Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Woe, Arizona

  PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Progressive, vibrant, inclusive, this northern Arizona city seems a refuge from the "them vs. us" rage rattling a state under the political control of hard-liners.

   And yet, even Prescott can't escape it. The race question. White vs. brown. Them vs. us.

  That's what it was when a mural painted on the side of an elementary school drew acidic darts from passersby and a city councilman cast his tongue into the turmoil.

   The mural, at Miller Valley School, features children of varied lineage in a motif that celebrates a new way of sustainability. If it has a dominant color, it is green.

    But recently the artist was working overtime on the mural, particularly trying to lighten the face of one figure on the sign, the dark face of a Hispanic child. The school district line was that he was asked to brighten all the faces. It said the matter was most definitely not about race.

    Maybe so, but that's not the impression artist R.E. Wall got from those catcalls.

    And then there was City Councilman Steve Blair, who complained on a radio show about a "black" face so dominant on the mural.

    Rest assured, Blair's discomfort isn't necessarily about black faces. In another setting, Blair lobbied to have a Spanish-language census street banner removed so that Prescott wouldn't be portrayed as a "Spanish" community. A recall effort has been launched against Blair.

    Too much can be made over a few reckless words. Prescott need not feel shame. However, with increasing regularity, hard-right leaders in this state are seeking to commandeer the multihued canvas which is the reality of the Southwest.

      In Tucson, school officials are refusing to videotape Mexican studies classes so that state officials can see what's going on in them. Gov. Jan Brewer signed a law in May prohibiting classes designed for students of a particular ethnic group and which stir resentment or thoughts of insurrection — you know, Mexican takeover.

      Tellingly, as with Arizona's SB 1070, which veritably guarantees racial profiling by police (while prohibiting it, of course), this policy is driven by hard-right partisan politics.

      Brewer may believe in her heart that SB 1070 is the right thing to do. If she had any qualms about what it might do to inflame Latinos, however — well, with a Republican primary coming up, she knew that vetoing the bill would have guaranteed her political demise.

     Ah, and a key driver of the Mexican studies controversy is state Superintendent of Instruction Tom Horne, who just happened to have been running for attorney general in Tuesday's primary, which he led by a narrow margin on the morning after.

     Brewer, victorious in the primary, and Horne are poised to reap their political rewards. Meanwhile, Arizona is a sea of open wounds.

     An exodus of startling proportions has thrown schools for a loop. The Arizona Republic featured a wrenching story about students returning to one Phoenix elementary school to find scores of their friends missing, as great numbers of undocumented families have fled the state. This might sound like a taxpayer bonanza. It also could result in school closings over time, particularly harming Latino neighborhoods. One sidelight of the story is the school's advisory that in addition to bringing school supplies, students also bring emergency contacts in case their parents should not show up at the end of the school day.

      Of course, it goes without saying that said provisions needn't apply to those students whose skin is pale.

      Whether it's over Muslims planning a community center in Manhattan, a school mural depicting skin deemed too dark, or Mexican Americans needing documentation to walk their own streets, our politics are taking an increasingly ugly and stratifying turn.

      As for Arizona state officials, with their prying concern about "divisive" classroom studies: They need to turn the video camera on themselves.

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail:

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