Who’s Afraid of Music?: Arizona Racial Politics Gets Insane (Again!) via @IAmKRSOne @RATM

As his parting shot in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) Mexican American Studies (MAS) controversy, departing State Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal found the district out of compliance with A.R.S. § 15-112 (formerly HB 2281). What did he find so objectionable about music? Before exploring, some background is necessary. Arizona’s A.R.S. § 15-112 allowed the state superintendent to withhold 10% of state funding if he found a district offered classes that:

(1) Promote the overthrow of the U.S. 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 rather than treating pupils as individuals

Since the passage of the bill, provision 3 was found unconstitutional and the other three will be contested in the 9th Circuit on January 12, 2015. The original MAS classes were eliminated due to pressure from the state, but culturally relevant courses from a Mexican American and an African American perspective are now mandated due to the TUSD federal desegregation order.

Huppenthal actually ran on a platform where, if elected, he would “stop la raza” (actual campaign promise).

Part of the reason he is former superintendent is that he was caught being an Internet troll for years. For example, he anonymously offered:

What does Huppenthal now find so objectionable and against the law? Here are some examples that Huppenthal determined were violations of state law:

  • Teaching, “European colonization of ‘The New World’ has a horrifying and negative effect on the Natives that had been there for thousands of years” (violation: (2) promoted race or class-based resentment),
  • Teaching KRS-One, “Hip hop is defined as the artistic response to oppression” (Best of KRS One) (violation: (4) advocated for ethnic solidarity)
  • Teaching “Social Reproduction Theory, Colonization, Hegemony, Race, and Racism,” (violation: (2) promoted race or class-based resentment)

“You gotta to do what they toldya…”?

In Arizona, we have a problem with political speech in music because it makes some elected officials feel uncomfortable about our nation’s history. How are students supposed to learn about colonization without contemplating the horrors enacted on the Native peoples? Hip Hop did emerged from oppressive social conditions in the ghettos of New York City, and KRS-One actually promotes intellectual and spiritual development as a means of social transformation. Teaching Bourdieuian concepts such as social reproduction theory is difficult enough in graduate-level classes— if a teacher can accomplish this with high school students, that is remarkable and should be applauded instead of derided.

Ethnic studies has become an important part of the curriculum in San Francisco, LA, Houston and other urban school districts over the past few years. Sadly, Arizona is headed the other direction. This is problematic because my previous work highlighted how the MAS program significantly increased the likelihood that students would graduate from high school and pass their state standardized tests (Cabrera, Milem, Jaquette, & Marx, 2014). Racial politics led to the elimination of this successful program, and this same myopic approach to education is threatening freedom of thought and speech.

Ethnic studies is a new and important paradigm than the silenced history that has traditionally been taught in US schools, but that does therefore make it dangerous or threatening. We need innovative education because traditional methods continue to disempower students of color. Einstein was fond of saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.” Arizona thus represents a type of state-mandated educational insanity, and we desperately need break this cycle. The first step is to stop conflating innovation with subversion.

Nolan L. Cabrera, PhD

Assistant Professor

University of Arizona

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