Identity Politics Hustlers Sanitize "Life of George Washington"



We received this article from a member of the Revolution Club.

“Oppressed people who are unable or unwilling to confront reality as it actually is, are condemned to remain enslaved and oppressed.”

—Bob Avakian, BAsics 4:1

In 1936, Victor Arnautoff, a renowned Russian immigrant artist who worked with the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, was commissioned to paint a mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco on the “Life of Washington.” At a time when Washington was almost universally celebrated as a great “founding father” who never told a lie and very few even knew that he owned slaves, Arnautoff painted some reality into his 13-panel fresco. One panel about Washington’s plantation, called “Mount Vernon,” shows slaves in the fields and loading bales of cotton onto a ship. Another panel entitled “Westward Vision” depicts Washington and other “founding fathers” peering over a map and pointing to the West, where a group of frontiersmen (painted in gray, like ghosts) stand over the body of a dead Native American warrior. At the bottom right, a white man and a Native American chief sit by a campfire smoking a peace pipe. Above the chief’s headdress is a broken tree limb representing the many broken treaties made by the U.S. government with Native peoples.

A section of the mural "Life of George Washington"

Last month, the San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously to destroy the mural, arguing that it “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, and white supremacy,” and that students of color are “triggered” and “traumatized” by the images of enslavement and slaughter of Native Americans.

What the fuck?! These people have no problem sending kids to a school named after George Washington but they don’t want them to know the monster that he was, and the monstrous country that he founded. They have no problem with the big bronze statue of him at the school. They have no problem with the panel featuring Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton discussing a draft of the U.S. Constitution—a constitution that institutionalized slavery, a constitution that still enables the rulers of this capitalist-imperialist system to commit horror upon horror against Black people, Native people, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people, to wage war and exploit people all over the world in modern day slavery, while doing it all in the name of “We the people.”

If anything, Arnautoff is way too soft on Washington. One of the “Life of Washington” panels features Lady Liberty placing 13 white stars on a blue sky. Outside the school, Arnautoff created a bas-relief of Washington’s face and titled it “Statesmanship.” This is consistent with the non-revolutionary line of the Communist Party, USA, which Arnautoff became a member of, and which in the 1930s was embracing American democracy and its “Founding Fathers” in the name of building a United Front Against Fascism. In fact, the mural could’ve been much more graphic in depicting Washington’s crimes. The Sullivan Expedition, for example, in which Washington sent over 6,000 troops to upstate New York to wipe out over 50 Iroquois villages, ordering the “total destruction and devastation of their settlements, and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible”—villages in flames, scorched earth, refugees freezing during the Iroquois’ “Winter of Hunger.”1 Where’s the demand from the SF School Board to change the name of the school to Conotocarious—the “devourer of villages”—as Washington was known to the Iroquois?!

Despite its weaknesses, the “Life of Washington” clearly contains a subversive and anti-racist critique. And yet these opportunists dishonestly and moronically portray Arnautoff’s mural as some kind of Confederate monument celebrating oppression—not because it’s insufficiently critical of Washington, but precisely because of its truthful exposure of Washington’s role in the enslavement of Africans and extermination of the Native peoples! Let’s look at the identity politics hustle they use to rationalize this.

Students of color might be “triggered” by the images of a dead Indian and Black people picking cotton. So by that logic, should we stop teaching about slavery and genocide, too? Should we whitewash the textbooks (even more than they already are) so that no one finds out that anything traumatic happened in U.S. history? Keloid scars from slave whips, Lakota bodies in a ditch at Wounded Knee, skin peeling off survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Vietnamese girl running down the road burning from napalm, Iraqis being tortured and sexually humiliated by smiling U.S. soldiers, Eric Garner yelling “I can’t breathe,” father and daughter face down in the Rio Grande, and on and on. This is painful and infuriating to look at for anyone who cares about other human beings. But this is the history and present day reality of this country! A country that is rotten to the core—from the “Founders” and their founding documents, to Barack Obama the deporter-in-chief who bombed seven countries, to the grotesque MAGA fascist who spewed forth from the bowels of Amerikkkan capitalism—because all this oppression is built in to the system on which it’s based. A system that can’t be reformed and must be overthrown. That is a truth that must be confronted, and then acted on, if we are going to get beyond all this unnecessary trauma!

One advocate for painting over the murals wrote in The Nation, “people of color have a bright future, not just a tragic past.” Really? What planet are you living on? The one where 500 million “people of color” in South Asia will become climate refugees in the coming decades, where thirsty “people of color” in concentration camps are told to drink out of toilet bowls and congresswomen are told to go back to their country? Another commenter who wants the murals removed said, “school is meant to be a safe space where students can develop their minds instead of being hindered by the past.” First of all, cut the paternalistic “safe space” bullshit! Let students see the world as it actually is, and decide for themselves what they think about it... god forbid they might get outraged and want to change the world! These people who are so eager to unburden themselves of the past, by ignoring it, sound just like the people Bob Avakian describes in this passage from Breakthroughs:

It is very interesting: when these dark ages reactionaries started directing their attacks in the realm of education recently in Arizona, for example, one of the things they did was to move to get rid of Chicano studies. And I heard one of the people in the state education institution responsible for this decision declaring: We can’t have education that tells people that they’re part of a group in society that’s oppressed; we have to have education that tells people that they’re all just individuals.

Now, life would be much simpler if you could actually eliminate social oppression by refusing to talk about it. But, in the real world, these categories of people—these social relations, to put it a better way—exist objectively. They are part of the historically evolved relations in this society. You can’t just wish them away, and you can’t eliminate them by refusing to allow anyone to talk about them. (Of course, the purpose, and certainly the effect, in refusing to allow people to talk about these things is not actually to eliminate them but, on the contrary, to perpetuate and reinforce them.)2

Lastly, there is the argument that since Arnautoff is a white man, he had no right to depict the experiences of people of color. By this logic, Arnautoff’s mural would’ve been fine if he had “stayed in his lane” and just painted the scene at Mount Vernon without the slaves. Let’s just call this for what it is—the outlook of people who want to own oppression, not end it. And if you follow this to its conclusion, it’s the end of art. Just think about it. Thank god these franchise managers of oppression weren’t around to tell Billie Holiday and Nina Simone not to sing “Strange Fruit,” the haunting song about lynching, because it was written by a white man named Abel Meeropol.

And how should art be judged? Anti-mural people say that the criteria should not be the objective social content and overall social effect of the art, but rather the “lived experience” of students—and more specifically, since of course students at GW High School have many diverse views of the mural, that if even one Native American student feels “triggered,” the mural should go. Imagine a society run according to this standard! It’s not hard. We live in a society now where police can get away with anything if they “fear” for their safety. These identity politics hustlers aren’t interested in doing anything about that. They just want to create a little “safe space” bubble, where they can wield their identity as capital to impose their narrative and silence uncomfortable truths.

All the social justice rhetoric can’t hide the fact that their condescending call to shield students and slather them with “positive” images is just another version of the played out “American dream” lie that anyone can make it if they try. The San Francisco Board of Education should take a fresh look at their city! Where segregation is growing in the school system... where Black people make up 5 percent of the population and about 53 percent of the jail population... where Mario Woods, Kenneth Harding, Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez-Lopez, and so many more had their lives stolen by killer cops... where la migra terrorizes the community and Nancy Pelosi speaks of “keeping families together” while she gives Trump $4.6 billion for ICE and Border Patrol, so that more indigenous migrants from Guatemala like Claudia Gómez González and Jakelin Caal Maquin can die just like the Indian in the mural... a city flooded with tech money that could not exist without Third World sweatshops and coltan mines in the Congo where kids are worked like the slaves in Mount Vernon... where thousands of homeless are mocked and treated like human garbage.

To the youth in San Francisco and everywhere else: The world doesn’t have to be this way! All this wealth, technology, and interconnectedness could enable us to work together for the common good, to meet everyone’s material and intellectual needs, and solve the real problems humanity faces. But it’s going to take nothing less than a revolution to sweep this shithole world aside and bring the new one into being. We have a strategy for revolution and leadership in Bob Avakian, who has developed a new communism that is about emancipating all of humanity, not turning things upside down so that “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” And there is an important role for you in this revolution! Learn from the courage of Mamie Till. To change the world you must dare to understand it as it actually is. As Bob Avakian wrote:

3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better:

1) People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.

2) People have to dig seriously and scientifically into how this system of capitalism-imperialism actually works, and what this actually causes in the world.

3) People have to look deeply into the solution to all this.


1. See “American Crime #90: The Sullivan Expedition, 1779—Genocide of Native Peoples and Scorched Earth in Upstate New York.” [back]

2. BREAKTHROUGHS: The Historic Breakthrough by Marx, and the Further Breakthrough with the New Communism, by Bob Avakian, is available online at [back]


Have you ever noticed that the one privilege these “identity politics” hustlers don’t talk about is American privilege?—the privilege that comes from living in the USA, a country that plunders the world and whose wealth and power rests on brutal exploitation and oppression throughout the world, backed up by the massive violence of the American military. These hustlers want all they can get of that privilege. In opposition to that, what the masses of humanity need is to do away with and move beyond this whole vampire system, putting an end to all exploitation and oppression.

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Updated prepublication copy,
April 10, 2019
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