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Arizona Mural Teaches a Lesson about Racism

In Prescott, Arizona, this week, an elementary school mural became the focus of national attention. The students at the school had helped the artist design the mural, which had the theme of "Going Green," and featured the faces of students from the school. But a city councilman and radio personality named Steve Blair complained about the brown skin of the faces depicted, and passing motorists shouted racial slurs as they drove by. Blair said, "I disagree with the whole perspective that you would have a Black guy painted on two sides of that building, when the history of Prescott never had a culture issue." The school administration at first responded by asking the artist to "lighten" the faces of the children, but when word got out, local citizens and people around the country raised their voices in protest.


Yesterday, Miller Valley elementary school principal Jeff Lane mounted a scaffold in front of the mural to admit that school officials had made a mistake, and asked the muralist to restore the original color to the faces of the students. He was joined by school superintendent Kevin Knapp, who said "It is ok that this issue has become a major issue. Prescott is truly my home town, and 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."

The state legislature in Arizona recently passed a law requiring local police to crack down on undocumented immigrants, a move which prompted calls for a boycott of the state by some. Polls showed however, that 70% of Arizonans supported the law.

On Friday I attended my nephew's high school graduation in Healdsburg, California. Healdsburg is a small town in Sonoma County, and the student body seemed to be about half Latino, and half white. The principal, John Curry, spoke about how the school had embraced a commitment to being inclusive through their participation in the Challenge Day process. The national anthem was sung by a Latina, who later delivered a five minute-long speech entirely in Spanish. Hearing this young woman speak her language sent a powerful message. It honored the Spanish-speaking parents and grandparents by expressing to them what the occasion meant to the students. It also explicitly honored the language and culture of the Latino students at the school.

The controversies in Arizona reflect a deep discomfort our society has with the changes we are experiencing. In California this week we learned that while the state's population climbed from 34 million to 38 million between 2000 and 2008, the number of whites declined by half a million, and now are only 40% of the state's population. Hispanics will soon surpass whites as the largest group, at 37% in 2008. In California schools, Hispanics are already the largest group by far, making up 49% of the students last year. Less than 30% of the students here are white.

This brings up a real challenge to the way we think of ourselves as a society. We have tended to talk about civil rights issues as problems with "minorities." But what happens when non-whites become the majority? Our schools are at the leading edge of these trends, and must respond one way or the other. In Prescott, Miller Valley Elementary School chose a beautiful mural to celebrate the students there - but hesitated when challenged by the hostility of some residents. Ultimately the community spoke out and helped the administrators there make the right decision, to return to the original intent of the mural and celebrate all the children of the school. In Healdsburg, the high school has been proactive in recognizing that tensions between adults can filter into our schools, and we need to do some work to make sure everyone feels honored in our school community.

Our schools have a lot to teach, and it is not only the students who can learn.

What do you think of the controversy in Prescott? How has your school community responded to these challenges?


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