Myths & Facts about Ethnic Studies

A PDF version of this essay is downloadable here.


What is Ethnic Studies?

What is Ethnic Studies?    Ethnic Studies “includes units of study, courses, or programs that are centered on the knowledge and perspectives of an ethnic or racial group, reflecting narratives and points of view rooted in that group’s lived experiences and intellectual scholarship.” Christine Sleeter (2011) Executivey Summary, The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies: A research review. National Education Association Research Department, Washington, D.C., vii. 

Why is there a need for Ethnic Studies?

Teaching about the United States and American society traditionally has left out the experiences of certain communities and emphasized the experiences of others, particularly those in positions of political power like Presidents. Yet most Americans have not been in positions of political power and may experience history very differently.  Without a more complete view of these different experiences, Americans may accept as natural or common sense certain ideas and views that are actually developed over time by those in positions of power.


What does Ethnic Studies actually do to address this? Ethnic Studies specifically explores how racial identities over time have been given certain meanings and values that have shaped interactions between ethnic groups and informed different communities’ access to education, safety, and economic mobility.  Ethnic Studies documents the histories of ethnic groups that were not included in the history textbooks, such as African Americans, American Indians, Asian Pacific Americans, Latinos/Latinas. Ethnic Studies  explores how different ethnic European groups historically formed a specific European American ethnic identity as well.


Is Ethnic Studies only for non-White students?

Absolutely not.  Ethnic Studies is for all students willing to learn and think critically, who want to understand the complexity of United States history and American society.  There is evidence that students of color may be more engaged learning about their communities’ histories that are not taught in other classes, and that their student success rate may increase as a result of learning about histories and experiences to which they can relate (Sleeter) However, European American students who take the courses have also excelled in Ethnic Studies classes and are Ethnic Studies majors.


Does Ethnic Studies promote anger toward Whites? Ethnic Studies scholarship includes the study of whiteness as a system that has provided many European Americans with certain advantages that they themselves as individuals may not perceive.  For example, learning primarily a history of European Americans in K-12 education provides diverse models of achievement and the complexity of cultural distinctions among European Americans with whom Euro-American students can relate.  When Ethnic Studies critiques systems that promote inequality, it critiques the cultural and historical advantages that Americans of European heritage have enjoyed—it does not attack individuals but questions how definitions of whiteness have developed and changed over time. However, it is true that students of any ethnic background may feel discomfort in classes where they are challenged to learn new things that may be very different than what they thought they knew. This process is called learning.


Does Ethnic Studies promoting an unrealistic rosy image of non-whites?

When Ethnic Studies first emerged, the focus was on recovering the histories and accomplishments of ethnic communities because of the need to provide positive models for youth.  However, Ethnic Studies as a field first and foremost promotes critical thinking and engagement based on historical facts. Thus, it does not embrace simplistic positive or negative stories about any group, but rather seeks to explore the complexity of power,  inequality, and conflict between ethnic groups (that may be based on racial identities for example) as well as within ethnic groups themselves (that may be based on gender or class differences for example).


How can focusing on conflict and inequality possibly be a good thing for the United States?

The purpose of Ethnic Studies is not to promote or focus on conflict. However, scholars throughout the world have demonstrated a relationship between conflict and inequality. By understanding more about how these conflicts and inequalities have developed over time, we seek to provide insights to avoid perpetuating inequalities and conflicts, and instead develop tools that promote a society that is more just for all people regardless of racial identity or other social identity factors.


Given the lack of informed discussion about what Ethnic Studies actually entails, we [group name] request that the Tucson Union School District:

  • Allow us [name]  to organize a forum for the TUSD Board that brings national experts in the field of education to explain Ethnic Studies and present research about the effectiveness of Ethnic Studies for student engagement and success.  This will ensure that the Board can make an educated decision about the future of MAS.
  • Allow an independent audit of the MAS program by nationally recognized Ethnic Studies scholars in higher education to provide a balanced evaluation of the curriculum. This will allow the Board to read expert evaluations about whether the program meets the standards for Ethnic Studies nationally.


Making Sense of the Issues:  HB 1282 and the TUSD Mexican American Studies Program


What is HB 1282?  HB 1282 is legislation passed by the Arizona State legislature in May 2010.  The law bans any K-12 public school classes or program that:  promotes the overthrow of the United States; promotes resentment toward a race or class of people;  are designed primarily for pupil for a particular ethnic group;  or advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”  It “finds and declares that public school pupils should be taught to treat and value each other as individuals and not be taught to resent or hate other races or classes of people.”


What does this have to do with Tucson Unified School District? Tucson Unified School District offers a high school program, Mexican American Studies (MAS) that teaches students about Mexican American history and culture. Superintendent John Huppenthal has stated that MAS violates HB 1282 and will withhold 10% of TUSD’s operating budget if it continues the program.


Does MAS violate HB 1282?  Strangely, an independent audit of MAS authorized by Superintendent Huppenthal when he took office in 2011 found that “no observable evidence was present to suggest that any classroom within Tucson Unified School District is in direct violation of the law.”  Given the independent assessment, Huppenthal’s decision is curious. 


The Facts


MAS is effective in educating students to excel

The independent auditors reported to Superintendent Huppenthal that “ [MAS student] achievement is due to the sense of pride that develops through their accomplishments with highly effective teachers.”


A study by Tucson Unified School District’s Director of Accountability and Research, David Scott, also noted the effectiveness of MAS : “.. there are positive measurable differences between MAS students and the corresponding comparative group of students.”

  • “Juniors taking a MAS course are more likely than their peers to pass the reading and writing AIMS subject test if they had previously failed those tests in their sophomore year.”
  • “I find that over the last six years, students who complete a Mexican American Studies class during their senior year are more likely to graduate than comparison group seniors,” Scott writes.  “The difference in completion rates ranges from 5-11 percent higher.”
  • On the AIMS reading and writing tests, data shows that MAS students passed a 5-16 percent higher score than non MAS students from 1995-2010, with only one year below 10% higher.

MAS is not discriminatory   MAS does not limit enrollment to Mexican American or Latino students; it is open to any student who wishes to enroll. 

MAS does not teach the overthrow of the US government An often cited example that critics of MAS provide is that an assigned text includes the statement: “Kill the gringos.”  This was a historical quote from  a Mexican man in the mid 19th century.  It was part of a history lesson:  as stated by numerous historians and based on archival evidence, the U.S. sought to expand its territory, which resulted in a war with Mexico from 1847-1848, and the eventual Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848 in which Mexico ceded a large amount of territory to the United States. 

6 Responses to Myths & Facts about Ethnic Studies

  1. Clara says:

    I am currently taking an Ethic Studies class that explores contempary Latino cultures, but is focused primarily on the aspect of politics. I am a Latina, but I feel like I can argue with anyone about the relationship between Latinos and the United States, moreso than after I took my U.S. History class in high school. The course has provided more detailed facts and experiences to add to the information I’ve stored from my U.S. History class. I think that Superintendent John Huppenthal is arrogant because what gives him the right to say whether or not an individuals should be aware of the injustices toward their respective ethnic groups? His decision to withhold 10% of TUSD’s operating budget if it continues its MAS program is exemplary of how people who think similarly to him have this desire to promote whiteness and to make people think in simple terms based on broad facts. He should just express what is really on his mind.

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