If you are white and don’t make an effort to study the history of racism in the United States it can be hard to imagine just how serious the country’s racist past is. In an age where a black man has been president, where black sports stars have multimillion dollar contracts, and when clear outward displays of racism are (almost) universally condemned, it is easy to believe that racism is a problem of the past. In our country we place a lot of weight on the idea that the individual is responsible for their own success. Whether it is their financial success, their physical shape and weight, or their intelligence, we put the determination and responsibility of the individual at the center of how we understand people, and that doesn’t leave room for racism. We look at successful black people and argue that racism can’t be a problem now, because clearly some black people have become successful. Racism, our current ideology says, can’t be holding people back anymore. The only thing that can be holding them back is a failure to take responsibility for their own actions. Racism is simply an excuse in this view.
However, if you are not white or if you make any effort to study racism in the United States, you see the long lasting legacy of American racism and how it continues to shape the lives of people today. Exclusionary housing policies of the past, policing policies, and education policies are areas where racism deliberately impacted the lived experiences of black people in the United States, clearly limiting opportunity and less clearly limiting the potential to pass on wealth and knowledge to future generations. The results of this discrimination never truly left us.
In his biography of 20th century cartoonist George Herriman, Michael Tisserand explores how the long lasting legacy of American racism can be seen in the life and work of George Herriman. Writing about New Orleans around the Civil War, a time when Herriman’s grandfather and father lived in the city, Tisserand writes, “From 1879 to 1917, there were no city-run public high schools available for blacks. Robert Mills Lusher, the state superintendent of education, infamously declared that the purpose of education was for white students to be properly prepared to maintain the supremacy of the white race.”
Herriman’s family left New Orleans for Los Angeles when he was 10, but throughout his life he hid the fact that he was of black and Creole descent. His light skin color allowed him to pass as white, and opened the door to a career in newspapers and comics. Without having light skin, and without having a family that could move him away from New Orleans, Herriman certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunities he did in California, and racism would have been the limiting factor.
Without studying American racism, it would be easy to look back at a time when there were no city-run public schools for blacks about a hundred years ago and dismiss that fact as irrelevant for the world today. If it had simply been an omission to teach black children, then the situation could have been rectified relatively easy, and black education could have gotten underway to prepare black children for the future. However, the quote shows that benign neglect was not there reason why there were not any schools for black children. It was deliberate racism, in full force from the highest levels of education in the state, that limited the educational opportunities for black people. This malignant attitude created the lack of schools, and it was not simply a matter of establishing schools to facilitate black education.
Opening schools would have been step one, but this would have been done 100 years ago in a climate that was actively hostile toward black students. It is not hard to imagine that high quality materials, resources, and educational opportunities, the things we would all want in our own children’s education, would have been rare among any black schools opened in this type of climate. Once you see the type of animosity that American racism fostered, by influential individuals like Robert Mills Lusher (who there is still a school named after), it is not hard to understand the long lasting legacy of such racism. Deliberate efforts to hold people down and create a system of supremacy for white people is not easily overturned, even 100 years later. The deliberate delays of educating black people has long-term consequences, as it takes time for educational opportunities to come along and for the people who receive good education to grow, accumulate wealth and power, and further invest in their communities. White people had this opportunity starting well over 100 years ago, but black people did not. Black people could not pass on their knowledge, could not connect their children with people to help advance their careers, and could not take on jobs that would help them build wealth that would support their families for generations to come. Instead they were constantly put down, blamed for their own failure, and never give the public support that while people developed for themselves and over time restricted under the premise of conservatism.