Friday, January 20, 2012

In Lak'Ech

It seems like I've stepped out of the time machine into another century. Slate links to a bunch of actual Facebook postings dated Martin Luther King Jr's birthday that proclaim “Happy Nigger Day.” The state school board of Arizona has pulled the plug on all Chicano Studies coursework. Tucson schools, despite a student population that is around 60% Hispanic, are forced to convert their Chicano History courses to “American” History classes. Books like Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, Critical Race Theory by Richard Delgado, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos by Rodolfo Acuna and many others are removed from classrooms. Arizona State School Superintendent Tom Horne rationalizes the ban on ethnic studies courses stating that “they promote divisiveness, they separate kids of color and they teach kids that they are oppressed.” Newt Gingrich states, “We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto."

Mitt Romney, the least odious of the possible candidates won't release his income tax records but states that most of his income is generated by dividends that are taxed at only 15%. He added that he has also earned a very small sum from speaking engagements. $347,000 in honorariums, which alone catapults him into the top 1% of American earners, is just chump change to Mr. Romney. (Obama, who's been a real let down in many ways, at least has consistently favored revamping the tax structure so that dividends are taxed comparably to wages.) So, while it looks like the most moderate Republican in the running will be chosen, the presumptive nominee is staggeringly out of touch with our nation's economic inequities. While his position on social issues is slightly more progressive than the competition's, Romney's probable two steps backwards, instead of his opponents' colossal flying leap into the dark ages, is still frighteningly retrogressive.

The Republican primary has become a “Who's a better Christian?” competition. November 2012 heralds the 10th time I've voted in a presidential election and I don't ever remember so much discourse and decisiveness pertinent to religion. When asked point blank about his position on America's financial inequality Romney responds “When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on the 99 percent versus 1 percent you have opened up a whole new wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God.”

There is actually a precedent for the happy marriage of capitalism to Christianity that was established well before I was born. The American Liberty League was formed as corporate America's effort to deflect its culpability for the Great Depression and to discredit Franklin D. Roosevelt and combat the threat of socialism. The organization's motives were too transparent to merit any credibility until a light bulb went off and the businessmen started lining the pockets of Christian clergymen like Reverend James W. Fifield, the pastor of First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Fifield, once beholden to the Liberty League, began to preach that “the blessings of capitalism come from God” and imply that the New Deal social programs were anti-Christian.

How awful these times can seem, as xenophobia is rampant and the greedy and the power gropers have co-opted faith to rationalize inequity. My dark cloud lightens though after a talk at the downtown library by writer Luis Rodriquez and Jesuit Father Gregory Boyle. Rodriquez, has won a Sandberg Prize and numerous other writing awards. He is also, coincidentally, the author of the memoir Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A, one of the books that is now banned in Arizona schools. Greg Boyle is an old school liberation theologist and is known for helping gang members extricate themselves from La Vida Loca. Boyle is the founder of the successful Homeboy Industries, whose motto is “Jobs, Not Jail” which is the umbrella agency for a bakery, snack food manufacterer, restaurant and silkscreen shop.

Father Boyle performs his good works under the aegis of the Catholic Church and Rodriguez has adapted a more free form faith, incorporating ancient Mayan traditions and admitting to atheistic instincts. Despite his apparently lapsed Catholocism, Rodriquez is in agreement with Father Boyle that it is unrealistic to expect a life that's free of struggle. Rodriquez speaks of his hard existance as a gang member and enduring an addiction to heroin and he adds that while all of that is behind him, he is still not free of burden. Instead of struggling to best a rival gang in a turf war, Rodgriquez and Boyle encourage gang bangers to take on more daunting challenges, like being a good parent or kicking drugs. The difference is making certain that our inevitable suffering is for the sake of something beautiful and substantial. The devisive Blue State/Red State, Christian nation, class warfare jabber quiets in my head. All of the labels we assign to ourselves, or that others apply, diminish and hobble us. Father Boyle beams when Rodriquez translates the ancient Mayan concept “In Lak'Ech.” “You are the other me. I am the other you.”


FionnchĂș said...

Tough topic. I was a work-study T.A. in my college's Chicano Studies Department. I compiled my campus' first "Latino Student Handbook." I taught in a summer bridge program at UCLA four years, for students theoretically from "disadvantaged" backgrounds based on "race," rather than truly low income--a problem with "check this race box" solutions?

I suspect curricula may be warped by teachers emphasizing discrimination, while they heighten unwittingly feelings of marginalization for "ethnic" students now. Cf. MOPE= "Most Oppressed People Ever" as acronym for aggrieved Irish.

We need skills geared at critical thinking and Freirean discussion. Many of my college students can neither write coherently nor articulate themselves, no matter what surname or melanin-content the author of their lesson bore. Many well-intended readings celebrate inspirational if decidedly minor characters, while skirting deeper difficulties of what asserting one community's role over the rest may mean within an American polity of competing interests and entrenched classes. More attention to income disparity and corporate consolidation may be more applicable now, as the Occupy movement tried reminding us. Students may weary of being preached at or harangued or praised depending on skin tone.

Limited coverage given the Arizona decision as to alleged misdeeds in classes leaves me lacking in a response as to its bias or lack of. I've read Rudy Acuna's history; it's slanted. It's meant to be: earnest "advocacy" from Xicano 1970s. (Since then, due to increasing immigration from the Caribbean, or Central and Latin America, students might not relate so much to his Mexican-dominant Raza narrative. Fewer folks label themselves Chicano now as the--formerly 90% Mexican-American--Latino polity expands and intermarries.)

Many of my "diverse" students lack a substantial preparation for any college course in the liberal arts, but they often have been assigned texts such as Maya Angelou's memoirs or Sandra Cisneros' stories in high schools hereabouts.

This h.s. curricula designed the past forty years to make students proud of their heritage and ethnic or racial background is laudatory in that it necessarily widens perspectives, but may not ethnocentric curricula (even if theoretically open to all students) by its nature as "ethnic studies" ghettoize a cohort who are judged unwilling or incapable of comprehending "conventional" history? Is it pandering to tell certain students they will have a Chicano Studies class instead of U.S History taken by everyone else? Do these ethnic courses teach students more? Are they wiser students when they complete them?

I support options, but as with ethnic studies courses at colleges, few may choose to take many of them (very few majors in these programs too). As a gen-ed option, I'd accept them to enrich electives, but not to the exclusion of broader courses in the subject. Whether this is balkanization or specialization I will leave to the educators and board members and activists--and surely parents and students--to debate if these classes best represent their community's needs. I note a lack of context in college and h.s. for broader concepts that may be worsened by specialty courses substituting for an already watery, pandering, textbook-flimsy core curriculum.

Canadian students I have taught have commented on how different their nation's approach is. No matter their origins or length of time residing as immigrants, they tell me that the lack of attention to ethnic or racial differences makes a student part of a system geared towards higher literacy, less score-settling, and advanced integration into our multicultural society, but with less fealty to special interests and ethnically centered lessons that wind up separating a contingent which contemplates only their own accomplishments.

xxx me end of harangue as I run out of space

Layne said...

I guess it's good that it's raining and I can respond to this instead of taking my walk. I don't think the decision to ban ethnic studies in Arizona came out of any burning desire to improve literacy and critical thinking. If you look at the whole climate of a state where someone like Joe Araipo has been elected sheriff for four terms it's pretty obvious that there is deep resentment of people of color. Why should elective courses in ethnic studies preclude a well-rounded education? If the Arizona schools are anything like the schools here, they are pretty much failing and singling out Chicano studies as a scapegoat is only going to exacerbate the problem of educating a student population that is already disenfranchised. The problem is far deeper than some kids reading some history text with a biased point of view. Perhaps some of these courses foment resentment but I also imagine they build pride and inspire engagement in social action. Even if the classes were helping to radicalize the students, is this potentially more harmful than witnessing scads of books being boxed up and swept away?

Hunten Pecker said...

How fun and enlightening to read both your blog and the comment conversations! Love this lively and thoughtful back and forth. Rather good thoughts, all. xxx Mimi

Hunten Pecker said...

How fun and enlightening to read both your blog, Layne, and the comment conversation between you and Monseiur Fionnchu! Rather good thoughts, all. xxx Mimi