I might just be in a pickle.
Technically speaking, I don’t teach ethnic studies. I teach women’s and gender studies, now with a smattering of history on the side.
And yet, if I were located in Arizona, I might just violate their newly-minted ban on teaching about “ethnic groups” (h/t to The Nation for the summary):
The bill bans classes that “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals.”
Also prohibited: all those classes that “promote the overthrow of the U.S. government.”
I haven’t promoted the overthrow of the U.S. government recently, but if anyone’s forming a cell of the Arizona Underground Liberation Movement for Disgusted College Teachers? Sign me right up!
I do teach about ethnicity, and ethnic resentments, and white privilege, and historical crimes against subordinated ethnic groups. That’s part of taking an intersectional approach to studying women and gender. Some of what I do could be construed as “advocating ethnic solidarity,” since even mentioning race is now a violation of the New Colorblind World Order. For instance, I teach Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks, both of whom call for black solidarity while also reaching out to white allies.
But while teaching about race as an often-virulent social construction may promote ethnic solidarity – and even fully understandable resentment! – I don’t stop there. I try to challenge my white students to think about how one can be an ally. And none of this stops me from “treating pupils as individuals.”
Pitting solidarity against respect for individuals is just the sort of false dichotomy that one ought to expect, though, from people whose thinking is permanently impaired by black-and-white categories. Prejudice and hate are such a rotten match for critical thinking!
Consider the other class I’m teaching this quarter: Nazi Germany. Just today, I spent an hour lecturing on the myriad ways Jews were marginalized in the 1930s, from the ban on kosher butchering to the assault on Jewish artists and authors. You’d better believe I praised the solidarity Jews showed under fire! Otherwise it’s only a story of their victimization (which can become an instance of re-victimization). Would this advocacy of ethnic solidarity put me at odds with the Arizona law? The Nation reports that it wouldn’t – but why not?
Arizona seems to be creating good victims (European Jews) and bad victims (aspiring immigrants from Mexico). Most of the “good” victims are, of course, geographically distant and conveniently dead, while the “bad” ones are turning up in Arizona schools, curious about their own history.
But maybe the real question is: Does anything in this Arizona law (or its notorious predecessor) put it at odds with Nazi policies toward the Jews? Let’s see: A racially-specific requirement to carry identity papers? Check. Scapegoating of an ethnic group? Check. Limiting the role of that ethnic group in education? Check.
I don’t want to indulge in pat historical analogies. I do not think that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer intends to set up concentration camps – though the wall along the border is bad enough. I do not think she intends to issue shirts with a big fabric “I” patch – I for immigrant, I for illegal. I do not suspect her of planning to conscript anyone into forced labor, though she seems sanguine enough at the hypocritical status quo that allows Americans to eat cheap lettuce picked for dirt-cheap wages by precisely those people targeted by the new laws. Nor do I imagine she’s plotting to declare war against Mexico in order to radicalize Arizona’s policies under cover of war.
And yet, there’s plenty troubling about the Arizona laws. Scapegoating and marginalizing are cruel and unethical even if that’s where the damage ends. But they tend to take on their own dynamic. History doesn’t predict how, exactly, scapegoating will claim flesh-and-blood victims. History does teach that once scapegoating spreads, it’s unlikely to fade away without violence.
Also: I am just infuriated at a bunch of no-nothing legislators telling professors what they may teach!
Today, as I was in the midst of lecturing on the November Pogrom, massive thunderclaps shook my well-insulated lecture hall. It was occasion for a rare laugh, in a class where giggles are mighty scarce. It seemed as though an angry god was speaking straight to the topic. I don’t believe in divine intervention – not at all. But as a Republican, odds are that Governor Brewer does, and if so, I’m happy to say that an angry god left a message for her: The angels are on the side of ethnic studies. They sing praises of glory to solidarity. They abide righteously in academic freedom. And they see the hideous stain in your soul when you scapegoat fellow humans.