The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Racism helped shaped the state’s schools and culture.

In this July 9, 2020 photo, protesters gather in front of district attorney's office in Salt Lake City. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

On Feb. 9, 2022, Kenneth Akers, a Black military veteran, posted a notice of suspension on Twitter from his daughter’s middle school in South Jordan, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. The suspension form for Akers’s daughter provided several mundane details before describing the administrator’s recommendation: “Stay away from the other student. Keep your hands to yourself. Report inappropriate language to teacher/administrator.”

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

The school’s response highlights continuities in Utah’s history of racism and anti-Blackness, which reaches back into the mid-19th century. Religious persecution forced White members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) out of 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 Black people.

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 proslavery representatives in Congress as they sought official territorial status. After the war, all enslaved Black people in Utah became freed, but the racial inequality that shaped the Utah landscape remained ever-present, producing consequences that have shaped institutions and culture to the present.

In Salt Lake City during the latter half of the 19th century, Black people built a sustained community presence, including establishing their own newspapers, churches and community organizations. But they faced discrimination both from the LDS Church and secular institutions. Beginning in 1849, the church banned Black people from becoming priests — a key element to full participation in the Church. This reality would not change until the Revelation on Priesthood in 1978.

Racism and anti-Blackness also confronted Black Utahns in schools. During the early 20th century, the Salt Lake City School District promoted vocational education for Black students and a liberal arts education for White ones. D.H. Christensen, Salt Lake’s schools superintendent, visited Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute in 1911 to learn about vocational education and Washington returned the favor two years later. During his visit in 1913, Washington gave a lecture at the University of Utah, entitled “Industrial Development of the Negro Race.” A local newspaper applauded Washington’s perspective by asserting, “[he] owns no burning desire to make his race prominent or powerful; he wishes that its members will be useful and self-supporting.” Washington also spoke at two local Black churches: Calvary Baptist and First Methodist Episcopal.

In their positions toward both slavery and vocational education, White LDS people of the state aligned themselves with the American South. The Hampton-Tuskegee idea, which originated in the South, sought to cultivate Black people as docile laborers and teachers for the benefit of White capitalists — North, South and West.

Curricular segregation was not the only means by which local power brokers divided Black and White people in the city. Local real estate agents and the real estate funding apparatus segregated Salt Lake City using racial covenants and discriminatory lending. The plan for the city’s east-west divide, detailed by a 1940 map from the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a federal real estate agency, has continued to mark the racial division and spatial organization of housing and schooling.

The rise of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, and White resistance to it, occurred in Utah just as it did in the South, albeit on a smaller scale. The Salt Lake City school system became a critical site of contention over questions of justice and equity 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 being too loud in the hallway outside his classroom and used a slur to refer to them. Leaders in the city’s Black community called for Maher to be fired. The school district responded by suspending Maher and the Black students. Maher received his pay; the Black students received tutoring at the district office. White students, including the student body president, Clayton Christensen, rallied to support their teacher.

Hundreds of White students at West High School walked out of school in solidarity with Maher. White students who walked out of school were not punished or criminalized. Responding to the media about the incident, Christensen asserted, “we feel no discrimination exists in our school. If it does, it is only in the mind of black students.”

Black students organized their own protests against Maher but framed their complaints and demands in broader terms. In August 1970, two of the students who were involved in the incident with Maher joined a protest of approximately 100 other people to protest racism and the unpopular war in Vietnam, which relied on a draft system that disproportionately affected young men of color. The group demanded the firing of Maher, the end of police on campuses, 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 result in much action, either.

The failure by the Salt Lake City School District — and other school districts in the state — to root out racism has become all too familiar in the decades since then.

In October 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report about the Davis Public Schools, a district just north of Salt Lake City, and its treatment of Black students in particular. Of the report, one local journalist wrote, “Davis School District has intentionally ignored ‘serious and widespread’ racial harassment in its schools for years — failing to respond to hundreds of reports from Black students” who complained that White students call them “slaves,” slurs and threatened to lynch them. Those threats had real, lasting and significant consequences for Black students in the district. A few weeks following the report, Izzy Tichenor, a Black 10-year-old autistic girl, died by suicide after her classmates allegedly bullied her.

The collection of these recent events is not an aberration for Utah. At the same time, the state's White majority sees no urgency in dealing with this history or its consequences in the present. Rather than dealing with racism in the schools, legislators and White activist Republican parents seek to maintain and perpetuate the status quo.

A more inclusive and just future for the state and especially for students like Kenneth Akers’s daughter is possible, though. But it will require White Utahns to join with people of color — who are already doing the work — to break from the past and seek to cultivate spaces where all are truly welcomed and supported in their communities and schools. Building such spaces will require uncovering and rooting out racism in both mundane and institutional forms. Beyond doing so because it is just, eliminating the legacies of centuries racism is key to attracting and retaining diverse people. Only righting the wrongs of the recent and long ago past will enable Utah to maximize its potential.