Educators Celebrate as Arizona's Racist Ethnic Studies Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

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Educators Celebrate as Arizona's Racist Ethnic Studies Ban Ruled Unconstitutional

"This is a win for what is right, for children."

Protestors march through the Oregon State campus in 2010 in response to recently passed laws in Arizona including the ban on ethnic studies classes as well as the notorious SB1070. (Photo: Oregon State University/flickr/cc)

In a development one observer calls a "win for what is right," a federal court ruled Tuesday that Arizona's ban on ethnic studies classes was enacted with discriminatory intent and is unconstitutional—violating students' First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.

"Both enactment and enforcement were motivated by racial animus," wrote federal appeals court Judge A. Wallace Tashima of the district court in Arizona.

"We won on all points," said Richard Martinez, one of six lawyers defending the student plaintiffs. "It speaks to the importance of the judiciary and protecting everyone against racial discrimination."

Many educators celebrated the news on social media:

The case stems from the state's 2010 law that prohibited classes that promote "the overthrow of the United States government," "resentment toward a race or class of people,” "are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group," or "advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals." At its heart, it was an "attempt to silence stories that unsettle today's unequal power arrangements," as Bill Bigelow, curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and co-director of the Zinn Education Project, put it.

The law forced the suspension of Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American Studies (MAS) program—which has been linked to academic success. Tashima noted the cognitive dissonance of supposed education advocates axing such a successful program, writing:

given that the MAS program was an academically successful program, the decision by each of these two Superintendents of Public Instruction [Tom Horne and his successor John Huppenthal] to eliminate it was a departure from the substantive outcome that one would expect. One would expect that officials responsible for public education in Arizona would continue, not terminate, an academically successful program. Horne himself admitted that he did not enforce the statute against the Asian-American studies program in Tucson because he "was told that it was academically an excellent program." Although Horne and Huppenthal were told that the MAS program was academically excellent, they refused to believe it.

Horne and Huppenthal "were pursuing these discriminatory ends in order to make political gains," Tashima wrote, and also pointed to blog comments by Huppenthal that "provide the most important and direct evidence that racial animus infected the decision to enact" the law. The comments included: "The Mexican-American Studies  classes use the exact same technique that Hitler used in his rise to power"; "The books aren't the problem. The infected teachers are the problem;" and "MAS = KKK in a different color."

Grassroots group UNIDOS, created in response to the MAS program closure, said following the ruling: "Today was a major victory in our struggle, and we hope that it leads to many more."

"As a community we celebrate this victory with all those who have supported and pursued the dismantling of this racist act against the Mexican-American community. With this accomplishment we must remember that the fight is not over. UNIDOS and the community of Tucson will continue to resist any injustice that plagues our community. We would like to thank all our allies and those who never lost hope in the fight," the group said on its Facebook page.

The Associated Press adds that "Tashima said he doesn't know a remedy for the violation and has not issued a final judgment."

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