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Activists claim new bill would gut minority history offerings in Texas colleges and universities

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It took her a while to see it, but a simple, innocuous change to a half century-old law set off alarm bells in V. June Pedraza's head. Filed just three days before the Legislature's cut-off deadline, GOP state Sen. Dan Patrick's SB 1128 would limit university and college courses that count as core-credit American history classes to only those “providing a comprehensive survey of American history.”

Pedraza and others say the measure, if passed, could gut minority history offerings at Texas colleges and universities — like courses chronicling the history of Mexican Americans, the Black Power movement, LGBT rights, or the history of feminism in America.

 

“It's basically the targeting of minority history,” said Pedraza, a professor of Mexican American Studies at Northwest Vista College. “If those courses don't count for credit, enrollment drops … in effect, those offerings will in time shrink or drop out completely.”

Pedraza and activists with the Houston-based Librotraficantes movement traveled to Austin last week to meet with lawmakers over SB 1128 and its companion bill in the House, HB 1938. While language  in Patrick's bill doesn't overtly target minority studies, the small tweak reeks of Arizona, insists Tony Díaz, founder of the Houston-based nonprofit Nuestra Palabra and head of the Librotraficantes movement that sprang from of the banning of Mexican American Studies courses in Tucson public schools.

It was another seemingly harmless piece of Arizona's HB 2281, outlawing any teaching promoting  resentment of “a race or class of people,” that officials used to shutter the Mexican American Studies program in Tucson public schools. Last year, Díaz launched a “banned-books” tour across the Southwest, establishing small libraries along the way, like at San Antonio's Southwest Workers Union, of books dropped from Tucson’s curricula.

“We can sniff this stuff out,” Díaz told the Current last week after meeting with lawmakers. “Patrick's bill has sulfur all over it. It's just as vague as Arizona's bill and it can be used, just like Arizona's bill, to  dismantle minority studies.”

Patrick's bill didn't materialize out of thin air. Pedraza says Suzanne Tomlin, Patrick's legislative aide, briefly met with activists last week to hear their concerns (Patrick's office declined the Current's requests for comment). Tomlin, she says, told them the bill sprang from recommendations contained in a study released this year by the New York-based National Association of Scholars reviewing history offerings at the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.

The title of NAS' study would be humorous if the underlying intent wasn't so venomous  —  “Recasting History: Are Race, Class, and Gender Dominating American History?” (Haven't race, class, and gender always dominated history?) Claiming theirs is an effort is to “depoliticize history,” the NAS study recommends that colleges and universities eliminate “inappropriate over-emphasis” on race and gender studies, and instead spend more time on supposedly-ignored pieces of American history, like “military, diplomatic, religious” and “intellectual history.” And while NAS calls itself an independent, nonpartisan group focused on “intellectual freedom,” critics call it a conservative think-tank that would whitewash history.

“She (Tomlin, Patrick's staffer) didn't even understand why we were worried about what happened in Arizona” or why the group took issue with the NAS report, Pedraza said. Given Patrick's standing as chair of the Senate Education Committee, his bill is almost certain to come up for a hearing. Along with minimizing the history of minority groups, Pedraza chides that Patrick's bill would threaten academic freedom and university governance.

In her meeting with Tomlin, Pedraza said she equated minority history offerings to “the history of rock and roll, classes that teach the history of drug use, that kind of stuff.”

“The message was that these are extra courses, unimportant, and shouldn't count for credit,” Pedraza said.

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