Why Did Arizona Pass An Ethnic Studies Bill?

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Joshua Lott / Reuters

Demonstrators hold candles during a vigil outside Arizona's State Capitol to protest against the state's controversial immigration law.

In Arizona’s latest controversy, Gov. Jan Brewer signed a new bill on Wednesday that restricts what can be taught in ethnic studies classes in public schools there. But why?

The new law, which was pursued by state schools Superintendent Tom Horne for several years carries provisions that prohibit classes that promote the overthrow of the United States government; promote resentment toward a race or class of people; are designed primarily for a particular ethnic group; or advocate ethnic solidarity as opposed to individualism.

But the timing of the signage is almost uncanny because Arizona, which is 30% Latino, has already drawn criticism over the immigration law, resulting in convention boycotts andlosing business with Los Angeles, and a condemnation from the United Nations.

Horne, who is also a Republican running for state attorney general, targeted the Mexican-American Studies program in the Tuscon Unified School District, accusing it of “ethnic chauvinism” and promoting resentment toward whites.

He’s not alone in his sentiment, either. “Some of the materials are a bit outlandish,” Jaime Molera, a member of the state school board told TIME. “They say that Latinos in this country are an oppressed minority and give a history that his very painted and very biased. Kids should be given the facts, but not a slanted history.”

Others aren’t buying it, though, insisting that the classes teach no such thing and that this is just the latest in a string of anti-Latino political ploys coming from the state’s conservative politicians.

“There are people in our state government who are afraid of the demographic shifts going on,” says Julio Cammorota, an associate professor of Mexican-American studies at the University of Arizona. “It’s an agenda to prevent Latino people from being empowered and being a part of the history and culture of Arizona.”

The heat in the southwestern state is only likely to get hotter because Horne is now pushing school districts to reassign teachers who are “not proficient.” On his Twitter page, Horne insists simply: “Teachers who are teaching English to our students should know how to speak English.”

Meanwhile, Brewer is not taking any of the backlash lying down. Calling in business leaders from the tourism industry, she is attempting to do damage control with Arizona’s marred image, preparing what the Associated Press reported as a “marketing strategy” to deal with immigration law critics, particularly those who say it encourages racial profiling.

“”The bottom line is there are a lot of mistruths about the bill,” she said, acknowledging that boycotts would damage the state and and its economy. “You’re not going to walk down the street and get questioned unless you’ve committed a crime.”

The state will come up with $250,000 to start the campaign up, and will begin by encouraging Arizona residents to vacation in their own state.

“The concern is about the 200,000 families that are trying to make a living,” she said.

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