A recent incident underscores Utah’s long and troubled history of racism

What led to the suspension of the girl? According to Akers, five white students made racist comments about his daughter, including using a modified slur. When she confronted the white students, one of the boys called her an offensive term, and she responded by hitting the boy. From the point of view of the administrators was the problem not the racism Akers’ daughter faced at school, but her reaction to it.

The school’s response highlights continuities in Utah’s history of racism and anti-Blackness, dating back to the mid-19th century. Religious persecution forced white members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) from Ohio, Illinois and Missouri. They arrived in what is now Utah in 1847, led by Brigham Young, and colonized the ancestral lands of the indigenous peoples who lived there. The group of white LDS colonizers included two enslaved blacks.

Upon their arrival, white LDS colonizers set about codifying the institution of slavery, making Utah one of only two western territories to legalize the institution. Before the Civil War, the LDS Church supported slavery as an institution, in part to gain the support of pro-slavery representatives in Congress seeking official territorial status. After the war, all enslaved blacks in Utah were freed, but the racial inequality that shaped the Utah landscape remained pervasive and had consequences that have shaped institutions and culture to this day.

Racism and anti-blackness also confronted black Utahns in schools. During the early 20th century, the Salt Lake City School District encouraged professional education for black students and liberal arts education for white students. DH Christensen, the Salt Lake City school principal, visited Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in 1911 to learn about vocational training, and Washington reciprocated two years later. During his 1913 visit, Washington delivered a lecture at the University of Utah entitled “Industrial Development of the Negro Race”. A local newspaper hailed Washington’s perspective, claiming: “[he] possesses no burning desire to make his race prominent or powerful; he desires his members to be useful and self-sustaining.” Washington also spoke at two local black churches: Calvary Baptist and First Methodist Episcopal.

In their positions on both slavery and vocational training, white LDS people in the state aligned themselves with the American South. The Hampton-Tuskegee idea, which originated in the South, attempted to cultivate blacks into docile workers and teachers for the benefit of white capitalists – North, South and West.

Curriculum segregation was not the only means by which local rulers segregated blacks and whites in the city. Local realtors and the real estate finance apparatus divided Salt Lake City through racial covenants and discriminatory lending. The plan for the city’s east-west division, detailed by a 1940 map from the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a federal real estate agency, continues to mark racial segregation and the spatial organization of housing and schools.

The rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, and white resistance to it, took place in Utah as much as it did in the South, albeit to a lesser extent. Salt Lake City’s school system became a critical bone of contention over issues of equity and justice in a predominantly White and LDS space.

In 1970, James D. Maher, a white music teacher at West High School, had a verbal altercation with four black students. Maher reportedly believed the students were making too much noise in the hallway outside his classroom and used a slur to refer to them. Leaders of the city’s black community called for Maher’s release. The school district responded by suspending Maher and the black students. Maher received his wages; the black students received tutoring at the district office. White students, including student body president Clayton Christensen, rallied to support their teacher.

Hundreds of white West High School students left the school in solidarity with Maher. White students who dropped out of school were not punished or criminalized. Responding to the media about the incident, Christensen stated: “We believe that there is no discrimination at our school. If so, then only in the minds of black students.”

Black students organized their own protests against Maher, but formulated their grievances and demands more broadly. In August 1970, two of the students involved in the Maher incident joined a protest of about 100 other people to protest racism and the unpopular war in Vietnam, which was based on a conscription system that left young men with disproportionate concerned strength. The group called for Maher to be fired, the end of campus police, the hiring of Black and Chicano teachers and counselors, and the right to protest on campus. Maher kept his job; The other demands did not lead to great deeds either.

The failure of the Salt Lake City school district — and other school districts across the state — to eradicate racism has become all too well known in the decades since.

In October 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report on Davis Public Schools, a county north of Salt Lake City, and specifically how it was treating black students. Of the report, a local journalist wrote: “The Davis School District has for years purposely ignored ‘serious and widespread’ racial harassment in its schools — and has not responded to hundreds of reports from black students” who complained that white students were abusing them “Slaves,” berates them and threatens to lynch them. These threats had real, lasting, and significant consequences for black students in the district. A few weeks after the report, Izzy Tichenor, a black 10-year-old autistic girl, died by suicide after her classmates allegedly bullied her.

The gathering of these recent events is no aberration for Utah. At the same time, the white majority of the state sees no urgency in coming to terms with this history and its consequences in the present. Instead of addressing racism in the schools, lawmakers and Republican parents are working with white activists to try and uphold the status quo.

However, a more inclusive and equitable future for the state and especially for students like Kenneth Akers’ daughter is possible. But it will require White Utahns to join forces with people of color – who are already doing the work – to break with the past and create spaces where all are truly welcomed and supported in their communities and schools. Building such spaces requires the exposure and eradication of racism in both secular and institutional forms. Aside from being fair, cleaning up the legacies of centuries-old racism is key to attracting and retaining diverse people. Just correcting the injustices of the recent and distant past will enable Utah to maximize its potential.

About Stephanie McGehee

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