use that phrase to find something redemptive in an appalling development that is going to silence a lot of great teachers. A few years ago, I tried to get my seminar of first-year college students to understand Gotanda’s massive essay (which took me a while, too!), which was taxing but ultimately worth it. The Arizona law is only institutionalizing what a lot of students already are thinking — so, optimistically, in attacking its premises students can see the problems with this kind of thinking.

  2. gradland said,

    This is super-helpful–other than “Are you kidding me?”, I’m never quite sure how to respond to people who attack affirmative action or ethnic studies programs, and now I feel like I have some clearer ammunition.

    • Arnold Pan said,

      Thanks! The key point that I learned from Gotanda’s essay that’s great for teaching is comparing abstract ideals of equality and histories of inequality and racism. I think it’s something that students are able to grasp and it doesn’t make them feel like they’re impugned for seeing equality in only an abstract sense. It can also open up a more fruitful debate about whether or at what point equality can be reached in a practical sense.


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