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Tom Horne, Death Threats and the US Constitution

Arizona school’s then-superintendent, Tom Horne, unleashed what would become a six-year campaign to dismantle Tucson’s highly successful Mexican-American studies (MAS) department.

In the year 2006, labor leader, Dolores Huerta, told Tucson high school students that Republicans hate Latinos. While it caused a controversy, Arizona school’s then-superintendent, Tom Horne, unleashed what would become a six-year campaign to dismantle Tucson’s highly successful Mexican-American studies (MAS) department. In 2010, the anti-ethnic studies bill HB 2281 was signed by Gov. Jan Brewer. In 2012, under threat of the loss of 10 percent of the district’s annual budget, Tucson Unified School District dismantled the MAS department. Despite this, the battle is not over as there are a number of legal issues and court cases still to be litigated. In the meantime, much hate has been unleashed, including death threats.

The recent Arizona Republic column (“Race-based studies can’t be justified: Students must be seen as individuals, not as groups,” June 10) by Arizona state Attorney General (AG) Tom Horne – previously the state’s superintendent of public instruction – is nothing short of a masterpiece in the art of obfuscation – by commission and omission.

This is especially troublesome because AG Horne was responding to my column (“Demonizing Mexican-American studies is unjust,” Opinions, May 28), which concerns a series of death threats and calls to violence that I, along with students, have received as a result of defending Tucson Unified School District’s (TUSD) Mexican-American studies department.

After receiving the threats against me at my university office phone in May of 2011, I transferred them to my recorder, which I subsequently played at one of the TUSD school board meetings. The threats were so vile that within seconds, the board wanted me to turn off the recorder. I refused because I wanted them to listen to what our community is being subjected to. That resulted in the board cutting off the electricity to the microphone.

To read more articles by Roberto Cintli Rodriguez, click here.

In a sense, that’s what Mr. Horne has once again done with his recent column. Rather than denouncing the person issuing death threats against the students and myself, he exhibits indignation at me by changing the topic and calling for me to receive the “Hypocrisy of the Year Award.”

While I would not expect the AG to accept responsibility for the massive amounts of hate that have been unleashed in this state as a result of his role in the attempted destruction of Mexican-American studies, I do expect him, as the state’s top lawman, to unequivocally denounce and fully support the prosecution of those issuing such death threats. Failure to do so appears to absolutely send the wrong message.

He appears to be completely oblivious to the extraordinary amount of hate that has been unleashed in the state subsequent to SB 1070 and other dehumanizing state measures. He cannot but be aware of the many zealots and mentally unstable gun owners in this state who are prone to violence after the Giffords shootings last year.

Additionally, if the AG is given a public forum to attempt to educate the public about Mexican-American studies, then he should have a better command of the topic at hand before exhibiting his limited knowledge, or before writing about incidents or events he did not attend.

Exhibit A: He wrote: “MAS used to be called ‘Raza’ studies (‘la raza’ means ‘the race’ in Spanish).”

Here, Mr. Horne makes a common mistake by those who are unfamiliar with the language or culture, arriving at a literal and incorrect translation. He assumes Raza or La Raza means “The Race.” The concept is actually short for a larger concept known as “La Raza Cosmica” or “The Cosmic Race.” It is traced to Mexican educator, Jose Vasconcelos, who wrote a book of the same title in 1925. The concept is the exact opposite of what Mr. Horne alludes to; it speaks of Mexicans not as a pure race, but rather, as a mixture of all the races of the world. While it is the antithesis of purity, the original idea was not necessarily positive as it actually was predicated on indigenous erasure. However, as it evolved in popular usage, it generally embraced indigeneity fully, especially in the United States.

Exhibit B: With respect to MAS, he wrote: “It was found by an objective administrative judge to be in violation of Arizona’s law prohibiting dividing students by race, teaching ethnic chauvinism, or teaching resentment toward other races, and was then canceled by the Tucson Unified School District governing board.”

This is at best disingenuous. What he omits is that since 2006, it was he, as the state superintendent of schools, who plotted the legislative demise of Mexican-American studies, culminating with the 2010 passage of HB 2281. While it is an anti-ethnic studies measure, it was designed specifically to destroy MAS-TUSD, not any other department. This state measure, in effect, paved the way, by threats of crippling economic sanctions, for the elimination of TUSD’s MAS highly successful department. TUSD, rather than challenging the state measure in court, complied and finally dismantled the department this year.

Without question, MAS is a model department that graduated close to 100 percent of its students and sent the vast majority on to college, this at a time of nationwide sky-high dropout rates. The way HB 2281 was written, it also conjured up the notion that MAS was inculcating students to overthrow the US government. For his information, MAS-Raza studies has been in existence for some 43 years and to this date, not a single teacher or student anywhere in the country has been brought up on such charges.

While Mr. Horne cites the findings of an administrative judge (not an actual judge from the judiciary branch), what he conveniently omits to reveal is that an independent study, commissioned by Horne’s successor, John Huppenthal, resulted in the 2011 Cambium report. The findings, as he well knows, found the exact opposite of what Horne and Huppenthal had been alleging and trumpeting and what the administrative judge, with no expertise in education, concluded.

The Cambium report concluded: “A majority of evidence demonstrates that the Mexican American Studies Department’s instruction is NOT designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.” (p 59, Cambium)

In fact, the Cambium report went further and praised Mexican American studies, recommending its expansion. (p. 69, Cambium) Not happy with the unexpected findings, Mr. Huppenthal then turned to this administrative judge (Lewis Kowal) for the skewed results he required.

As someone who attended the Kowal hearings, I can attest that rather than an impartial hearing, it descended to the level of a modern Inquisition in which “inappropriate” books, curriculum, student essays and even art and posters were examined. The work of the MAS teachers was also mischaracterized and demeaned. Amazingly, the expert that Kowal relied upon for his decision, Dr. Sandra Stotsky, is a scholar who never set foot inside of an MAS classroom, is not an expert in MAS, ethnic studies or critical race theory and she neither once spoke to an MAS teacher or student. Case closed.

Exhibit C: Horne wrote: “Rodriguez complains of alleged death threats. Obviously, we would all condemn any such threats. But he did not object loudly when the students in the program performed a street play called ‘The Killing of Tom Horne,’ in which a student wore a mask made of my picture and was ‘killed’ by the other students.”

This response has to be divided into two parts:

The actual, not “alleged death threats,” are no trivial matter. It is remarkable that politicization of academics in this state and this country has become so severe that my role as university professor should cause me to fear for my life. I should be reassured that legislators, law enforcement officials and the judiciary take such threats seriously. Precisely because of Arizona’s political climate, there should be no tolerance of death threats at any time.

Rather than unequivocally condemning these threats, Horne obfuscated the issue by injecting into the discussion street theater that I personally witnessed, and he did not. “The Killing of Tom Horne,” as he called it, was indeed a street play by MAS students/alumni in reaction to Gov. Jan Brewer signing HB 2281. However, the play itself had no such title. Additionally, an observer who had nothing to do with MAS, got so excited that she spontaneously injected herself into the play and tackled the person to the ground who was acting the part of Mr. Horne. At that point, Mr. Horne “died.” The objective of the play was to demonstrate that it was Mr. Horne, while acting as an inquisitor, who had destroyed MAS, banished the curriculum and metaphorically burned its books.

It seems trite and not befitting our highest law enforcement official to conflate these two actions, and worse, to be wrong and petty about something he did not witness. Without question, this form of expression and protest is protected speech. In no way can that be construed as a threat to his person.

The column that AG Horne responded to was not meant to be a rehash of the same issues that have been endlessly debated in the state legislature, the TUSD school board and in the media for the past six years. Instead, it was written to highlight the death threats and the hate that we are facing in Arizona as a result of these dehumanizing measures. If one doubts this, one only need to read the letters to the editor anytime this issue is raised or when immigration issues are discussed in Arizona, or anywhere in the country.

However, there is one point that has not been debated enough in public, that is, the issue of individualism versus collectivism. At best, this is a conjured up leftover from the cold war debate. In reality, it is a debate going back to 1492 that he has invoked, claiming that MAS resides outside of Western civilization. Mr. Horne appears not to be able to comprehend the implication of what he is saying; historically those viewed as outside Western civilization have met with dehumanization and denial of full human rights. Mexican-Americans are still being subjected to this charge and treatment after 520 years. Cultural assassination, certainly describes his effort to ban MAS.

For example, as a result of a series of district directives, former MAS teachers are no longer permitted to teach things that lead back to “a Mexican-American studies perspective.” For example, after TUSD dismantled MAS earlier this year, TUSD-MAS colleague Norma Gonzalez was told to take down the image of the Aztec calendar because it was now illegal to teach it in the classroom because it depicted Mexican history and culture. This incident provides a further example of how MAS teachers and the discipline have been constricted: the teaching of Columbus and things thereafter is permissible, but the teaching of that which existed prior to Columbus’ arrival (indigenous culture) is not.

This is an example of how the state and district are now micromanaging classrooms, which includes officials coming into classrooms and taking student work away; outlawing curricula; banning books; and even more importantly, banning a (indigenous) worldview. However, the discussion regarding individualism versus collectivism is a false one. At best, this appears to be an attempt by Mr. Horne to legislate an ideology or a futile attempt at legislating forced assimilation. Even the Cambium Report, which he managed to ignore, refutes his allegation: “No evidence as seen by the auditors exists to indicate that instruction within Mexican American Studies Department program classes advocates ethnic solidarity; rather it has been proven to treat students as individuals.” (p 63, Cambium)

This issue is too large to elaborate in one column, but the notion that both ideas necessarily conflict is to negate that all human beings are individuals as well as members of peoples, communities, cultures or nations. If he doubts this, he need look no further than the US Constitution, which begins with: “We the people … “

But let me return to the primary focus of the original column: the elimination of MAS and the death threats. HB 2281 was always Mr. Horne’s effort at mass indoctrination at a state level. The courts and Justice Department investigations will decide its fate. Regarding the matter of death threats, I invite Mr. Horne and all public officials to condemn them. They should never be part of permissible discourse in any civil society.

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