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Commentary: Arizona's declining image

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opinion Willmar, 56201
West Central Tribune
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SAN DIEGO -- Several weeks ago, after a column critical of President Obama, a woman wrote to say that she agreed with me. Then she said something I certainly did not agree with, bemoaning the fact that, thanks to Obama, her grandchildren would grow up with a "different image of what a president looks like" than the one she had a child.

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It's tempting to lump that reader in with the pitiful souls -- some in the tea party movement -- who resent the idea of a black president because they're terrified at how fast the country is changing and unsure of where they fit in the new landscape.

Yet, I sense, there is more to it. The woman was desperately trying to hold on to something, a Mount Rushmore image in her mind of what a president looks like. That image had changed in one election, and she wanted to change it back.

Which brings to mind the latest ugly controversy to come out of Arizona. This time, the ruckus isn't about immigration. It's about pigmentation.

In the town of Prescott -- which is, according to census estimates, 93 percent white but where the schools have a sizable Hispanic population -- artists hired to paint a mural at a school to promote a "Go on Green" environmental campaign got into trouble when they veered off into other colors. The mural features portraits of four children (actual students) and depicts a Hispanic boy as the main figure.

The depiction angered City Councilman Steve Blair, who hosted a radio talk show. Blair wasn't even sure what he was angry about. He mistakenly assumed that the Hispanic boy was African-American, and this really concerned him. "To depict the biggest picture on the building as a black person," he told his audience, "I would have to ask the question: Why?" Blair suggested that it had to do with "the guy that's in the White House." The host incessantly bashed the mural in a campaign to remove it. R.E. Wall, the lead artist on the project, noticed that every day for two months, during the time that Blair was on the radio, motorists would drive by the mural and yell out racial epithets. Such as: "Take that (n-word) off that wall." They didn't care that children were present.

So far this is just a story about ignorance, hatred and fear. But what turned it tragic is that spineless school officials caved in to those dark impulses. Principal Jeff Lane, who was obviously rattled by the angry complaints he received, ordered the artists to lighten the face of the Hispanic child.

You read that right. Lighten the face of the child. Eager to put their best face forward, some people in Prescott took it as a given that the best face is a white one. Initially, Lane defended this offensive directive "from an artistic point of view."

But when word got out and other members of the community protested at the site of the mural, Lane reversed course and told the crowd: "We made a mistake." Leaving the artistry to the artists, Lane said the mural was fine as it is.

However, Arizona -- a state where I once lived -- is not fine as it is.

This is the place that gave us state-sponsored vigilantism; having decided the authorities weren't doing their job, the state organized a posse to do it for them. The result: an odious law that transforms local cops into pseudo immigration agents. This is the state where education officials barred from teaching English courses those instructors who have heavy accents. And this is where the state banned ethnic studies in elementary and secondary schools because of fears that such classes promote "resentment toward a race or class of people."

And to think there are still those who will foolishly try to argue that Arizona's antics have nothing to do with racism or ethnocentrism.

Arizona needs to get a grip. It is making the wrong moves for the wrong reasons. Its citizens should look in the mirror and confront what they've become, as unpleasant as the answer may be.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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