Fighting Against Exclusion: Borderlands History in Modern Political Context

We’re excited to present the latest installment in our summer series about academics and activism in this current political moment. –editors

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The public fight over how we define social values in the United States has entered a new phase, one which critically requires participation and honest input from Borderlands scholars. Over the years, state legislators have sought to restrain intellectual diversity in education programs. One of the best-known cases occurred in Arizona, in 2011, when House bill 2281 went into effect as law, banning social justice and ethnic studies programs in public and charter schools under the guise of forbidding “resentment toward a race or class of people.” The outcome made it harder for voices of people of color to be heard and limited critiques of the official narrative built around the state’s history and identity. In January 2017, Arizona lawmakers proposed a new bill that would expand this ban to include public universities.

This Arizona law prompted push back in other parts of the country. Following its passage, legislators in California and Oregon, proposed bills that would implement ethnic studies programs in their states. In May 2017, one of the most recent bills signed into law with bipartisan support in Indiana authorized ethnic and racial studies courses to be offered as electives in all high schools at least once a year.

The debate around how themes of racial and ethnic identity are taught in schools and universities remains deeply contentious. The 2014 Supreme Court decision to weaken the Voting Rights Act threatens to politically dis-empower many of the voices in favor of these programs. Moreover, the 2016 election campaign and Trump’s victory buoyed extremist, right-wing proponents who have verbally attacked public and private institutions they perceive as “left-wing” spaces. This post briefly examines the politics of exclusion, in conjunction with neoliberal policies, which threaten to close access to diversity of opinion and hollow out the academic job market in the country.

One of our concerns is the chilling effect that extremist, right-wing rhetoric has on academia and on the job market for new academics. Providing announcements for job listings is an important part of the work that our blog offers as a service to readers. We want you to be aware of any openings that coincide with Borderlands history, Mexican history, Mexican-American history, Latinx/Chicanx Studies, Latin American Studies, and Ethnic/Racial Studies. Since January, we noted a marked decrease in the number of positions available for these fields compared to previous years. This drop follows reductions in the job market, which the American Historical Association has noted. For example, so far, for 2017, we’ve published three job postings for openings in our field, whereas by this time last year, we had published six postings.

Admittedly, this is a small, imperfect snapshot of the job market for historians, and there are limits to the conclusions we can reach. The information is anecdotal and dependent on human factors, including how often we check online for announcements or are informed about openings by other people and institutions.

Nevertheless, the job market cannot be isolated from the rest of society. As the AHA has recorded, the 2008 financial crisis had an enormous impact on the overall number of academic openings available for historians. The job numbers for our profession have struggled to recover from the post-2008 decline. Now, this problem is compounded by a series of state and national elections over recent years that have given an imprimatur to views in favor of limiting access to the liberal arts, while also giving voice to candidates spouting falsehoods or “alternative facts,” a popular term lending the appearance of veracity to untrue statements.

In this larger social context, we raise a pressing concern facing individuals and organizations: the urge to engage in self-censorship. In a heightened political climate, fraught with angry protesters (online and offline), cheered on by a pugilistic commander-in-chief, the urge to self-censor becomes more acute. The fear of reprisal increases a willingness to sidestep the thorny points in our public discussion about the direction our societies (and the world) are following.

A goal of our summer series about academia and activism is to reflect on our work as students and teachers of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. Scholars should not stand by on the sidelines as universities and other important social institutions are dismantled by a wave of political leaders that see our organizations as effete threats to the “real America.” We join with other historians from the broader academic community who have discussed the need to engage with the public. As Keisha N. Blain and Ibram X. Kendi have written further, scholars must take an active public role in defending the truth. Otherwise, we cede ground to forces that are antithetical to the liberal, democratic process. Attacks against the legitimacy of higher education, alongside the continued demolition of tenure and the professional academic career, threaten to remove an important voice from the public space.

An understanding of Borderlands history uncovers many of the contemporary political and social tensions facing the United States as deeply rooted in questions of identity formation and the forging of the nation-state. It is a history scarred by racism and ethnic division. Studying it closely shows that the Alt-Right, and other extremist voices are not new. They are woven into the country’s historical fabric. The toxic views that Trump spread about Mexicans, Central American immigrants, and other people, will not simply disappear if he fails to win reelection in 2020. These ideas have been given a voice, and are propped up by lucrative multimedia operations, online, and on television and radio, with an audience of millions.

Scholars have a responsibility to educate the public. We should not remain in the comfortable space of simply talking to one another in the so-called “ivory tower.” For historians, we must document and contextualize the longue durée of racism and prejudice in the United States and elsewhere. Specifically drawing on examples from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands shines a light on the open wounds of nationalism, state power, and identity. By taking a stand, and clearly articulating our narratives with students, and in public venues, we can respond to attacks by extremists who rely on falsehoods and misconceptions when forming their arguments. In doing so, we acknowledge the role that teachers and professors must play in the generational struggle to define our communities, hopefully pushing back against exclusionary narratives embedded in the creation and function of the nation-state.

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