Defining Ourselves: In Times of Increased White Supremacist Violence Trump’s Former Education Advisor Attacks Ethnic Studies in California
By Irene Sanchez
The fight for Ethnic Studies continues in California and its’ latest attack has come in the form of a poorly written Op-Ed with only one citation from a man who formerly served as the head of the “agency action team” for the U.S. Department of Education during Trump’s transition to office should come as no surprise.
This new attack also has come following an intense period of anti-Mexican/Latino violence in the Southwest on the heels of a shooting in Gilroy where a white man who made racial comments including one on “hordes of mestizos” killed 3 people including 6-year old Stephen Romero who was laid to rest yesterday. Only a week after Gilroy, a white supremacist inspired by Trump walked into an El Paso Wal-Mart and committed a massacre, later commenting to authorities that he was “targeting Mexicans”.
As I wrote last week on my blog, Xicana Ph.D. and expanded on in a CNN op-ed, in these times we need more understanding of marginalized histories and not less. It is only then that we can “call it what it is” only if we know what it is. We can only do that if we can name it. Ethnic Studies has provided the space for reclaiming these histories that have been covered up by a white supremacist dominant narrative.
In my sophomore high school English class, I read a quote that has stuck with me and served as an example of power relations that come with attempting to name ourselves. Since that class and with the support of many people including that 10th grade English teacher, I continued on with formal schooling despite many challenges. I barely graduated high school and after attending a community college I was placed on academic probation/dismissal my first year. I returned to school because of my community, my love for writing, and Ethnic Studies. I, like many other young Chicanas and other marginalized poor/working class people in the U.S.have also struggled with naming whether it be ourselves or issues we experience, because we are told we don’t have the authority to do so. On a national scale in the media as this past week has shown as Lulu Garcia-Navarro wrote in the Atlantic how the media erased Latinos from the story, it is obvious to some of us that we also find ourselves struggling for our voices to be heard even if we are named. No voice means no power, but maybe that is the point, they like us more quiet. We have struggled not just for naming ourselves, but claiming our history and speaking on it which also means speaking against power.
“Definitions are made by the definers”.
In the U.S., robber barons or as they renamed themselves “Captains of Industry” remain the same names of many philanthropic organizations today. In the past they funded “scholars” to only promote a certain narrative that made those who owned slaves, stole land, exploited labor, and murdered look like heroes. Today one would hope the efforts of those organizations have changed. One key historian can be found in Texas history according to Rodolfo Acuna author of Occupied America. Walter Prescott Webb was a professor of history at the University of Texas Austin and past president of the American Historical Association. Webb often portrayed the Texas Rangers as bringing “civilization” to the “frontier”, also known as Mexico or what is now the Southwest. Of course Webb was not without critique, Américo Paredes a well known Mexican-American/Chicano scholar and author of With His Pistol in His Hand, pointed out not just the bias in Webb’s work, but blatant racism for Webb citing the Rangers and whites in general as a “righteous and superior breed”.
I know for myself that learning history is essential to understanding the world we live in. I called my parents my first teachers. To me they were the experts on Chicanos in East LA. Why? Because they were born and raised there. When my parents would share their experiences growing up in a post 1968 walkout East LA I was in their classroom, our home, and I listened. I later became a student in the first Chicano Studies class at Rubidoux High School in the mid-90s post Proposition 187, but I always remembered what I first learned at home, how I got up to walk out in middle school to protest Prop 187, how I felt to hear the words Chicano watching the PBS documentary Chicano! History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement around that same time. .
To refresh our collective memory, Proposition 187 was a racist law that was approved by California voters and later ruled to be unconstitutional in California that would’ve denied undocumented peoples from recieving public benefits. It was pushed heavily by then Governor Pete Wilson who used to run campaign ads like this one similar in racist rhetoric to what Trump has used during his campaign and rhetoric even more similar to recent events with his move to target people receiving public aid from becoming citizens.
It should then further come as no surprise that former head of the “agency action team” for the U.S. Department of Education during Trump’s transition to office, Williamson M. Evers (also known as Bill Evers) author of the anti-Ethnic Studies piece with one citation in the Wall Street journal is affiliated with the conservative think tank the Hoover Institute . Evers was also appointed by former CA governor and active promoter of the racist Prop 187 bill, Pete Wilson to serve on the California State Commission for the Establishment of Academic Content and Performance Standards where he also led efforts to develop curriculum and standards in California.
Even though I learned early on in my schooling that “Definitions are made by the Definers” I’ve also learned things aren’t always true because someone says it. According to the Hoover Institute, “Bill Evers is one of the most knowledgeable experts on K – 12 education in the United States”. He was also appointed by former President George W. Bush to be U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education from 2007-2009. More recently during his time with the Trump transition team, Evers was fixated on breaking down guidelines initiated during the Obama administration on campus sexual assault. This was shocking to learn that not only is Evers an expert on K-12 education, but also sexual assault? He proposed that victims of sexual assault should be cross examined and that not doing so was a violation of due process . Evers further praised Trump and DeVos stating “Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have taken a needed step to defend those rights”.
Whose rights though? Perhaps a coincidence that Trump’s presidency and attack on this policy came following a few well known campus sexual assault cases including that of Brock Turner, a former Stanford student who was tried and convicted and served very little time in Santa Clara County in 2016.
Evers previously has served as a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Education from 2004-2007. The Hoover Institute where Evers continues to be affiliated is housed at Stanford University. The Institute is named for Herbert Hoover, a former U.S. President that served from 1929-1933. (He is not to be confused with J. Edgar Hoover, the first FBI director who served from 1924-1972 although they are both responsible for hideous incidents/events in U.S. history). Herbert Hoover was the President that was compared to Donald Trump in 2017 by Alex Wagner in The Atlantic due to his brutal policies targeting Mexicans. Herbert Hoover was the President who led the charge for mass unconstitutional deportations of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans between the years starting in 1929. These deportations continued into the 1930s. Scholars like Francisco Balderrama and Raymound Rodriguez wrote in their book Decade of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation in the 1930’s that Hoover was the mastermind of the deportations and looking for a scapegoat. It was then that Mexicans were cast off as enemies of the nation by Secretary of Labor William N. Doak leading to the Border Patrol became a more visible brutal force under Hoover’s administration.
As I have outlined (with MANY sources) there are direct lines from the past to the present. I wouldn’t have been able to realize them (with this much detail) without my own experiences with Education and Ethnic Studies. The battle for our history is bigger than any one person’s opinion, but as long as some continue to give those opinions validity we must continue to speak up for what we know is needed as students, parents, and teachers in public schools.
We must fight for our history, for it is a fight for ourselves, our children, and our humanity. There will be brutal forces who will continue to attack our classes just as they did in Arizona with HB 2281 and ban our books, The agents of the State and White Supremacy will continue to attack and fire award winning teachers like Sean Arce, the former director of Mexican American Studies in the Tucson Unified School District. And even when classes like MAS are banned and those bans were found to be motivated by racial animus in courts, people will try to call it something other than what it is. We must continue to speak truth to power in order to redefine history.
Just as Trump calls to “Make America Great Again” as he did to get elected and now efforts to be re-elected, Herbert Hoover once called for “American Jobs for real Americans, and that fact can’t be forgotten.
Recently on Larry Mantle’s AirTalk show on 89.33 KPCC, Evers was invited to speak on Ethnic Studies and his opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal where he stated “There is a danger that this will be indoctorination” He also cited the LA Time editorial board op-ed (which is still a mystery as to who is on it). He further explained to Larry Mantle (without sources), “All I’m saying is why are they indoctrinated in one point of view, when there are multiple points of views that are scholarly and serious”. –Bill Evers of the Hoover Institute on Larry Mantle’s AirTalk August 12, 2019
I’m sure if we all agreed that there were multiple views that are scholarly and serious Evers definetly had many chances in his former positions in California and Nationally to re-define that history. I am also sure if the media believed our voices mattered, they would be giving us air time to talk about issues impacting our communities in these times.
It is in this spirit of knowing how definitions are made by these definers, that I say we must push back on one-sided and inaccurate conclusions on Ethnic Studies especially if the people who push them want to claim to know what it is. Since the East LA walkouts in March 1968 when high school students in East LA demanded classes reflect their culture and background, we have been in this struggle. These types of classes should not be seen as separate from U.S. History. Our history is U.S. history. Our families have long known this. Our communities have long known this. It is certain that definers who have controlled the master narrative have written us out of history on purpose. It is long overdue they realize they are not the experts on everything, especially not what our communities need especially now in light of these white supremacist attacks our communities that history has seen far too often.
We must stop giving them power to define us now.
Art by Rah Azul