It is difficult to fully explain the impacts of Arizona’s burgeoning and overt anti-immigrant climate these days. To outsiders, it must seem like either the inmates have finally taken over the asylum or, alternatively, that someone is finally standing up to an inept federal government. To those of us living here, it further appears as either a formalized decree of misguided policies that have long been in place below the radar or a chance to finally push a brewing agenda to its logical and necessary extreme on a statewide scale. While all of these sentiments possess a kernel of truth, more to the point is that Arizona today has, in many ways, simply become a veritable theater of the absurd.
To wit: legalizing racial profiling, banning ethnic studies, dismissing teachers with accents, lauding “ethnic cleansing” policies, militarizing the border, seeking to abolish the 14th Amendment (the one that makes the Bill of Rights applicable to the states and makes anyone born here a citizen), and more. Still, all of this pales (pun intended) to a recent localized atrocity that speaks volumes to the climate of antipathy and purification being plied here in the desert. In a twisted feat of modernized and imposed “passing,” community artists in Prescott were pressured by school administrators, who had commissioned them to create a public mural, to “lighten” the dark-skinned faces they had painted on it, in large part due to a backlash inspired by a city council member who said that he failed to see “anything that ties the community into that mural.”
In other words, the appearance of brown-skinned faces in the mural is not reflective of the community, according to some – despite the fact that demographic data indicates that people of color comprise over 15 percent of the regional population and that, in Arizona as a whole, this demographic represents an estimated one-third of the state’s inhabitants. In fact and as a partial explanation for the mural flap, a 2008 population trend study commissioned by Yavapai College shows that the percentage of nonwhite residents in the area has doubled in the last 20 years and is continuing to rise. Mirroring patterns seen statewide, one can sense the backlash from people attempting to maintain the “old guard” status quo of well-defined power and race relations in the face of rapid change, as reflected in this comment from Prescott City Councilman and local radio host Steve Blair about the disputed mural:
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“I am not a racist individual, but I will tell you depicting a black guy in the middle of that mural, based upon who’s president of the United States today and based upon the history of this community when I grew up, we had four black families – who I have been very good friends with for years – to depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, ‘Why?'”
As a follow-up to these remarks expressing a not-uncommon view about turning back the clock to a time when there were far fewer people of color here, Blair – who has a history of “past incidents involving race,” as noted in a local editorial – went on to opine:
“I’m not a racist by any stretch of the imagination, but whenever people start talking about diversity, it’s a word I can’t stand …. The focus doesn’t need to be on what’s different; the focus doesn’t need to be on the minority all the time…. Art is in the eye of the beholder, but I say [the Miller Valley mural] looks like graffiti in L.A….. I don’t see anything that ties the community into that mural.”
Before we rightly condemn such notions, it should be noted that Blair was giving voice to a point of view that has dominated the political discourse here for generations. Indeed, R.E. Wall, director of the Prescott Downtown Mural Project, reported that he and the other artists experienced weeks of “tense working conditions” at the site, including regular racial slurs shouted from vehicles and passersby such as: “You’re desecrating our school,” “Get the ni—ers off the wall,” and “Get the sp-c off the wall.” The initial article detailing the mural’s completion drew a spate of vitriolic and racially-charged online comments that mirrored these verbal assaults, which helped to trigger the furor. In an interview with the local newspaper, Wall observed that “the pressure stayed up consistently. We had two months of cars shouting at us.” Eventually, he said, the demands reached such a level that his group was asked by school officials to lighten the faces of the mural’s main subject, as well as the other children in the mural.
What message does this send to the school children (one of whom, in fact, was the model for the primary image that sparked the mural controversy) and others in the area with darker skin pigmentation? Just as depictions of emaciated models can encourage eating disorders and other dangerous practices in young women, so, too, can the impetus to lighten one’s implicitly offensive and unwelcome skin tone impact the mental and physical well-being of people of color. In addition to reflecting the current mood in Arizona due to its incipient climate of legislated intolerance, all of this harks back to the unfortunate era of “passing” by minorities, in which whiteness was a desired norm that diverse individuals oftentimes attempted to achieve through both physiological and cultural affectations. In a modern version of this self-destructive phenomenon, Chris Hedges cogently described Michael Jackson as someone who “was so consumed by self-loathing he carved his African-American face into an ever-changing Caucasian death mask.”
The history of race in America is complex, brutal and unfortunately correlative of forces that continue to drive much of our politics today. Before the civil rights era, socially-enforced binaries of “white” and “colored” tended to dominate the landscape, creating for some great comfort in knowing who was who, but, for others, creating great pressures to either conform or be relegated as second class. In recent years, the move toward a multicultural and multiracial society has abated some of the rigidity of the past, allowing more opportunity for self-definition and categorical mobility, but also contributing to a backlash among certain sectors that evidently long for a return to those simpler times when “white made right” and the rest of the herd knew its place in the pecking order.
I recently spoke with Dr. Anita Fernandez, professor of education at Prescott College and an expert on diversity, about these issues. She observed that, in fact, the mural was painted on “the most racially, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse school” in the district and, further, that “denying that children of color are representative of the school and of our community, is based on a racist and intolerant ideology that is being fueled by Arizona’s anti-immigrant and anti-Ethnic Studies laws.” Further connecting the local controversy in Prescott to wider forces at work statewide, Fernandez continued:
“The ‘whitening’ of children’s faces is paramount to erasing the existence of an ethnic group, otherwise known as ethnic cleansing. The reaction of some in our community, including city council member Steve Blair, demanding that the faces of the children of color be whitened is a testament to the fear of growing diversity in Arizona. The irony here is that recent legislation outlawing Ethnic Studies in public schools perpetuates the ignorance of Arizona residents like those fearful of a mural depicting non-white children as representative of their community. What we need is more education from multiple perspectives infused into our public schools to prevent ignorant reactions such as these.”
In this sense, we can begin to see Arizona’s revanchist and reactionary laws and policies as creating a self-fulfilling ethos of racism and intolerance. The more that racial and ethnic divisions are reinforced through policing patterns and educational practices, the wider the rifts become. As demonstrated in apartheid regimes, increasing gaps in political power and economic opportunity that are enforced with race-based laws wind up requiring more such laws as well as the overt use of force to maintain their utility over time. The result is a slippery slope in which the very thing that is most feared by those in power – namely an empowered minority that undermines the existing social order – inevitably comes to pass as the dominant class overreaches in their attempt to “hold on” and winds up delegitimizing itself in the process. In the end, this is essentially a path to self-imposed oblivion and Arizona’s old guard may well be in the process of replicating it. Unfortunately, in this process, no one prospers and the resultant wounds can take generations to heal.
I have previously contended that the political situation in Arizona raises the specter of a “new civil rights movement” in America. But it isn’t simply about immigrants or people of Latino descent at this juncture – more broadly, it concerns the essential movement from a society of polarized binaries to one of complex complementarity. For all of its successes, the post-WWII civil rights era did not fully achieve this aim and, in fact, even its more focused goal of abolishing overt legal discrimination seems to have fallen short in retrospect. Modern movements around race, class, gender, sexuality and ethnicity, for example, generally are more deeply engaged with matters of alterity, empathy and representation. In other words, they are arguing not merely for equal rights to participate in a flawed system, but more so for spaces in which to explore and expand the array of identity constructions that befit the emerging world in which we find ourselves.
This ineluctable process is threatening for some, both in moral and socio-economic terms. While we can strive to empathize with this, we also need to resist the policies of retrenchment that are attempting to reinforce an outmoded and unjust order. Forcing the lightening of skin color on a public mural is yet another episode in the larger narrative unfolding here in Arizona. Indeed, what really needs more light cast upon it right now are these instances of intolerance that seek to drive us all back into the darkness.
It is in this spirit, in fact, that the saga of the Prescott mural achieved something of a remarkable resolution. Following the firestorm of controversy and the appearance of unabashed racism in their community, hundreds of people rallied at the mural site in support of the values of diversity, inclusivity and artistic integrity. School administrators notably and forthrightly took the megaphone and publicly admitted to the crowd, “we made a mistake,” reversing their decision and ordering the mural restored to the original version conceived by Wall and the other artists. School Superintendent Kevin Kapp further stated, “it is okay that this issue has become a major issue. It’s good for the town to stand up once in a while and take a look at itself and this mural has done that.” For his part, city Councilman Blair was fired from his job as a local radio host and a petition drive was launched to remove him from office as well.
Still, Blair remains unrepentant, noting (in unwittingly ironic words) that the mural “defaces” the wall upon which it is painted. This is a reminder that the task of overcoming the toxic legacy of racism has only just begun and that much work remains. By utilizing public art to polarize opinion and educate the community, people in Prescott have indicated a pathway toward constructive engagement with these issues.
Given the overall political situation in Arizona right now, this is a hopeful sign that fits well with the themes and values of the mural itself. The struggle for respect and dignity is one that faces many challenges and, for today, will happily take such small victories to heart.