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At first, it looked like censorship. But covering up controversial mural makes sense

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The pundits have all taken aim at the decision by the San Francisco school board to paint over a mural at one of the city’s high schools. Don’t censor art, they say. Don’t give in to political correctness. Don’t swaddle teenagers in bubble wrap.

At first, I was on their side. The lack of freedom of speech on college campuses is deeply disturbing. I’m no fan of trigger warnings at colleges, either – the idea that professors should have to caution their students that there is potentially disturbing material ahead about war, or sexual assault, or suicide, and give them other assignments if they find the subject too troubling.

“Jude the Obscure” is a horrifying story of poverty, social intolerance, fratricide and suicide. It hurts to the bone to read it. It’s supposed to hurt to the bone. We shouldn’t look away from it, just as we shouldn’t look away from the inhumane conditions at migrant camps along our border.

What makes the mural even more sympathetic to anti-censorship advocates is its message, which was progressive, and even daring, for its time. Created by a communist Russian-American artist, Victor Arnautoff, as one of the artistic works sponsored by the New Deal, it gives an unflattering image of George Washington as a slave owner and shows white colonists stepping over the dead body of a Native American.

The wording has been heated on both sides – no surprise these days. A committee convened to examine the issue claimed that the mural glorified slavery, genocide and oppression. Did they even look at it? Do they know what glorifying means? The artwork is a clear statement to the opposite.

Their opponents have whipped out phrases such as “erasing history” and, of course, “snowflakes.” The mural can be used as a source of education about the horrors that lurk within American history, more reasoned voices say. What’s next, they wondered, erasing war crimes from history books?

As a longtime journalist, my first instinct was horror at the thought of censorship. (My second was, how on earth can it cost $600,000 to slap some paint over a mural? Wouldn’t that money be better spent toward moving it to another public setting?) Discuss it, don’t hide it, right?

But this is a situation that calls for more nuanced thinking.

A mural at a public school isn’t like a chapter in a history textbook, read, then tested, and, we hope, remembered for at least a while. It’s not the same as a field trip to a museum where students are exposed to thought-provoking and even disturbing images and, we’d hope, educated about them.

Students are a captive audience. The kids enrolled at George Washington High School in San Francisco have no choice but to walk past that mural every day. It’s an enforced part of their environment. That means that the main image students see of African Americans is as slaves. Native American students are daily confronted with the image of a dead and disrespected Indian.

Oh, kids are resilient! They don’t even notice those things, various friends said. Only a minority are bothered!

Karin Klein
Karin Klein

I think back to the history of my own Jewish family. My grandparents fled to this country more than 100 years ago to escape the pogroms in Russia. My husband’s aunt is a Holocaust survivor who was one of Schindler’s Jews. Now in her mid-90s, she lives on a kibbutz, a communal farm, in Israel with the man she met at a refugee camp.

I, of course, wanted my own children and all their peers in school to know about the Holocaust. I didn’t want them to shrink from the knowledge, or from artworks created from that horror. But I also wouldn’t want those images hanging over their heads all the time on the campus they’re legally required to attend.

No amount of education and discussion would make the oppressiveness of that go away, just as a Vietnamese American student might find it horrifying to have to see images reminiscent of the My Lai massacre. Every. Single. Day. The examples go on. These students might be a very tiny minority at their schools, but that doesn’t make the images any more acceptable. In fact, it makes it worse – by singling them out.

Think about atrocities committed against your ancestors that disturb you to this day, and what it would be like for your children to be forced to see those on a daily basis, singled out among all groups. And for those who can’t think of such atrocities in their family history, it might be best not to judge.

Perhaps, one day, artists will create murals of our shame along the border, pulling children from their parents and locking them in terrifying, unhealthy prisons. I hope there are many such artworks. But those who get to stay in the United States shouldn’t be stuck having to live with the images of this awful moment haunting them every day in the place where they are trying to fit in.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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