Arizona Republicans move to ban social justice courses and events at schools

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[The Bill would prohibit courses and activities that promote ethnic studies and advocate ‘solidarity’ based on ethnicity, race, religion or gender. *RON*]

Sam Levin, The Guardian, 13 January 2017
Katt McKinney, organizer with Black Lives Matter in Arizona, said it seemed obvious that the language of the bill was targeting groups like hers that fight for racial justice. Photograph: Alamy
Republican lawmakers in Arizona are pushing to prohibit school courses and events that promote ethnic studies and social justice, with legislation that critics say broadly targets academic freedom and students of color.

The newly introduced bill – which seeks to build on an existing GOP-backed law that banned a Mexican American studies class – marks the latest attack in academia on activism and research centered on marginalized groups. Some opponents said the proposal is part of a national trend, tied to the election of Donald Trump, of lawmakers working to suppress progressive organizations and protests.

The bill, from state representative Bob Thorpe, would prohibit “courses, classes, events and activities” in public schools that promote “social justice toward a race, gender, religion, political affiliation, social class or other class of people”. Courses and events that are “designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group” or advocate “solidarity” based on ethnicity, race, religion or gender would also be banned.

“This really challenges a bedrock foundation of what it means to be involved in the academy,” said Rashad Shabazz, head faculty in the program of justice and social inquiry at Arizona State University. “It really puts a target on people of color and various academic fields that have emerged out of struggle.”

The proposal comes at a time in which the polarizing presidential election has fueled intense debates surrounding first amendment rights and academic freedom in American universities. In recent months, conservative groups on campuses across the US have launched coordinated attacks against professors and courses that promote liberal ideologies or challenge traditional views on race and gender.

In Wisconsin, a Republican senator recently attacked an undergraduate programfocused on “unpacking masculinity”, which the lawmaker called a “war on men”. Lawmakers there have also threatened to cut funding over a race relations course called The Problem of Whiteness and a reading assignment about gay men’s sexual preferences that a legislator said was “offensive”.

The University of California, Berkeley, last year cancelled a course examining Palestine “through the lens of settler colonialism” following an outcry from pro-Israel groups, but later reinstated the class.

Meanwhile, some universities have faced scrutiny from progressive activists for allowing white nationalists and leaders of the “alt-right” – a far-right movement in the US – who promote hate speech to speak on campus.

Thorpe’s bill is particularly far-reaching in its targeting of social justice organizing and ethnic studies, said Martín Quezada, a Democratic state senator, and has prompted an outcry on Arizona campuses.

“Our students are terrified that their freedom of speech, their freedom of thought and their ability to learn about issues and think at a higher level is in jeopardy now,” he said. “The scariest part of this bill is that the impacts are so broad.”

Thorpe declined the Guardian’s interview request, but told Tucson.com he wanted to target an ASU course called Whiteness and Race Theory, as well as a university event called a “privilege walk”, where students are supposed to reflecton their race and privilege.

The legislation, which says a violation would allow the state to cut 10% of a district’s funding, would not prohibit courses that cover the “accurate history of any ethnic group” and allows for teachings on the holocaust or “any other instance of genocide”.

But Katt McKinney, organizer with Black Lives Matter in Arizona, said it seemed obvious that the language of the bill was targeting groups like hers that fight for racial justice.

“They want to shut it down,” she said. “This is a direct attack on the constitutional rights of citizens.”

The state’s 2010 law banning a specific Mexican American studies program in Tucson has been the subject of lengthy litigation and targeted a course that was proven to be effective for students, according to Quezada.

The Arizona school boards association said it opposes Thorpe’s bill because the state should not have control over school content. “It should be up to each district what kind of curriculum should be approved,” said spokeswoman Heidi Vega.

Though Arizona has a history of these kinds of proposals, Shabazz said he felt that Trump’s victory and the GOP wins in November have emboldened Republican lawmakers to aggressively target the work of minorities.

“By attempting to legislate against certain types of activities that focus on people of color, women or social justice issues,” he added, “it really undermines the ability of the university to function as a space of intellectual engagement and debate.”

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