Susan DuFresne, a pre-school and special education specialist from Seattle, Washi., just published the book History of Institutional Racism in U.S. Public Schools. Dufresne is also a self-taught artist with a heart that screams for justice. She began her project with three 15-feet-long 4-feet-high pieces of canvas and painted images of racial injustice and its effect on schools from the 16th century until today. These illustrations are supported by the notes Susan developed about each issue depicted and hand wrote in the margins.
I met Susan at a march in 2014 at Seattle’s iconic Westgate Park, home of political expression and protest for five decades. For me, it brought back childhood memories of a 1962 trip with my parents and a sister to the Seattle World’s Fair. At Westgate Park, my family boarded the monorail for the fairgrounds now called the Seattle Center, still the home of the Space Needle and today, home to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
That 2014 teacher’s march was the first public event organized by the Washington State Bats. We were protesting the Gates Foundation. Two motorcycle police went ahead of us closing streets to cross traffic and we happily marched toward the Seattle Center to enthusiastic cheers from locals along the route.
Last year, I met Susan again at the National Public Education (NPE) annual conference in Oakland, California. She displayed her amazing artwork in the main conference room. The room was large enough to accommodate more than 1,000 people seated at round tables. Her illustrations covered most of the north wall.
I would be very surprised if Susan could pick me out of a lineup, but she certainly made a positive impression on me.
School teachers, in general, abhor injustice and activists like Susan are particularly sensitive to the least protected among us. Garn Press, who is publishing Susan’s book says of her,
“Susan DuFresne is an artist and educator who advocates across all intersectional groups, organizing for social justice. She works alongside colleagues and friends who are leaders in the Black Lives Matter Movement and the Badass Teachers Association. She is a vocal supporter of Indigenous peoples, the Women’s Movement, and LGBTQIA activists, and cares deeply about environmental issues.”
“One of the important battles she fights is for democratically run schools, as well as a child’s right to play. She pushes against the use of high stakes testing, agreeing with many students, parents, and educators who denounce these tests as racially biased, advocating for their right to opt out.”
Both Susan and her publisher have pledged to donate a part of net profits to Black Lives Matter and to the Lakota People’s Law Project.
Yohuru R. Williams is Professor of History, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota. In a foreword to Susan’s book he wrote,
“As a historian of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements I am keenly aware of the power of art, in all of its forms, to rouse interest, stir the conscience, and encourage resistance to inequality. Inspired by the need to communicate a deeper truth, the poet’s words, the dancer’s feet, and the artist’s palette explode with an unharnessed creativity driven by a desire to educate, instigate and re-imagine.”
“United States Congressman and Civil Rights icon John Lewis is fond of sharing that one of the primary inspirations for him to write to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and join the Civil Rights Movement was a 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which in vivid illustration told the story of Dr. King, Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Beyond a mere recounting of those events the comic was also an education tool, identifying various ways that young people could get involved with the movement following what it termed the “Montgomery Method,” Nonviolent Direct-Action protest strategies derived for, and aimed at toppling segregation without losing sight of the shared humanity of the oppressor and the oppressed.”
The Dark History of Ignorance and Bigotry
The foundations of America have some very unsavory aspects. Susan illustrates these realities of racism dehumanizing people with different features and languages. She makes the point that this history is not being appropriately studied. This opportunity to remove the talons of evil that led to injustice is not being exercised. Those dark tendencies are still plaguing modern society and children are growing up ignorant of this hidden heritage.
In two of the panels, DuFresne addresses the atrocities foisted upon the indigenous peoples of America.
In 1830, President Andrew Jackson, just a year after taking office, narrowly pushed through a new piece of legislation called the “Indian Removal Act”. In an infamous 1838 episode depicted on one of Susan’s panels, the US government sent in 7,000 troops to remove the Cherokee nation from the Carolinas. They forced the Cherokees into stockades at bayonet point. They were not allowed time to gather their belongings, and as they left, whites looted their homes. Then began the march known as the Trail of Tears, in which 4,000 Cherokee people died of cold, hunger, and disease on their way to the western lands.
By 1837, the Jackson administration had removed 46,000 Native American people from their land east of the Mississippi and had secured treaties which led to the removal of a slightly larger number. Most members of the five southeastern nations had been relocated west, opening 25 million acres of land to white settlement and to slavery.
Supreme Court Rules Segregation Legal
The Plessy versus Ferguson court case of 1896 ended in a 7 to 1 decision by the US supreme court ratifying segregation. In this case, a shoemaker named Homer Plessy who happened to have one black great-grand-parent purposely broke Louisiana’s Jim Crow law requiring black people to use separate facilities from whites. In the key passage of the opinion, the Court stated that segregation was legal and constitutional as long as “facilities were equal.” Thus the “separate but equal doctrine” that would keep America divided along racial lines for over half a century longer came into being.
DuFresne put Plessy on the same panel of art as the “science” of eugenics that “proved” white people superior. The 1905 IQ tests developed by Alfred Binet were also used to justify forced sterilization. One of Susan’s notes says that the last forced sterilization in America occurred in Oregon (1981). Clinical psychologist Natalie Frank states,
“The eugenics movement began with the advent of testing for individual characteristics in children. Although intelligence testing was created to determine school readiness, it became one of the unintended foundations of eugenics. This occurred when three of the influential psychometricians, Lewis Terman, Henry Goddard and Robert Yerkes, began advocating testing as a method of differentiating who should be permitted to reproduce based on intelligence. These scientists built momentum for the idea of selective breeding and the call for using the process to strengthen the gene pool was taken up by some of the upper echelons of American and European society.”
Dictionary Dot Com defines eugenics: “the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, especially by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).”
Binet died in 1911 after having warned against the test’s potential for misuse, calling the notion that intelligence could not be improved a “brutal pessimism.” By 1916, Stanford’s Lewis Terman had come to quite a different conclusion. He wrote,
“The fact that one meets this type [feebleminded individuals] with such extraordinary frequency among Indians, Mexicans, and negroes suggests quite forcibly that the whole question of racial differences in mental traits will have to be taken up anew and by experimental methods.
“Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look out for themselves. There is no possibility at present of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.”
Terman’s reasoning has been updated and today it is used to justify privatizing public schools. The drill and skill pedagogy and discipline practices of the no excuses charter school movement flourish in politically weak minority communities. It is child abuse justified by bigotry.
It is the same irrational ideology that has led to today’s high-profit standardized testing industry. In fact, Carl C. Brigham, the father of the SAT, became interested in mental testing while a student a Princeton. He later became a psychology professor at the university, where he was an enthusiastic member of the eugenics movement. During the 1920s he developed his own objective admissions test for students applying to Princeton.
A Frontline story on PBS reported,
“Brigham later worked on the Army Alpha Test, an intelligence test given to millions of recruits during World War I. In 1923, he wrote A Study of American Intelligence, which analyzed the findings of the Alpha Test by race. Its conclusion, which Brigham insisted was without prejudice, was that American education was declining and ‘will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.’”
The Authors Motivation
About creating this massive work of art and later turning it into a book, Susan shares,
“I thought too of the African men, women, and children who were brought to America and enslaved. The Southern Poverty Law Center has raised the concern that even today public school students still do not study slavery or consider how racism and discrimination impact the lives of children and their families. With a marker, I wrote the following notes in the margins of the first panel.
- Enslavement of Indigenous people, Native Americans, murder, and disease enabled the colonizers to seize land.
- Enslavement of Africans enabled profit as well.
- Oppressive schooling became possible via acts of terror.”
“Notes for panel 5:
- 1899 – Supreme Court allows a state to levy taxes on Black and white citizens alike while providing a public school for white children only. (Cumming v. Richmond, (GA) County Board of Education).
- 1893 – Mandatory education for Indian children in Boarding Schools – Native language forbidden. If parents refused, annuities or rations could be withheld or send them to jail. Educators had quotas to fill. Many died at school.
- 1913 – U.S. v. Sandoval, Supreme Court, American Indians ‘simple, uninformed & inferior people’ – incapable of citizenship.”
Destroy Public Education Movement
Dufresne concludes her history by addressing the modern forces that are destroying public schools in poor non-white neighborhoods.
The 2002 No Child Left Behind Act used the tools developed by the eugenicists to label the schools of black and brown children failures. The standardized testing used to destroy their schools had “roots deeply embedded in racism.”
Susan highlights Secretary of Education in the Obama administration, Arne Duncan’s infamous statement, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.” This statement is disgusting and makes it clear that the attack on schools in minority communities is bipartisan. It is not conservatives or liberals attacking public education. It is wealthy elites who lead both the conservative and liberal movements in America destroying the foundations of democracy because they fear it.
I have touched briefly on a small portion of the historical abuse of “those people’s children” that Susan is teaching about. As I was writing this, I looked closely at each panel of art and their associated notes. The more I looked the more I saw. This work exemplifies the creative use of art to teach. It shines a light on injustice motivated by racism and the damage reeked.
Every school library at every level should contain this book and have it prominently displayed. Every parent should get this book and study it with their children. This book is a masterpiece of art and history.