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Bring on the black Santas!

The right wing sees the debate about Santa's race as part of the so-called War on Christmas. But expanding the identities of iconic figures makes a difference.
African American Santa Claus Langston Patterson, 77, waits for children to arrive at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall in Los Angeles, Dec. 16, 2013.
African American Santa Claus Langston Patterson, 77, waits for children to arrive at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall in Los Angeles, Dec. 16, 2013. 

The debate over Santa's race moved beyond the conservative media sphere after a New Mexico high school teacher was disciplined for telling a black student he couldn't be Santa, because Santa is white. 

Christopher Rougier and his fellow ninth grade classmates were told they could come to school dressed as a Christmas character: either Santa, an elf or a reindeer. When Christopher arrived wearing a Santa hat and beard, his father says, the teacher asked him: "Don't you know Santa Clause is white? Why are you wearing that?"

Officials at Cleveland his school in Rio Rancho, a short distance from Albuquerque, said that the teacher recently was disciplined for his comments to the student, but that he will return to the classroom, according to the Associated Press and KOB-TV. A spokeswoman for the told the AP that the teacher admitted he made a "stupid mistake."

"The remark was inappropriate and should not have been made. The teacher feels very badly about what occurred," spokeswoman Kim Vesely said. "He self-reported the incident to the principal and has apologized to the student and to the student's parent. Appropriate disciplinary action has been taken."

The incident quickly became part of the right-wing's yearly claim that there's a "War on Christmas." In insisting last week that both Santa and Jesus were white, Fox News host Megyn Kelly sparked a larger conversation on the complicated relationships America has with race. Conservative pundits continue to stand by Kelly's comments—conservative radio host Neil Boortz on Monday said , "I'm sorry, Santa Claus is white. Okay? Deal with it"—while Kelly defends her remarks as a joke. But for many American kids like Christopher Rougier who are born into an increasingly non-white generation, the question of Santa's identity is significant.

Kelly's original condemnation of the idea of a non-white Santa was inspired by Slate writer Aisha Harris, who suggeted in an opinion piece that Santa ought to be race-less. "Isn’t it time that our image of Santa better serve all the children he delights each Christmas?" she asked. 

While white Santa might be ubiquitous, children around the country are being given the chance to meet Santas-of-color in the handful of communities that have them. 

Langston Patterson greets children every holiday season at a mall in South Los Angeles where he has been playing the role of Santa for nearly a decade, according to a recent Los Angeles Times profile. Asked what he thought about how his race might change how some kids see him, he said he'd "never even thought about it."

"I'm just giving back," he said. 

"I just thought I was getting paid to put on a Santa suit and say 'Ho! Ho! Ho!'" he said about his decision to take the job after it was offered to him in 2004. "But then I sat down and saw their reactions. I get a chance to make kids happy."

"I just don't want him to think that all greatness comes from a different race," Arlene Graves said of her godson's chance to meet Patterson's Santa. "There are Santa Clauses his color doing good work, too."

Those role models do more than just bring smiles to kids faces. In a 2009 study measuring what they called "the Obama effect," researchers found that focusing on non-white role models helped to improve students' academic performance. The data showed that national attention to President Obama's "stereotype-defying accomplishments" has a "concrete positive influence on Black-Americans’ academic performance."