The Common Good

Pedagogy of the Oppressor: Arizona's Ethnic Studies Ban

Arizona's lawmakers just keep finding ways to transform their xenophobia into law. First, they questioned whether Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a legitimate holiday. Then, with a brush of her pen, Gov. Jan Brewer legally sanctioned racial profiling. Though she claims that the amendments to the bill eliminate any profiling (really?), all non-Anglo peoples should still be wary of Arizona's immigration law. Anyone who does not seem "White" is subject to harassment by law enforcement and vigilantes.

Some might wonder, "What is wrong with this law? After all, these people are here illegally." Christian ethicist Miguel De La Torre, in his book Trails of Hope and Terror: Testimonies on Immigration, reminds us that "Deportation, then and now, was based on who looked Hispanic, a judgment that is particularly disturbing because all Latino/as are seen first as not belonging, as foreign, and thus in need of proving that they really do belong."

It is ironic how descendants of immigrants are brewing up trouble for current immigrants who were once the rightful owners of the very territory they are now trying to enter. Thanks to the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty of 1848, half of Mexico's territory (including Arizona, California, Colorado, Texas, and Nevada) was handed over to the U.S. Many of these territories were rich in oil, gold, and silver. President Ulysses S. Grant, who was a solider during the Mexican-American War, questioned the United States' motives for entering into war with their Mexican neighbors. According to De La Torre, "Grant saw the conflict as a war forced upon Mexico for the singular sake of acquiring another people's land." Grant was right. The U.S. government used its might to steal Mexican land and its riches -- riches that made the U.S. a very wealthy nation and Mexico an impoverished one.

This history of U.S. exploitation of other nations continues. In the twentieth century alone, 11 countries witnessed a whopping 21 U.S. military invasions and countless other covert operations. During the 1980s, for instance, U.S. intervention in Central America helped sustain bloody civil wars. For present examples, we all know too well that Iraq has suffered immensely under U.S. occupation.

The U.S. doesn't just intervene through military means. The North American Free Trade Agreement -- which left several Latin American farmers destitute -- has forced many desperately poor farmers to trek the abysmal Sonoran Desert in hopes of entering the U.S. to find work so that can feed their families back home. Once on U.S. soil, their journey of suffering continues. They work menial jobs, are subject to abuse by employers, coyotes, and law enforcement, and are deemed as vile criminals by many U.S. citizens. Now, the Arizona law adds insult to injury by identifying all Latino/as as potential criminals. In effect, we Latino/as are guilty until proven innocent -- assuming we get the opportunity to defend ourselves.

With this history (and daily reality) of oppression for non-Anglo peoples, some still have the nerve to decry ethnic studies that expose students to the history and structures of injustices. It should come as no surprise that Arizona schools Superintendent Tom Horne supported a recent bill by Gov. Brewer to ban ethnic studies classes in the public schools. Horne worries that these "ethnic studies" classes teach students that they are oppressed. In a recent CNN interview, Horne said, "We should be teaching these kids that this is the land of opportunity. If they work hard, then they can achieve their dreams. And not teach them that they are oppressed." Why should they not be taught that they are oppressed? Simple: Because they are! And he fears what an "awakened" group can do against the forces of oppression that keep many in the dark.

Horne, in an attempt to elicit contempt for ethnic studies, remarks that their textbook, the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, was written by Paulo Freire, "a well-known Brazilian communist." He attacks the author but does not address his ideas. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Friere distinguishes between banking and transformative education. The latter is education that inspires students to forge a more humane social order by overcoming oppression and other obstacles to the humanization of all peoples. Banking education, on the other hand, simply instills in students the tools and knowledge used to perpetuate the dehumanization and oppression of others.

Horne evidently prefers banking education. Students must learn to work hard, which means succeeding while leaving others behind. Throughout the interview, he repeated that "we are a nation of individuals." Forget about all that talk about oppression and coming together, he says. In a country currently mired in racial and xenophobic tensions, oppression is all around. Many of us do not need classes to tell us this; indeed, it is our reality! Perhaps these "revolutionary" ethnic studies classes pose a great danger to those in power because they confirm for minority students what we have been feeling all along, namely, that we were, are, and will be victims of oppression. But we can change this by uniting and struggling for our rights -- a prospect that strikes fear in the heart of many.

portrait-cesar-baldelomarCésar J. Baldelomar a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, is the executive director of the Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching. You can visit César at his Web site www.cesarb.com

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