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Flawed Proposals for Teaching Latino and African American Social Studies In Public Schools Are Better Than Nothing

By David Medina

Based on widespread nobody-would-be-caught-dead-opposing-it support, progressive Connecticut is about to join a growing number of states that mandate the teaching of African American and Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, primarily history, in every public school.

​Two identical proposals, one for each race, are currently working their way to a final vote by the General Assembly. Consider them a tiny step in the right direction. The legislature at least recognizes the black, Puerto Rican and Latino role in U.S. history as a legitimate field of learning, if only to appease the increasing presence of African American and Latino lawmakers in the Capitol.

​But don’t expect a curriculum to be designed from the perspective of African Americans, Puerto Ricans or Latinos. The well-meaning drafters of both measures loaded them with provisions that virtually exclude that perspective. First of all, the bills don’t say how districts are supposed to teach these topics. They only say that they have to be taught. The measures also give districts the leeway to weave African American and Puerto Rican/Latino studies into any other subject, from calculus to auto mechanics. A school district can conceivably fulfill the mandate by simply doing what it has been doing all along. Finally, both bills call on the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) to develop a framework from which each district (the predominantly white ones too) can design their African American and Puerto Rican/Latino curriculums, using existing materials and existing state-certified personnel.

​“Districts will likely use social studies educators already employed by the respective districts,” said CSDE spokesman Peter Yazbak.

​Districts can hire qualified, non-certified experts as guest speakers and lecturers on the subject matter at their own expense or through private donations and provided that the experts are overseen by a certified teacher.

​“Similar to the work we did as an agency last year to add (per law) Holocaust and genocide studies to the public school curriculum,” Yazbak said, “CSDE’s Academic Office would engage and work with a large group of stakeholders to produce curricular guidelines and resources to support districts in their efforts to develop instructional programs related to African American and Latino studies.”

​Needless to say, the bills have the overwhelming support of the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) and other teacher unions, who must make sure that every education measure protects the jobs of their state-certified members. And since nearly 92 percent of Connecticut’s certified teachers are white, the additional terms effectively guarantee that African American and Puerto Rican/Latino studies will not be taught by very many African Americans or Puerto Ricans or Latinos, certified or not.

​“I don’t see a problem with that,” says Orlando Rodriguez, the Research and Policy Development Specialist for the CEA. “We have teachers that teach the history of people all over the world. Do you have to be Jewish to teach about the Holocaust? No. Do you have to be Egyptian to teach about ancient Egypt? No. As long as you have good materials to draw from, you’re fine.”

​Rodriguez warned that, despite the overwhelming support, the bills could be deemed a lower priority than other measures before the legislature and be dropped at the last minute.

​So, if they are approved at all, count on African American and Puerto Rican/Latino studies to be taught, as if the struggles of these particular racial minorities are no different than those endured by the millions of white European immigrants, who willingly came to the United States to escape political and economic oppression elsewhere. In the case of African Americans and Latinos, however, the oppression is ongoing and originates with the United States. Any course on their history should at least address how that history shapes present day reality.

​Expect that African American Studies will explore slavery, the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, The Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Rosa Parks, Civil Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Obama, all in sanitized way that reaffirms the perception that the United States has made vast progress toward achieving racial equality, which conflicts sharply with the reality that most African American students live through and see on television news every day. A curriculum designed from their perspective should also include the ongoing efforts to prevent African Americans from voting, the mass incarceration of black males over whites for identical crimes, routine police shootings of unarmed blacks or the racial quotas that limit the number of non-whites that can attend Connecticut’s publicly funded magnet schools.

​The Puerto Rican and Latino Studies curriculum will require even greater amounts of historical revisionism to prop up the rose-tinted image of the United States as a heavenly refuge. The recurring narrative in existing American history books has it that Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, “acquired” from Spain in 1898, as part of the treaty to end the Spanish-American War; that Congress “granted” U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans in 1917 — without their consent or the right to vote — that Puerto Ricans have served valiantly in the U.S. military and that massive numbers of Puerto Ricans migrated to the United States from the late 1940s to the early 1960s to seek a better life. There are not many more simplistically benign things to say about Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States.

​If it were to be designed from a Puerto Rican perspective, the instructional plan would have to include a huge inventory of ruthless exploitation and violence, starting with the fact that the so-called territory is a colony by virtue of the fact that the U.S. extracts nearly four dollars for every dollar that it invests on the island and that it actually “acquired” Puerto Rico by way of a military invasion, whose victims are memorialized to this day. The curriculum would also have to include two outright massacres of unarmed “citizens” in the 1930s; a ten-year U.S. effort to sterilize all Puerto Rican women of child-bearing age as a way of depopulating the island; the widespread use of Puerto Ricans as guinea pigs in grisly scientific experiments; the Jones Act requirement that all goods shipped to Puerto Rico be carried exclusively on U.S. ships thereby increasing the cost of those goods by more than 50 percent; a 10-year gag law that made it a crime for Puerto Ricans to display their flag and sing patriotic songs; the fateful day in 1954 when a group of Puerto Rican nationalists went to Washington and shot up the U.S. Congress; the 1983 Wells Fargo armored car robbery in West Hartford, Connecticut, when another group of Puerto Rican nationalists stole $7 million; and, more recently, the deaths of about 4,000 Puerto Ricans in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, due to neglectful U.S. rescue efforts.

​As with Puerto Rico, any serious teaching of U.S. history from a Latin American viewpoint should explain that many Latin Americans came here, fleeing a long list of murderous right-wing military dictatorships that rose to power with U.S. backing, to facilitate the draining of their own country’s economy by U.S. corporations. These include: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. The course should also note the forced annexation of what was once part of Mexico to the southwestern and western parts of the United States.

​If the teaching of African American, Puerto Rican and Latino studies is to be a real benefit to Connecticut’s public school students, it must accurately portray their past and its connection to the moment-to-moment realities they face when they’re not in school. Anything less is a deception that will breed resentment and guarantee failure.

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