Political fight over ethnic studies should never have been ignited at all
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Tucson Unified School District is in the middle of a political crisis that didn't have to happen, and students are paying the price. The ethnic studies "debate" is an avoidable fight that hurts our state's image and sets us back.

This began last year when Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB 2281, outlawing any program that is "designed for a particular ethnic group" or that "promotes racial solidarity."

The law was designed for a single purpose: to end TUSD's successful Mexican American Studies program. That program, a great source of Southern Arizona's academic pride, has become a punching bag for demagogues who don't know what the program does.

Supporters of HB 2281 like to accuse teachers of "indoctrinating" or "teaching racism" or "changing history." It's easy to paint a scary picture of a program you don't understand. Mexican American Studies has always been about teaching history from a multicultural perspective. In this country and this state, that's the only perspective that makes sense.

We shouldn't argue about the need to teach history accurately. Being accurate means including the Mexican American story. Despite the heated rhetoric and conspiracy theories, that's all the program has ever done: included that story among the many others students hear every day.

HB 2281 makes that illegal. Its supporters expect students - many of them Mexican American - to sit quietly and act as though nothing happened. But those students are right to speak up. We shouldn't dismantle any program to appease an extreme political agenda.

This issue is bigger than people realize. As I said Feb. 5 at a speech at the El Pueblo Center, "This is a fight that transcends that program, because it's about protecting the rights and the privileges and the abilities" of a whole range of American communities.

When you target one ethnic group - in this case Hispanics - and make that group out to be dangerous, or different, or suspect, you open the door to permanent discrimination and mistrust.

As I also said at that meeting and have said since, Mexican American Studies has done "a very American thing: It's taught students to value themselves, to value their families, to value who they are, to know who they are, and to be proud of that heritage." This country celebrates and acknowledges its diversity - in this respect, Mexican Americans are no different than Italian Americans or Polish Americans. We're all Americans, and our families all came from somewhere.

When it's not OK to teach one specific group of people where their families came from, we've opened a door we don't want to open. But that's what our state's leaders seem to have done, without realizing the consequences.

As this newspaper reported May 13, 2010, Attorney General Tom Horne has admitted he never visited an ethnic studies class despite pushing HB 2281 since 2007. He decided Mexican American Studies promoted "disrespect" and he would outlaw it. He refused to meet with TUSD officials to discuss it. He was never interested in how the students - past, present and future - felt about it. He proudly made it a centerpiece of his campaign last year, and he hasn't let up since.

This city, this state and this country know we have nothing to fear from diversity. We are not a fearful nation that needs protection from diversity.

Yet today, thanks to a concerted effort by extremists, the phrase "ethnic studies" conjures up sinister images of indoctrinated students burning schools to the ground in the name of radical politics.

Thankfully, TUSD has avoided premature decisions about the fate of the program. We need to let the legal, administrative and public comment processes run their courses. All of us, whatever our background, share the American history and values of fairness, democracy and due process.

That's what we need here, not more overheated rhetoric.

U.S. Raúl Grijalva represents Congressional District 7. Contact him through his website at grijalva.house.gov