The current assault on Ethnic Studies has been justified by its critics who point to much needed cutbacks in higher education. It sounds reasonable to the average U.S. citizen in light of today’s economic situation. After all, don’t Americans feel that a rationale for doing away with something so “undesirable” must be fair and just? To grapple with such a notion from a historical perspective, arguments to ban on Ethnic Studies can be put in their proper context. Historian Mae M. Ngai interrogates a period where modern twentieth century American identity became rigidly and narrowly defined by a racial prism dominated by whiteness. Her analysis helps us to understand the vitriolic racial politics particularly over immigration. Are notions of restriction and control of the national sovereignty more pervasive today than in the early 1920s? How do the galvanized politics by local school and state officials to successfully outlaw a Mexican American Studies (MAS) program in Arizona reflect the historical nationalist ideology debates over immigration persuasively argued by Ngai?
Today’s conservative political landscape in Arizona provides a twenty-first century lens in which to critique similar notions raised by Ngai where the exclusion of the undesirable or inassimilable from American society persists. Ethnic Studies exemplifies this idea through its analytical use of race as part of its subject matter. The discipline embodies what white elitist reformers abhorred as they discriminately implemented early immigration laws that favored western European nationalists. For instance, Ngai noted arguments over immigration policies which suggested that non-western migrants resist rather than embrace American values and are then deemed incapable of assimilating. Cultural pluralist notions of American Identity that have been fostered through Ethnic Studies were rejected by early twentieth century nativist thinking. Arizona’s elite are advancing immigration and nativist policies quite similar to many of earlier reformists mentioned in Ngai’s work.
One of the main criticisms by state officials of the Tucson Unified School Districts MAS program was that it was teaching subject matter to and for a particular ethnic group rather than to students as individuals. This notion can be traced to modern immigration debate stemming from the idealistic notions of equality as imagined through the concept of American democracy. Maintaining that notion became more of a dilemma as the twentieth century progressed particularly in regards to periodic influxes of people from different parts of the world into the United States. Policies and laws were implemented such as the 1924 Johnson Reed act which selectively and numerical established quotas which fostered the migration of western European countries over the undesirable eastern nations in the aftermath of WWI.
Justifying the machinations of this immigration policy was implicit in preserving a Nationalist identity where American citizenship is reserved for white people. Arizona’s passing of laws in recent years to deal with “illegal” immigration, voter fraud, and banning ethnic studies is in keeping with similar ideological language which drove immigration reform of the 1920s. Elitist reformers in those days like today’s Arizona state officials feared a non western foreign element that needed to be barred entering into the country let alone becoming a citizen. Therefore the arguments favoring the national origins quota system was to keep out the subversive, undesirable, inassimilable migrants. Similarly, the MAS program according to some of its critics teaches from a subversive point of view that portends to somehow “overthrow” the United States.
Ngai points out how 20th century mass immigration to the U.S. followed significant world changing events particularly World Wars I and II. She also asserts that a more concerted effort to control and restrict migratory movement toward the U.S. became increasingly more pronounced in the National immigration policy. Asians, Filipinos, and Mexicans have a shared common ethnic American experience where restrictive laws impacted and determined their immigrant status. Their immigration experience can be viewed as counter narratives to European ethnic migration stories. In fact, this notion characterizes how Arizona as a border state with its laws has come to signify that long term shift from a country that once celebrated notion of Immigrant nation to a National Security State.
The national origin quota policies were historically designed to allow only a very select type of immigrant. For instance a communist Chinese immigrant would be considered very undesirable. Ngai points out how limited Third World entrance was very much outside the mainstream policy debates early on. The open hostility toward Filipino’s in California in the early 20th century can be compared to Arizona’s ill-treatment of undocumented immigrant population as well as its stringent anti- illegal alien Laws. The legacy of those early reformist policies that constructed illegal alienism is being played out in its most extreme form through the controlled and restrictive nature of today’s Arizonian Mexican borderland.
In the early 1950s as the debate shifted, immigration from Mexico to the U.S began to be reframed using its inherent reformist argument against the unwanted Mexican immigrant. Political speech advanced the notions that “undesirables” such as communists can freely enter from Mexico while “acceptable” European immigrants are limited. Such arguments gave the impression of unfairness and began to frame the “illegality” of Mexican migration which was later solidified by the passing of the Hart Celler Act of 1965. The Mexican border would be increasingly imagined as unsecure and threatening to American democracy.
In sum, even though the nationalist origin quota system had racially exclusive underpinnings it was after all the Law. Fairness, the law, equality is and always has been very reasonable within the purview of American Democracy. These conservative principles constitutionally speaking are essentially the core values advancing the notion that the essence of Ethnic Studies is unfair and un-American. It favors and teaches to a specific ethnic group and is subversive where as past immigration law was constructed to legally and fairly regulate and bar these undesirable un-American foreign elements. Such was the fear of Arizona’s former Superintendent of Instruction Tom Horne. His rationale and logic is derived from those nationalist and nativist arguments in the modern Progressive Immigration reform explored in Ngai’s historical text. In 2010 an Arizona state law was passed making teaching the subject in public schools unlawful just 20 days after a “controversial” anti-immigration bill was signed. It’s now the law therefore it is “fair” and “democratic” progressively speaking that is.
– by David Casillas