A Nation of Poorly Educated Students?

In a post on peopleofcolororganize.com, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz deconstructs the myth of the United States as a “nation of immigrants.” For Dunbar-Ortiz, that myth sanitizes the fact that the United States as we know them began as a colonial enterprise. The first European men and women to settle this land were not “immigrants,” as there was no already-established nation to emigrate to, save for the nations of Native Americans already present. Those arrivals should, instead, be remembered as settlers that dehumanized and displaced millions of indigenous Americans while taking their land through a strategically administered combination of force and diplomacy. The “nation of immigrants” theory also erases the histories of African slaves and economically exploited European peasants. These two groups arrived in millions during the 18th and 19th centuries and formed a crucial part of the labor force as the US grew into an industrialized world power. The “nation of immigrants” theory creates the illusion everyone in the U.S. chose to be here. It also minimizes the crucial role that US foreign policy, especially Manifest Destiny, has played in the politics of immigration.

In her article, Dunbar-Ortiz poses questions that anyone concerned with the true meaning of immigration must consider, answering them as she goes:

“Are “immigrants” the appropriate designation for the indigenous peoples of North America? No.

Are “immigrants” the appropriate designation for enslaved Africans? No.

Are “immigrants” the appropriate designation for the original European settlers? No.

Are “immigrants” the appropriate designation for Mexicans who migrate for work to the United States? No. They are migrant workers crossing a border created by US military force. Many crossing that border now are also from Central America, from the small countries that were ravaged by US military intervention in the 1980s and who also have the right to make demands on the United States.

So, let’s stop saying “this is a nation of immigrants.”

Unfortunately, few writers and politicians are prepared to heed Dunbar-Ortiz’s call. Presidents from Obama to Kennedy have emphasized that we are “a nation of immigrants.” For some thinkers that idea has served as a call to multiculturalism and liberalization of immigration policy, replacing the assimilatory “melting pot” theory that dominated the early 20th century. For others, the idea that we are a “nation of immigrants” serves as a reminder that those who were born with the “gift” of US citizenship had predecessors who got into this country “the right way”. In this way it implies that undocumented immigrants should “wait in line” to be sifted through the legal immigration process. Nonetheless, many of these migrants do not have the time to wait. Visa proceedings can take years to complete and even those who meet every requirement are often turned away after years of waiting.  The “nation of immigrants” is not as welcoming as its name might imply. How could such a contested notion be taken at face value?

In Uprooted our goal is to address this question and others like it.  How do we decide who gets accepted into “American” society and who doesn’t? What does it even mean to be “American”?  Most importantly, how do we create and change the national dialogue and rhetoric surrounding immigration and migration issues? Who is shaping our national consciousness about these issues and how?  The themes explored in Uprooted will ask these and other questions by examining how social systems such as the media and the education system mold our national discourse.

Most children in United States classrooms learn very early on about the brilliance of the Founding Fathers and the nobility of their fight against the British monarchy. Soon after, they learn about the how the “melting pot” helped form the social foundations of “the greatest country in the world.” They rarely learn about what ingredients were outlawed from the “melting pot” in the first place. There was the Naturalization Act of 1790, which made citizenship available only to “free white persons” and governed US immigration policy for decades. In the Mexican-American War a group of Anglo settlers sparked an internal revolution that wrested Texas from the hands of the Mexican government and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was distorted at the last moment by Congress to make it harder for Mexicans to reclaim their land.  The Plessy v. Ferguson and Dredd Scott decisions relegated blacks to second-class citizens and paved the way for Jim Crow laws. Not to mention the Page Laws, Chinese Exclusion Act, Gentlemen’s Agreement and other laws curtailed the flow of Asian migrants into the US. Unfortunately, very few elementary school children can claim to know the significance of any of these events, or even that they occurred.

Why, then, did the Arizona legislature pass HB 2281, a.k.a. ARS 15-112, which effectively bans ethnic studies in its school districts? Many ethnic studies courses seek to provide alternative perspectives on American history by detailing the contributions minority populations have made to United States culture and examining the history of those groups within the country. ARS 15-112 does not mention “ethnic studies” by name but criminalizes academic programs that “(1) promote the overthrow of the United States government, (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people, (3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group or (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” This statute, under the pretense of “American” nationalism, makes several very slippery assumptions. It uses racially-coded language to deter any substantive critique of US history by suggesting that critical studies of history promote resentment towards certain people (white people) and are designed solely for the benefit of “particular ethnic group[s]” (nonwhite people). It dehumanizes black and brown children by suggesting that their history is not important enough to be taught in the same classes as “regular” US history. It assumes that ethnic solidarity is somehow contrary to “American” individualism and places us in the very real danger of re-enacting history. Most of all, it capitalizes on Barack Obama’s election to push a vision of a post-racial US, despite the ongoing problems the we have with racial inequality. It is an extraordinary way to whitewash history and call attention away from the ways citizenship has been systematically denied to nonwhites in the midst of a racially charged immigration debate. Tucson Unified School District’s K-12 ethnic studies program, which was the primary target of HB 2281, is currently the only one in the country. Once again, the debate returns to what is fundamentally “American” and what is not.

Arizona is not the only state in which ethnic studies have come under attack, nor is this the first time such attacks have occurred. 40 years ago, students and professors had to fight extremely hard for ethnic studies to even be instituted in the first place. Today many university students are determined to continue that struggle. Despite the fire their program has come under, Tucson ethnic studies teachers remain committed to their curriculum.

Check out this video to see more:


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