The ban on ethnic studies classes in Arizona schools has been in place since 2010, but some of the readers of this blog might have learned more about the impact of this legislation from a New York Times article earlier this week. Matt De La Peña’s young adult novel Mexican WhiteBoy focuses on a young San Diego teen who dreams of achieving baseball stardom and of escaping the racial scrutiny of his private school classmates. De La Peña is an acclaimed author, whose previous YA novel was named an ALA-YALSA Best Book for Young Adults and an ALA-YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers. Although Mexican WhiteBoy has been praised by readers as an excellent book for young readers, and touted as a story about “pretty much the American dream,” the political climate in Arizona is such that teaching material to children and teenagers that touches on their own cultural heritage, in this case Latin@, is not merely frowned upon but literally outlawed.
Michael Winerig’s quite moving article, Racial Lens Used to Cull Curriculum in Arizona, centers upon the controversy one school encountered when teachers attempted to bring De La Peña as a speaker to their classes. In a larger sense, however, the power of the written word to put fear in the hearts of the status quo cannot be understated. The lawmakers who imposed Arizona’s “critical race theory” legislation believe not only that freedom of information must be curtailed when it comes to racial minorities, but that the books that would explore the history and lives of their own state’s core constituents, Latin@s, are so dangerous as to potentially destroy white cultural hegemony.
The United States of America was founded on the principles of free speech and freedom of the press. It’s devastatingly sad to see some states choose to turn their backs on that great history of freedom and liberality–even sadder that they deny young people the right to learn and speak openly about the circumstances of their own lives. As a bookseller, I know firsthand the tremendous gifts we as readers gain from the world of the written word; in a way, I’m not surprised that some Arizona lawmakers, knowing which way the tide is turning in America in terms of racial demographics, would use such desperate tactics to attempt to keep their young citizens ignorant and in the dark. In one of the most heartrending parts of Winerip’s article, he notes that “…the state hired a consultant, for $110,000, to conduct an audit [of Tucson’s Mexican-American studies program]. The audit found that while some aspects of the program needed changing, it was doing a good job. It noted that students who took Mexican-American studies were more likely to attend college, and that the program helped close the achievement gap. The state ignored the audit, calling it flawed.”
America is currently poised on a precipice: do we opt for better education for all, a well-informed workforce that can compete with the growing global markets in places like India and China? Or do we cling to the outdated social prejudices of decades past, fearful of change and frantically hoping to stunt the growth of the minds of our next generation? If we choose the former, books that challenge the dusty biases of yesterday must be allowed to circulate freely. Books are a bridge to the future, a beacon for greater understanding and self-knowledge, and those who would ban them sow the seeds of their own inevitable destruction.