Here is a word of advice: Never begin a sentence with the phrase, “I am not a racist individual, but …”

My years of experience have taught me that whenever someone needs to begin a comment by declaring they are not racist, usually they are. If a tree is known by its fruit, then those who aren’t racist don’t need to convince others of the fruit hanging from their limbs. I find that only poisonous trees have to convince onlookers that their racist fruit are really benign.

Take the example of Councilman Steve Blair of Prescott, Ariz. Recently he began a diatribe with the words: “I am not a racist individual, but …” What was the focus of his ire? A mural painted on an elementary school wall featuring children highlighting green forms of transportation.

The artist decided to use actual students of the school as models, and he painted them in their actual skin colors. Hence, you had white and brown depictions of children because the children in the school were white and brown.

Blair thought this was an affront to the community. Imagine the artist’s gall for depicting Hispanic children on an Arizona mural! So Blair took to the airwaves, where he said: “I am not a racist individual, but I will tell you depicting a black guy in the middle of the 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, ‘Why?'”

Why? Could it be because the child depicted was an American from Mexican heritage? The child depicted is not black (not that it matters), but in the mind of the councilman it does matter. Blacks, Latinos and Latinas – it’s all the same to him. This is a white community, hence the correct depiction must be white – regardless that the children attending the school include Hispanics.

It would be easy to dismiss the elected official of Arizona, but then again, this is Arizona, which recently passed legislation legitimizing racial profiling. The councilman seems to have support. While the artist and students worked on the mural, drivers passing by would roll down their windows to yell, “Get the spic off the wall!”

And on a side note: Just as the phrase “I am not a racist individual, but …” is a clear indication that the person uttering those words is a racist. So is the phrase “Some of my best friends are (Hispanic, black, Jewish, Indian and so on).” I rejoice that Blair considers a few token black families as friends, but I wonder how these families view him.

So an artist uses Hispanic and white children as models for a mural he is painting at an elementary school. I’m sure the principal of the school, in an effort to stand in solidarity with his students and protect them from the racism hurled at them from the community, is defending the work of art.

Yeah, right. Principal Jeff Lane asked the artist to repaint the mural to whiten the children’s faces. In other words, the Latino child who posed for the artist would have seen a white mask placed upon his image. (After attracting national attention, the school district has since reversed that request, according to an article posted on the Tucson Sentinel’s website.)

In the meantime, what psychological damage did the principal’s decision do to the child? But again, what does it matter? After all, he is just another Hispanic who, in the minds of the principal and councilman, does not belong.

Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

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