Published on

Pedagogy of the Oppressor: Arizona’s Racism to the Top

The interests of the oppressors lie in "changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them."-Paulo Freire, quoting Simone de Beauvoir, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed

We should be teaching these kids that this is the land of opportunity, and, if they work hard, they can achieve their dreams, and not teach them that they're oppressed.-- Arizona's Superintendent of Public schools Tom Horne defending HB  2281 that bans ethnic studies programs from the Arizona Public Schools.   

A divide deeper than the Grand Canyon separates the truth from Superintendent Horne's justification for outlawing ethnic studies in Arizona. 

With the overall unemployment rate at 9.9 percent, the Black unemployment rate at 16.5 percent, and the Hispanic unemployment rate at 12.5 percent, the idea of working hard and getting ahead is a fast fading dream. Put in the context of Arizona's recently ratified SB 1070-which codifies racial profiling into state law by compelling police to demand papers of anyone they "suspect" may be undocumented-Arizona's banning of ethnic studies programs must be seen as an attempt to erase past lessons that would aid in current struggles against oppression.    pedagogy_of_the_oppressed1.jpg

Call it Arizona's 4 R's curriculum: Reading, ‘Righting, ‘Rithmatic, and Racism.  

Horne's primary target for his 4 R's curriculum is the Tucson Unified School District's popular Mexican-American studies department.  One of his primary objections to the program is their use of Paulo Freire's classic text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which argues against the "banking" model of education that perpetuates oppressions by muting creativity and critical thinking in a mechanical process where the teacher "deposits" facts that are to be memorized without any intrinsic value or connection to the students' lives.  Freire posits that liberating education consists of a problem-posing method that helps students become "critical co-investigators in a dialogue with the teacher."

The one claim of Superintendent Horne's that we know must be true is his assertion that he has read Pedagogy of the Oppressed-judging by the way he has mastered the tactics of tyranny detailed by Freire.  Arizona's HB 2281 specifically forbids classes that:

1. Promote the overthrow of the United States government.  2. Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.  3. Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.  4. Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

The first point leaves me confused. The primary unit where revolution enters the U.S. history curriculum is during the study of the American Revolution. When kids begin studying the Declaration of Independence in their seventh grade social studies class, is a teacher's job now at risk if they fail to whiteout the section that reads, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal...That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government"?

The second point is tragicomedy, since the SB 1070 and HB 2281 themselves are designed to promote resentment against Latinos by first making anyone with brown skin a potential suspect and then denying Arizonians access to education about Latino ethnicity. 

The third point erroneously assumes that ethnic studies programs can only benefit the culture that is the focus of the curriculum.  The Texas State Board of Education's recent ratification of curriculum changes to their textbooks  (which have long been used as an industry standard for the rest of the country), deleting references to Harriet Tubman and inserting references to freemarketeer Thomas Freedman, only punctuated the fact that America's pupils are in desperate need of courses that have not been whitewashed by conservative ideologues.

Point four is just some bedsheet-wearing-burning-cross-on-the-lawn-heckuva-job-Brownie, style racism. Superintendent Horne conflates ethnic solidarity with what he calls "ethnic chauvinism" in an effort to deny students access to the history of people of color. As the great Chicano union organizer César Chávez reminded us, "Preservation of one's own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures." In fact, a Wikipedia entry on ethnic chauvinism should be added to describe Horne's support of the Arizona Department of Education's recent decision to remove teachers whose spoken English is deemed to be heavily accented or ungrammatical from classes for students still learning English.

As Kim Dominguez, a graduate of the Tucson Public Schools' Mexican American Raza Studies program, told the news show Democracy Now!, "Although Tom Horne has a lot of allegations about what the program is and what the classes do, he's never visited a classroom, he's never had a conversation with any of the students or the alumni...I think that if anything is promoted in the classes, it's solidarity among humanity."

Solidarity, however, is exactly what HB2281 wants to prohibit-because proponents don't want a growing Mexican population to benefit from finding common political cause.

Here is what the apartheid state of Arizona doesn't want its students to know: In the 1960s and 70s, people of color forged a common cause that radically altered the educational landscape in America.   

One of the highpoints of struggle for the Chicano movement on public schooling came in March of 1968 when students walked out of five high schools in East Los Angeles, in a protest described by the Los Angeles Times as "a week and a half of walkouts, speeches, sporadic lawbreaking, arrests, demands, picketing, sympathy demonstrations, sit-ins, police tactical alerts, and emergency sessions of the school board." The demands of these students-most of which were won-included a citizens review board, the hiring of Chicano personnel in schools with majority Chicano enrollment, and authorizing the citizen board to develop bilingual and bicultural programs based on school-community partnership. Dropout rates declined dramatically, and the East Los Angeles walkouts became a model for Chicano activists across the Southwest. 

This movement helped pressure the U.S. government to conduct a Commission on Civil Rights from1968-1972 that provided the most detailed survey yet made of Mexican-American education.  The Mexican-American Education Study made a special analysis of schooling in the Southwest and revealed, as Meyer Winberg points out in his book, A Chance to Learn,

...the essential continuity of Mexican-American education in the United States: (1) a high degree of segregation, (2) an extremely low academic achievement, (3) a predominance of exclusionary practices by schools, and (4) a discriminatory use of public finance.   

In fact, Arizona's ethnic studies program itself was originally created to help resolve a race-discrimination lawsuit against Tucson public schools.  

Today, even as this month marks the 56th anniversary of the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education meant to strike down segregated schooling, the proportion of students of color who go to integrated schools has dropped to its lowest level since 1968.  The Urban Institute reported in 2005 that 70 percent of emergent bilingual students are concentrated in just 10 percent of schools, usually in urban poor areas.

But instead of working on legislation to address the racism and inequity in the education system, Arizona state legislators are now proposing SB 1097 that would effectively transform administrators and teachers into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents by obligating them to determine the legal status of students and their families.  If this bill passes the Arizona House of Representatives (it was already passed by the Arizona State Senate on March 31) it will no longer be enough to give a student detention in the principal's office-- educators will be asked to send their kids to an ICE detention cell to await deportation.

As radical education theorist Henry Giroux has written, "We have entered a period in which the war against youth, especially poor youth of color, offers no apologies because it is too arrogant and ruthless to imagine any resistance." 

This time, however, their arrogance has gone to far.  Protests, Petitions, and boycotts have erupted across the country. 

Students and youth have already taken the lead on some of the most important actions in defense of immigrants.    

In an action with echoes to the Black students in Greensboro who sat in at segregated lunch counters 50 years ago, three courageous undocumented immigrant youth occupied the offices of Arizona's Republican Senator John McCain on May 19th to demand that he back the DREAM Act--which would grant permanent citizenship to undocumented workers' children if they completed two years of college. This action marked one of the first known instances of activists risking deportation for immigration reform legislation. 

On that same day during Michele Obama's visit to a Maryland elementary school, a second grade girl admitted in their conversation that her mom was  undocumented, and challenged the First Lady:

"My mom ... she says that Barack Obama is taking everybody away that doesn't have papers."

If you can summon the courage of this second grader to speak truth to power you should come out to the national day of protest against Arizona's "Juan Crow" laws on May 29th.  If your city isn't one of the over 15 major Metropolitan areas boycotting Arizona, pressure your city council to join the movement. If you are a parent, go to your next PTA meeting and introduce a resolution against HB 2281 and SB 1070 and 1097.  If you are a teacher, go to your union meeting and do the same-then purchase "A People's History for the Classroom" and teach the lesson on the U.S.-Mexico war that produced the current border that now brands so many Mexicans as "illegal".   

The great historian and educator Howard Zinn gave some prophetic advice for educators in Arizona's ethnic studies department in his last broadcast interview before he died on January 27, 2010:  

My advice for a future history teacher is, "Don't obey the rules"....think outside the lines that are set for us by the school administration or the politicians. That's the most important advice I can give to a young teacher about independence and courage and risk.  


This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do.

Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian teaches history and is the Black Student Union adviser at Garfield High School, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP standardized test.  Jesse is the editor and contributing author to, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing (Haymarket Books, 2014). Jesse is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, a founding member of Social Equality Educators (SEE), and recipient of the 2013 “Secondary School Teacher of Year” award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. Follow Jesse on his blog at or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian

Share This Article

More in: