Federal Court Unmoved by Arizona School Officials’ Hurt White Feelings

DACA Documenting Hate: Tell Us Your Story "Care in Chaos"

Commentary Racist Nonsense

Federal Court Unmoved by Arizona School Officials’ Hurt White Feelings

Imani Gandy

U.S. District Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled Tuesday in Gonzales v. Douglas that the two men behind ARS 15-112, the law that prompted the cancellation of Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American Studies program, were motivated by racial animus when they enacted and enforced it.

Two men—John Huppenthal and Tom Horne—saw their dreams of a high school free of Mexican-American Studies (MAS) collapse this week, when a federal judge in Arizona ruled that cancelling the program in the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) violated the First and 14th Amendment rights of Mexican-American students there.

In a damning opinion, U.S. District Court Judge A. Wallace Tashima ruled Tuesday in Gonzales v. Douglas that the two men behind ARS 15-112, the law that prompted the MAS program cancellation, were motivated by racial animus when they enacted and enforced it.

“[T]he Court is convinced that decisions regarding the MAS program were motivated by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears,” wrote Tashima.

The court found that two of the men instrumental to the passage of ARS 15-112 were not concerned with the welfare of TUSD students or motivated by any legitimate pedagogical concerns. Apparently, Horne and Huppenthal—who sequentially served as the state superintendent of public instruction—instead became convinced that teachers in Tucson were using the MAS program as a covert plot to turn all the brown kids into socialists who hate America and want to overthrow the government and they were having none of it.

ARS 15-112 bans classes that, as the court quoted, “(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;’ (4) ‘Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.'” The law also has an enforcement mechanism that gives a school 60 days to correct itself—to stop trying to turn all the brown kids into violent anarcho-socialists—or else risk losing state funding.

Oddly, neither Horne and Huppenthal tried to enforce the law against other ethnic studies programs in TUSD, like its African-American, Asian-American, or Native American studies programs. Their sole bone to pick was with the Mexican-American studies program.

And I have a theory as to why: At an assembly one day back in 2006, Tom Horne got his white feelings hurt. In 2007, he turned it into a crusade that ended up with a federal judge smacking him down a decade later for enacting and enforcing a bullshit law.

It’s a tale of white fragility and fear, really.

Some background, noted in the court documents, is in order.

Back in 1974, a group of Latino and Black students filed a school desegregation class-action lawsuit against the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD). After the district court decided that the school district was as segregated as a railway car in 1896, the court entered a consent decree requiring TUSD to fix its shit.

In 1998, TUSD started the MAS program “to further the remedial objectives of the decree,” in order to “engage Mexican American students by helping them see themselves, their family, or their community in their studies,” and to close the achievement gap between Mexican-American students and white students in Tucson, according to court documents.

And wouldn’t you know, studies showed the MAS program did exactly that. The program was a rousing success: Graduation rates, state standardized test passage rates, discipline rates, and attendance rates all improved.

But the program drew negative attention in 2006: Nine months after Kanye West famously declared that George Bush doesn’t care about Black people, Dolores Huerta, a Latina labor leader and civil rights activist, gave a speech at Tucson High School in which she said that “Republicans hate Latinos.”

Then-Superintendent Tom Horne, who was in attendance, was horrified. He called Huerta’s statement “hate speech” and asked then-Deputy Superintendent Margaret Garcia Dugan to give an ensuing rebuttal speech. At that speech, Dugan announced that she was proud to be a Latina and proud to be a Republican. A group of students attending her speech protested by putting tape on their mouths, turning their backs, raising their fists, and walking out of the auditorium.

Horne was, of course, beside himself. He thought the protest was rude and said that the rudeness must have been taught by teachers in the MAS program. He had no evidence of this, only that he’d never seen that sort of behavior before and that he had heard from other teachers that MAS teachers were teaching students to “get in people’s faces.” Later that day, Horne saw a librarian wearing a t-shirt that said M.E.Ch.A., which stood for “Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán.” It’s a student community organizing club that now goes by “Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán” and has chapters in high schools and colleges all across the United States. Horne, of course, didn’t bother to ask the librarian what the shirt meant, but after doing some internet sleuthing, Horne decided M.E.Ch.A. was “extremely anti-American.”

This horrifying ordeal sent then-Superintendent Horne into a downward spiral.

In 2007, he wrote an “Open Letter to the Citizens of Tucson,” in which he aired out his grievances about the MAS program. He talked about the student protest at Dugan’s speech, and the librarian wearing the scary M.E.Ch.A. shirt, and warned that the MAS program was creating a hostile atmosphere at Tucson High.

He never attended an MAS class to see for himself what the students were learning and refused to do so because he was convinced that those wily MAS teachers would put on a show for him. Presumably, as soon as he walked in the door, all of the students would be learning the history of mariachi bands—something benign and safe—but upon his exit, it would be back to chants of “Kill Whitey!” and such.

Well, no one was gonna kill whitey. Not on Horne’s watch.

Horne drafted a bill that would justify cutting the MAS program, and got the state’s Republican-led house to pass it. Then-state Sen. John Huppenthal proceeded to help push it through the senate, after amending it to delay the effective start date until January 1, 2011 and to put enforcement power in the hands of the superintendent.

After the bill became law, Horne immediately set about disbanding the Mexican-American Studies program in TUSD. On December 30, 2010, before the law was even in effect, he found that the MAS program violated ARS 15-112. His evidence was specious at best: secondhand statements from teachers, his run-in with the librarian wearing the M.E.Ch.A. shirt, and the student protest which he oddly assumed was organized by radical MAS teachers teaching Mexican-Americans kids to be rude, although he had no basis for that conclusion. All this evidence, as the court pointed out, was also from before ARS 15-122 was ever a twinkle in his own eye. But it didn’t matter. Horne had been working for five years to end the MAS program and by Grabthar’s Hammer, he was going to end it.

All this effort because Horne evidently didn’t like that a group of students exercised their First Amendment right to protest an assembly speaker with whom they disagreed.

It’s also relevant that shortly following the law’s enactment, Huppenthal and Horne went through the process of running election campaigns—Horne for state attorney general and Huppenthal for Horne’s superintendent seat. Each won, aided in part by the anti-Mexican American sentiment they helped stir up.

The court had no difficulty concluding that MAS ban was “motivated by anti-Mexican-American attitudes” and thus violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection rights, especially considering the racist blog comments that John Huppenthal was caught leaving on a political blog. In one comment he likened the MAS to the KKK. In another, he said the techniques used in the MAS program were the “exact same” technique Hitler used in his rise to power. (Yes, he actually said that.)

“The Court is convinced that ARS 15-112 was enacted and enforced with discriminatory purpose,” Tashima wrote.

“Huppenthal’s anonymous blog comments are the most important evidence, as they plainly show that he harbored animus,” Tashima continued.

Well sure—only if you think writing “No Spanish radio stations, no Spanish billboards, no Spanish TV stations, no Spanish newspapers. This is America, speak English” in a blog comment is racial animus.

(It is.)

In addition to the 14th Amendment violation, the Court also said that the MAS ban violated the students’ First Amendment right to receive information and ideas.

And when it came to Horne and Huppenthal, the Court did not mince words.

“Defendants were pursuing these discriminatory ends in order to make political gains. Horne and Huppenthal repeatedly pointed to their efforts against the [Mexican-American Studies] program in their respective 2011 political campaigns, including in speeches and radio advertisements. The issue was a political boon to the candidates,” the judge wrote.

Ouch.

It’s fitting that this court order was issued on the same day that Donald Trump decided to hold a three year-early campaign rally in Phoenix. In his much-maligned speech, Trump hinted that he would pardon Joe Arpaio, the notoriously racist sheriff who is languishing in jail, convicted of contempt of court because he refused a court order to quit racially profiling brown people to find more people he could either deport or toss into his Tent City jail.

Arpaio is a perfect candidate for a pardon by a man who in his continued effort to court the votes of white supremacists and neo-Nazis claimed in his wildly unhinged speech in Phoenix that “the media” is trying to “take away our history and our heritage,” referring presumably to the wave of Confederate monument removals.

Talk about pursuing discriminatory ends in order to make political gains. Trump would feel right at home with Tom Horne and John Huppenthal.