Arizona’s Mural “Whitening:” The Bid to Recall Steve Blair

First, the harshest bill in the country. Then, a bid to “whiten” images of a Latino kid on a mural. Terry Greene Sterling on the drive to recall Prescott, Arizona’s most controversial pol.

In 1999, Barbara Braswell and her four biracial kids moved from Los Angeles to Prescott, a small town in the central Arizona hill country. The kids, Braswell says, “were called the N-word many times,” but learned how to stand up for themselves. Now Braswell is taking a stand herself, jumping into the middle of a contentious small-town debate on race and identity inflamed by a larger controversy sweeping Arizona in the wake of the passage of SB 1070, the harshest immigration law in the nation.

Braswell is an unlikely activist; while she once addressed the city council on the need for a paid Martin Luther King holiday, she’s largely been content to raise her kids and direct youth education programs in her Unitarian church. But these days she’s leading an energetic recall effort of a controversial town council member, a move that has split the town between those who want to keep Prescott as the Mayberry it was when Barry Goldwater announced his run for the presidency, in 1964, and those who want to live in a more inclusive, more racially diverse town.

Sometimes, Braswell says she gets voicemails that say “Shut the hell up” or “Go back where you came from.”

The target of Braswell’s recall is Steve Blair, a burly town councilman and radio talk show host who made national headlines by railing over the airwaves against a local school mural featuring a smiling, brown-skinned Latino child and two grinning white kids. Blair wondered over the radio why diversity had to be shoved down everyone’s throat. “I am not a racist individual,” he said. But why, he asked, did artists put that “black guy in the middle of the mural?”

School officials ordered the skin tones lightened after Blair launched his campaign, then backed down and ordered the skin tones restored after a large crowd protested the “whitening.”

Weeks before, Blair had blasted a large, public Spanish-language banner meant to encourage Latinos to participate in the Census, because, he said, visitors might think Prescott was not an English-speaking community. And the local newspaper reported that Blair had referred to Mexicans as “taco flippers.”

Miller Valley Elementary School principal Jeff Lane and Prescott Unified School District Superintendent Kevin Kapp apologize for the incident.

“It was too much, he said these things too many times,” Braswell says. In her mind, Blair and his talk-show listeners had branded Prescott as a “redneck racist” town after the immigration law passage gave them “permission” to speak out. So she’s spearheading a campaign to force Blair into a public recall election in March 2011 if he doesn’t step down first. The campaign just began in late June, and already Braswell has gathered more than 500 of 2,822 signatures needed to make that happen.

Blair isn't the only public official whose words are starting fights lately. Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed SB 1070, recently said undocumented immigrants were all “drug mules.” And John Kavanagh, a local legislator who is a key supporter of the law, told a roomful of Latino journalists that Canadian “illegals” could stay because they had money and bought real estate. Then he said he was kidding.

Barbara Braswell says she “felt relieved” that the mural flap focused the town on a simmering racial animus that she and her kids had felt for years.

Yet other locals seem a little perplexed at what the fuss is all about.

“This has taken on a life of its own,” says Joan Fleming, who heads the local school board. Miller Valley Elementary School, the site of the mural, is the most “integrated” school in the district, she says, and the mural represents the makeup of the school. The $5,500 school mural project, bankrolled with state transportation funds, was intended to involve students, teachers and parents and extol the virtues of alternative, clean transportation—like bicycles. The final design, of smiling kids of all races leaping, biking and hopscotching from a polluted environment to a clean environment, was selected by the faculty.

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Town boosters are hoping the mural controversy is dying down. They prefer to talk about this holiday weekend’s excitement; Prescott is in the midst of hosting the biggest tourist draw of the year, the “World’s Oldest Rodeo,” which lures visitors to the town’s Victorian bed-and-breakfasts, the local casino, and the bars on Whiskey Row. Dave Maurer, the CEO of the Prescott Chamber of Commerce, contends the mural dispute has not affected tourism and is “yesterday’s news, everyone’s moved on.”

But Braswell’s signatures—and the size of an emotional public meeting in the Prescott City Council chambers the week before, at which a spillover crowd gave the officials (including Blair, who sat silent) an earful on the mural—make clear the passions won’t go away anytime soon.

Blair did not respond to several requests for an interview, and Patti Crouse, the assistant to the mayor and council, says Blair is on an “extended vacation.” Crouse says none of the other council members will comment on the mural or the recall, either.

The racial tensions are part of Prescott’s growing pains. Town leaders tend to be avid real-estate development fans—advocating growth that has exceeded the area’s ability to keep up on the water supply. (A current plan, which environmental groups say will drain the headwaters of the scenic Verde River to quench Prescott’s thirst, is under challenge.) Ironically, the very growth encouraged by the council has pitted more liberal newcomers against conservative townies like Blair, who grew up in Prescott when it was a predominantly white town.

Blair, a scion of a commercial bakery family, has felt the newcomers’ heat. His show on KYCA radio has been dropped, and during a press conference in early June, the burly council member publicly apologized from beneath his wide-brimmed cowboy hat.

Braswell says the apology didn’t “feel real.” Still, she vows to stop the recall if Blair attends “diversity training” and apologizes to the children who modeled for the mural, the school, and the city. If not, she’ll carry on with her campaign, mindful of the fact that recalls aren’t foreign to Arizona’s political culture.

Fred Brown, a 60-year-old developer who has lived in Prescott most of his life, is having a hard time believing Prescott has turned into a hotbed of racial debate. An African American, he attended a segregated local elementary school. His father, a cement contractor, for years worked in other towns to support his family because locals would not hire African American contractors. The sight of Prescottonians demonstrating in favor of the mural and its diversity, he says, brought “tears to my eyes.”

Braswell has felt strong emotions herself. Sometimes, she gets voicemails that say, “Shut the hell up” or “Go back where you came from.” Those calls don’t get to her, she maintains. But she’s deeply moved when she gets phone calls or e-mails from strangers who support her cause. Most of the people in Prescott, she says, “have good hearts.”

Terry Greene Sterling is an Arizona journalist who blogs about immigration in Phoenix at Her book, ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, will be published July 1st by the Globe Pequot Press.