Center for Political Education is in solidarity with the #PaintItDown organizers, who have been calling for the removal of Victor Arnautoff’s “Life of Washington” murals at George Washington High School, citing its dehumanizing portrayal of Black and Indigenous people and detrimental impact on the well-being of the students of color who have to engage with the mural on a daily basis. We come to this
position with some difficulty, as we value the importance of the WPA mural projects as bearers of a proud history of mass, radical organizing that shaped the political terrain of the 1930s and ’40s in the United States. We acknowledge the Right’s long history of repression of Left culture workers and their art, and honor the important work of artists such as Victor Arnautoff. We also take seriously the criticisms raised by Indigenous and Black students, parents, and their communities who say the murals do more harm than good.
We recognize that we enter a debate already well in progress, but the dismissive, paternalistic language from some of our comrades on the Left has encouraged us to take a public position on the issue. As is beautifully and carefully laid out in artist and activist Fernando Martí’s essay, “Remember history, remember relevance”, the rhetoric and actions of some Leftists have minimized and denigrated Indigenous and young people of color’s criticisms of the mural, reducing their opposition to oversensitivity and ignorance of history. Rather than take seriously the political critiques and claims of harm brought by the mural’s opponents, who note that surely there must be other ways to teach anti-racist history than shock treatment by exposure to images depicting racist legacies, these Leftists have taken up the language of “identity politics” and hypersensitivity so favored by the Right. As San Francisco Board of Education President, Stevon Cook, notes in an opinion piece entitled, Keep Those Slaves on That Wall! “We’ve created some strange bedfellows when progressive socialists and conservative corporate media outlets have a united message in preserving the images of slaves and dead Native Americans to teach teenagers a lesson about history and Washington.”
Students who spoke in opposition to the mural before the San Francisco Board of Education in June clearly articulated that they have already metabolized the racist history of the United States and do not require a daily art history lesson to remind them of the context in which they operate. As Jennifer Wilson notes in The Nation, “…what history does the mural force these students to contend with that they aren’t already confronting in their daily lives? Black and Native American people confront the realities of history every day in the form of job discrimination, police violence, environmental racism, health-care disparity, and other injustices that have roots in our nation’s history. That is not to say a valid argument for keeping the murals doesn’t exist, but to hang that argument exclusively on the notion that marginalized people will forget their own history without visual cues falls into a pattern of paternalism that lends merit to the accusations of racism being levied at the mural’s defenders.”
We deeply value history and believe that learning lessons from the past is key to fighting more effectively in the future. It is absurd, however, to imagine that history cannot be taught absent these murals. Further, why not fight for a curricululm to be taught that exposes students to the unbroken history of resistance by Indigenous and Black people, rather than history that portrays these groups as passive victims? As Cook notes, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t tell the truth about America’s history after we cover up these murals in response to student-led demands for a more inclusive and safe learning environment.”
We are disappointed that the San Francisco board of Education was threatened with lawsuits and ballot initiatives by the mural defenders claiming that money was no object for them. We are encouraged, however, that the Board continues to take seriously statements from Indigenous students and students of color about the impacts of attending school with these murals as a backdrop.
CPE agrees that it is useful to acknowledge how radical and brave Arnautoff’s work would have been when it was produced in the 1930s. We honor the body of Arnautoff’s work, including his important murals in the Bay Area elevating the dignity and power of workers. We disagree, however, that these contributions are somehow more important than the health and wellbeing of the students, educators, and staff members who are compelled daily to confront images depicting their massacre and enslavement. Fernando Martí reminds us of a few other essential points of context for this fight including a recent demand to paint over a mural by Latinx youth depicting Palestinian liberation in the Mission neighborhood, the continued fight for ethnic studies in SFUSD, and the fight against privatization of education in the city. The fight against the “Life of Washington” murals is not separate or even attendant to those issues, but intimately related, as Indigenous and people of color students continue to have to fight every day to have their needs acknowledged and addressed by the institutions meant to serve them. As we think about fighting against the Right turn facing us today, we need young Indigenous people and people of color to join us in that fight. The Left cannot afford to alienate and demean the people we need the most.