OPINION: Arizona Is Trying to ‘Both Sides’ Racism Discussions in Schools

May 21, 2021
1:26 PM

(Public Domain)

Imagine your child comes home from a school in Arizona. They rush into the house, excited to talk with you about what they learned that day. They start telling you their teacher taught them about slavery. It’s an important subject in American history, so you nod in approval and ask them what they learned about it. Your child goes on to tell you that they learned that slavery was bad, and you nod again because you think that’s where it ends.

But that isn’t where it ends.

Your child goes on to explain that slavery was also good because it allowed the Southern states to build a strong economy during the first 100 years of U.S. sovereignty. They also tell you that the Confederacy had some good reasons for seceding from the Union, starting a war, and wanting to keep their slaves.

Then it goes further. Your kid tells you that the three-fifths clause was bad because Black people weren’t counted as a full person, but it was good because it evened the playing field in Congress for the Northern and Southern states.

You’re in shock.

The next morning you take your kid to school, you go to the front office and ask to talk to the principal. You bring this to their attention and ask why the teacher feels the need to justify slavery and racism in America’s history.

The principal bluntly answers: “Because it’s the law.”


On Wednesday, May 5, Arizona joined a growing number of states with GOP-controlled legislatures in proposing laws that limit, or restrict, the teaching of subjects they consider to be “controversial,” more specifically anything regarding race. SB-1532 passed in the House along party lines after some minor amendments were made. Passage of the law still requires Senate approval, and it may be amended even further before receiving a final stamp of approval.

I encourage you to read the entire document for yourself, but I’ll give you the basic idea.

According to the text of SB-1532, public and charter schools cannot teach that any race/gender is better, or worse than another. Schools cannot require teachers, staff, or visitors to discuss “controversial” issues. If a teacher chooses to discuss something “controversial,” they have to “present these issues from diverse and contending perspectives,” without making it seem like any of the perspectives presented is right or wrong. It does, however, make an exception for “accurate” portrayals of historical events or lessons regarding sexual abuse and harassment.

(There is also a section about not requiring kids to be involved in lobbying or advocating for legislation, or the using of public resources to lobby or advocate for legislation. This section is a very specific elbow to the ribs of Arizona teachers that I’ll get into in a little bit.)

There is a penalty of $5,000 dollars, plus the reimbursement of any public resources used for violating these rules.

At first glance, it may seem harmless, maybe even positive for the most part. However, in this case, as in all cases, context matters. As we analyze the bill and consider its implications, we must take into account the current state or the Arizona GOP —and the party nationwide— to understand the motivation behind this bill, which also comes at a time when the AZ GOP continues to challenge the validity of a determined election six-months after the fact.

The complications I see arising from SB-1532 relate specifically to the use of the terms and phrases “controversial,” “accurate,” and “diverse and contending perspectives.” The bill restricts the discussion of “controversial” issues, but it never defines what issues are to be considered “controversial.” The exception of accurate portrayals of historical events also goes undefined. Finally, the presentation of “diverse and contending perspectives” is left vague and open to a teacher presenting the perspective of a Nazi as something worth considering.

How far is the state willing to go to enforce these vague restrictions? Everything these days seems to be controversial. Are teachers not supposed to discuss slavery or the Indigenous genocide at all? I’m also interested in the State’s perspective of historical events. When “diverse and contending perspectives” are required to be presented, what is to be considered “accurate”? How is Columbus to be presented? What about the Vietnam War? Or the decision to invade Iraq based on false information?

Now back to the part about not forcing kids or using public funds to lobby and advocate for legislation, or to use school resources to plan, organize, or execute anything that might prevent “school from operating for any period of time.” You may remember a few years ago Arizona was in the news because schools shut down for days as teachers, administrators, and their supporters marched on the state capitol demanding improved working conditions for themselves and their students, increased funding, and higher salaries. The legislature ignored their cries and literally snuck out the back door so they wouldn’t have to face the crowd.

Maybe teachers and school staff shouldn’t use school resources to plan another Red for Ed movement, but it’s clear the two provisions outlining these restrictions are designed specifically to prevent just that. The problem is, Arizona has a teacher shortage because no one wants to teach here. How do they expect to entice good teachers to move to the state if they won’t even take care of the teachers that are already here?

Maybe I’m wrong. It’s happened before. Maybe this bill will bring some balance to Arizona’s educational system and finally bring it up from the rank of 46th state in education, or break it out of the top 10 Dumbest States. It’s too early to tell.

One thing is practically guaranteed, though: if passed, SB-1532 will inevitably end up in court, and probably more than once. Those outcomes are really what will tell us whether the bill will be used as an act of oppression, or a stroke of genius. Until then, we can only speculate, and based on the context under which this bill is being pushed through, the outlook isn’t so good.


Joseph Paul Wright is a freelance journalist based in Nogales, Arizona. He tweets from @joewrightwrites.