The student-led disruption of the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board meeting last week was unfortunate, unnecessary and unwise.
It did nothing to further the students’ goal of preserving Mexican American Studies classes in the district yet served to fuel the fire of opponents who believe MAS students are being indoctrinated as American-hating socialist activists.
If the students are looking for someone to blame for the predicament they’re in – the state investigating TUSD for violation of state law prohibiting un-American instruction of students and the district’s reactive proposal to reform the program – they perhaps need only to have looked out into the audience that night and the adults who were wildly cheering them on.
For it is adults who have let the students down, namely registered Latino voters in Pima, Maricopa, Cochise, Santa Cruz, Pinal and Yuma counties who mostly stayed home during the November general election.
Those six counties are home to the overwhelming majority of Arizona’s Latino population. In overall voter turnout in November irrespective of race, Pima County had the second highest in the state, with 65.5 percent of registered voters. In the other five heavily Latino counties fewer than 54 percent of all registered voters cast ballots. Yuma and Santa Cruz counties had the worst turnout, about 46 percent.
But when comparing recently released U.S. Census data mapping Latino population percentages to precinct level voter turnout in those counties the numbers get worse.
In some heavily Latino areas of TUSD about three out of five voters didn’t cast a ballot in November.
According to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, more Arizona Latinos voted in November than in past mid-term elections yet it could have been much higher because it estimates that half of registered Latino voters in the state didn’t vote.
When you consider the assault on Latino Americans in Arizona by mostly conservative whites, that kind of abysmal voter turnout by Latinos is shameful.
If they had voted in greater numbers there is a chance that Penny Kotterman would be the state Superintendent of Public Instruction instead of John Huppenthal – an opponent of Ethnic Studies – since Latinos tend to vote for Democrats over Republicans, according to the Pew Center.
There also is a good chance that Miguel Ortega would be a TUSD board member instead of Michael Hicks, who received overwhelming support in the district’s mostly white voting precincts.
Either of those outcomes and MAS students might not have felt the need to chain themselves to chairs on the Governing Board dais Tuesday.
Both sides in the Ethnic Studies debate need a little perspective on the attitudes of the other side.
Between 2000 and 2008, the U.S. Border Patrol apprehended more than 4 million illegal immigrants in Arizona. That’s an average of almost one every minute.
It is both reasonable and understandable that Arizonans of all stripes, including Latinos, wanted something done about it. And absent any coherent policy from the federal government, the state set about creating enforcement policies of its own.
Unfortunately, it overreacted and in its zeal to crack down on illegal immigrants, American citizens who happened to be of the same race as the illegal immigrants started getting swept up in the enforcement.
Moreover, the enforcement morphed into out-and-out racism in some instances, yet many white Arizonans have been quite cavalier about these violations of civil liberties. The rounding up of American citizens and forcing them to prove they’re citizens is an outrage as is white Americans dismissing it with a shrug of the shoulder and the belief that it’s their fault that they “look” like an illegal immigrant.
Therefore, it is understandable that Latino Arizonans are rising up in increasing numbers to protest their treatment and that they believe racism is at the root of it.
It is also understandable that they believe the attack on TUSD’s MAS program is a part of that racist attack.
But the debate over Ethnic Studies has nothing to do with the fight to stop illegal immigration. It is reasonable for the TUSD community, if not the state, to take an interest in how and what students are taught in public schools.
It’s wrong and unfortunate that hysteria over illegal immigration and hysteria about whether all opponents of it are racists has infiltrated the Ethnic Studies debate and is preventing a rational discussion of the program’s worth and efficacy.
It is also unfortunate that supporters of Ethnic Studies have overreacted and drawn a line in the sand insisting that MAS remain unchanged and asserting that any attempt to change it is racist. That’s false and ridiculous.
TUSD will attempt again this week to debate changes to the program and take a vote. That vote must occur. If students and others in TUSD don’t like the outcome of that vote they have the power to do something about.
No amount of chains, protest signs, shouting through bullhorns or walkouts and marches in the street will change what’s happening in Arizona and TUSD.
The change will only come one way – at the ballot box.