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Lawmaker seeks to expand limits on ethnic-studies at Arizona schools

Lawmaker seeks to expand limits on ethnic-studies at Arizona schools

  • Updated

State Rep. Bob Thorpe’s proposal would allow public information stored on a public employee’s cell phone to remain private.

PHOENIX — Saying students are being taught hatred at public expenses, a Republican lawmaker from Flagstaff is proposing new limits on what and how schools, colleges and universities can teach.

Rep. Bob Thorpe said a 2010 law that targeted “ethnic studies” courses at some public schools, including those at Tucson Unified School District, does not go far enough with its prohibition against teaching anything that promotes resentment toward another race. He wants to expand that list to include gender, religion, political affiliation and social class.

And Thorpe wants a ban on not just classes but any events or activities that “negatively target specific nationalities or countries.”

But it does not stop there.

HB 2120 would extend the new restrictions to community colleges and universities, not just in terms of what’s taught in the classroom but also any event or activity. And it gives the attorney general the unilateral power to withhold up to 10 percent of state aid if he or she determines a college or university is in violation.

Thorpe said Thursday his bill is aimed specifically at things like a “privilege walk” exercise sponsored by the University of Arizona and a course entitled “Whiteness and Race Theory” at Arizona State University.

The former is described in UA literature as helping participants “recognized the privileges that they have been granted and to learn about the backgrounds of their peers.”

Among the exercises is telling students to step forward if they meet certain criteria, like having more than 50 books in a home, going to a private school or having inherited money. Conversely, those who were raised in a single-parent household, had to rely on public transportation or were ashamed of their clothes while growing up take a step back for each.

Participants are supposed to notice where they are in relation to others.

The ASU class is described online as teaching “postcolonialist, psychoanalytic, deconstructionist, feminist, new historicist” schools of thought.

Among the required books is “The Everyday Language of White Racism,” described on Google’s website as providing “an incisive analysis of everyday language to reveal the underlying racist stereotypes that continue to circulate in American culture.”

Thorpe said he sees those and similar classes as a step backward.

“The gains that were made in the 1960s are now being eroded,” he said. “We’re now finding ways to divide people and put wedges between people.”

Take that privilege walk exercise.

“Somebody is being classified as being less of an individual based upon their social classification, a classification being placed upon them, the ZIP code they grew up in, whether their parents were successful in business or not,” Thorpe said.

“I’m not saying in my bill these classes cannot occur,” he continued. “What I’m saying is taxpayers should not have to pay for them.”

His legislation, however, has no such distinction: State aid would be at risk whether or not public dollars are involved.

Thorpe insisted he’s not trying to block classes that discuss differences. So, for example, he said it would be fair to teach the different political philosophies of political parties and their adherents.

“The conversation is perfectly acceptable,” Thorpe said. “What I don’t want is somebody to be treated negatively and poorly because, for example, they are a Green Party member or they’re a Democrat or they’re a Republican.”

And he said this does not mean ignoring historical facts, like slavery, genocide and discrimination, that could make those who were — or are — affected angry at those who were the oppressors.

“Let’s just ensure they’re accurately discussed,” Thorpe said. He said it comes down to limiting the discussion to the historic facts.

“If you then look at an individual whose ancestors, because of their race, for example, they are linked to people that did something 100 or 200 years ago, that person who’s living today has little or no association with what happened 200 years ago,” he said. “So let’s not have a wedge issue and cause that person to be vilified when they absolutely had nothing to do with some event that happened in the past.”

But Thorpe was less clear about what would be acceptable in teaching about more current instances of discrimination, such as the fact that studies have shown minority motorists are more likely to be stopped than Anglos.

“This is Draft No. 1,” he said, saying he is sure there will be revisions.

The provisions about disparaging specific countries is a direct result of what Thorpe said are campus movements specifically targeting Israel. He said, though, that is not meant to prohibit a discussion of specific policies like decisions by the Israeli government to build housing for Jewish settlers on land that had previously been owned and occupied for centuries by Palestinians.

The original 2010 law is in legal limbo following a lawsuit challenging it by supporters of the Mexican American Studies program at TUSD.

That case is awaiting trial after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2015 there is evidence the statute was enacted for discriminatory reasons. Judge Jed Rakoff, writing for the majority, said it appears the law improperly and illegally interferes with the rights of students to get information.

Heidi Vega, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, said her organization believes these standards should be set not by the Legislature but locally elected school boards. But Thorpe said he crafted the measure because local school boards and the Board of Regents are not addressing the issue.

UA spokesman Chris Sigurdson said the “privilege walk” is an optional activity, saying the optional materials have been in use for more than 20 years. He said it is “not part of any formal curriculum” at the school.

He referred questions about the legislation to the regents. Spokeswoman Sarah Harper said her board has not had a chance to review what Thorpe has proposed.

A spokesman for Arizona State University would not comment.

Lee Bebout, the ASU associate professor who offers the course Thorpe finds offensive, defended it as a way of addressing aspects of social conflict.

“College is exactly the place where students and teachers must work together to confront difficult ideas,” he told Capitol Media Services. And Bebout said college curricula “should be designed by experts in the field rather than by politicians.”

On Twitter: @azcapmedia

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