The Racist History of Prom

The Racist History of Prom

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When young people began going to prom in the late 19th century, it wasn’t yet a dance for high schoolers. Prom, short for “promenade,” was originally an event for college students in the northeast that had its roots in debutante balls. Also known as “coming out” parties, debutante balls introduced young women to “polite society” and its eligible men.

For middle-class white women who might not be able to afford debutante balls, co-ed prom parties for graduating students served a similar function by introducing women to the adult world of manners and etiquette and putting them on display for potential husbands. According to Mic, “Early proms were governed by the same rules and dress codes as debutante balls were: they were racially segregated, for instance, and girls were forbidden to wear masculine clothing.”

In the 1920s, white high schools began to introduce proms to their teenage students. Like the college proms, these were meant to teach students how to behave as respectable men and women along gender and racial lines, and also excluded black students. By the time the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, the prom had become a big enough deal that some high school principals cancelled their proms so that poorer students wouldn’t be “psychologically wounded.”

But proms really took off in the 1950s, when a post-war boom and new consumer market geared toward teenagers made the celebration a mainstay of the high school year—and one that boys should invite girls to, not vice versa. One 1950s advice book for teenagers lectured that “‘Girls who [try] to usurp the right of boys to choose their own dates will ruin a good dating career,’” according to Ann Anderson in High School Prom.

After Brown vs. Board of Educationwas decided in 1954, white schools in the south actively worked to undermine the Supreme Court’s ruling thatschools couldn’t segregate students by race. In the 1960s and ‘70s, many white schools that had integrated their classrooms began to hold two proms: one for white students and one for black students. In the famous case of Charleston High School in Mississippi, white parents began organizing invite-only proms for white students in 1970, the year black students began attending. In response, black parents organized their own prom for their kids.

Charleston High’s proms received national attention in 1997, when actor Morgan Freeman promised to pay for the school dance if it agreed to hold one integrated prom. The school refused and continued holding racially segregated proms until 2008—a saga detailed in the documentary Prom Night in Mississippi. But Charleston isn’t even the most recent school to desegregate its prom. Students at Wilcox County High School in Abbeville, Georgia, only held their first integrated prom in 2013 (the whites-only prom was scrapped the following year.)

In addition to segregated proms, students have also pushed back against gendered rules about prom attire and policies that prohibit same-sex couples. In 1979, two students became the first acknowledged gay men to attend a high school prom together in the U.S., said the National Gay Task Force. Since then, students have continued to push for LGBTQ-inclusive proms where students can take whomever they want to the dance, and also dress in a way that doesn’t adhere to traditional gender norms.

As schools struggled with racial and LGBTQ inclusion between the 1980s and today, prom became a more prominent subject in the media. A new genre of “teen movies” like Pretty in Pink (1986), She’s All That (1999), and Mean Girls (2004) portrayed prom as a major event for drama and romance. Just like in the movies, students in wealthier parts of the country began to take limos to prom, which were increasingly held at hotels instead of school gyms.

But the biggest change to the American prom in the past few years is something even recent grads might not have heard of: the promposal. This is much more elaborate than simply asking someone, “Will you go to prom with me?” Promposals are usually something that students do if they’re already in a relationship (and suspect the answer to the invite will be “yes”), like sending their significant other a pizza that says “PROM?” or showing off their fire dancing skills.

Prior to the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Brown v. Board of Education, most schools in the southern United States were racially segregated. [1] The process of integration of schools was slow, and many schools did not become integrated until the late 1960s and early 1970s. In order to avoid having to hold an integrated prom, many high schools stopped sponsoring any prom, and private segregated proms were organized as a replacement. [2] [3] [4] [5] [6] Sometimes a concern over interracial dating was cited as the reason for not holding a single prom. [5] Other schools cited liability concerns as the reason for not sponsoring a prom. [7]

In addition to segregated proms, some schools have also elected black and white homecoming kings and queens, class officers, and even awarded separate black and white superlatives such as "Most Likely To Succeed." [3] [6] [8] School sponsored separate events, including separate homecoming queens or superlatives, have been deemed to violate federal law by the United States Department of Justice. [9]

In 1990, The New York Times reported that 10 counties in Georgia were still holding segregated proms. [10] Though the practice has been reported to be on the decline, occasional press reports seem to show it persists in some rural locations. [11] [12] [13] Since 1987, media sources have reported on segregated proms being held in the U.S. states of Alabama, [7] [14] Arkansas, [2] Georgia, [4] Louisiana, [3] Mississippi, [15] South Carolina, [16] and Texas. [17]

In two places in Georgia, the "black prom" is open to attendance by all students. Only the "white prom" is racially exclusive. [4] [5]

School alumni at schools which held segregated proms sometimes hold segregated class reunions as well. [18]

Outside the Deep South Edit

Even prior to integration in the South, there have been instances of segregated proms being held in integrated schools in the northern United States. In the late 1920s, for example, separate proms for blacks and whites are recorded as occurring at Froebel High School in Gary, Indiana. [19]

These photographs helped integrate proms in Montgomery, Georgia

Gillian Laub’s potent images of racially segregated proms brought Montgomery County’s ‘dark secret’ into the open. Southern Rites, her new HBO documentary, details the town’s triumphs and tragedies in confronting its difficult history

The first interracial couple to attend an integrated prom in Montgomery, Georgia. Photograph: Gillian Laub

The first interracial couple to attend an integrated prom in Montgomery, Georgia. Photograph: Gillian Laub

Last modified on Thu 26 Mar 2020 14.42 GMT

T eenagers in Montgomery, Georgia celebrated their fifth integrated prom this year – thanks, in part, to photographer Gillian Laub who spent 12 years documenting the town’s struggle to confront deep-seated racial tensions – and ended up transforming the town through her images.

In 2009, the New York Times Magazine published a series of Laub’s photographs of Montgomery County high school’s racially segregated proms. The piece exposed what Laub calls the town’s “dark secret” and sparked a debate that eventually led to Montgomery County finally integrating prom. In 2011, Laub returned to document the historical event and learned that one of her previous subjects, a young black man, had been murdered.

Now, Laub has turned her study of racial tensions in Montgomery County and the killing of Justin Patterson into a documentary. Southern Rites, which airs on 18 May on HBO, explores the community’s struggle to move forward from its difficult past amid newfound tragedy. Musician John Legend produced the film.

Ahead of Southern Rites’s debut, we spoke to Laub about the teenagers she met in Montgomery, how the residents have reacted to her project and what it’s been like to witness a town in transition.

Students walk through the parking lot outside the first integrated prom in Lyons, Georgia, in 2010 Photograph: Gillian Laub / Courtesy Benrubi Gallery

I photographed the segregated proms of 2009, and when the photos were published a lot of the white families resented me because I was exposing what felt like a dirty secret.

When I came back, I had to go in front of parents and school administrators to explain and ask permission to photograph the first integrated prom. I really begged them and said, ‘Look, I’m here to tell the good story. People didn’t respond well to seeing your segregated proms, but I want to tell the story of hope and transition in your community.’

Quanti Jorden and Kayla Miller, the prom prince and princess, share a dance at the integrated prom in 2011. Photograph: Gillian Laub / Courtesy Benrubi Gallery

I fell in love with the teenagers of Montgomery. I could tell that the mixed friendships were very real. So on one hand [Montgomery County] felt like such an integrated community because of the kids, but on the other hand it felt like [the teenagers] had their hands tied because of parents who didn’t want to see interracial relationships.

Kayla and Quanti have been friends since kindergarten. They wanted to have an integrated prom – and that’s why it was so shocking to me, that parents were trying so hard to keep these kids separated.

Students dancing at ‘black prom’, where white students can also attend, in Vidalia, Georgia in 2009. Black students were not allowed to go to ‘white prom’. Photograph: Gillian Laub / Courtesy Benrubi Gallery

Skyla is in the red dress. Her boyfriend Barry is black. She couldn’t take him to the white prom on Friday night but she went with him to the black prom on Saturday night. She was hurt that Barry couldn’t come to her prom, but she was very welcome at the black prom. I was amazed by her because she wasn’t as upset as I thought she would be.

There’s always a mixed couple or two every year. The white boy or girl can always go to the black prom, but unfortunately it wasn’t reciprocated when it came to the white prom. The Mexican students were able to attend both.

The first interracial couple to attend an integrated prom. Photograph: Gillian Laub / Courtesy Benrubi Gallery

There are a lot of parents that were open [to interracial relationships], but the parents that were not seemed to be the people who had the most power and control in the town.

Angel Howard before ‘black prom’: ‘We can’t fix prom until we fix the school. When the school comes together no longer sees color, then the prom can come together and no longer see color’ Photograph: Gillian Laub / Courtesy Benrubi Gallery

Angel’s father was the vice-principal of the middle school. She was scared to speak out [about segregation] because she didn’t want to jeopardize his job. She was also worried she wouldn’t graduate if she talked to me, so she made me promise that [my story in the New York Times Magazine] wouldn’t be published until after she graduated. That’s how serious this was. She really didn’t think she would graduate if she talked to me.

I was with her the night when she and her friend went to take pictures of their friends at the white prom – and they were asked to leave. A door slammed in her face. It was devastating.

Students come together on the dance floor of 2011’s integrated prom. Photograph: Gillian Laub / Courtesy Benrubi Gallery

I loved the dresses. I loved the colors. I loved how most of the couples were color coordinated. There was such effort and care put into every detail. Dressing for prom is a means of expression and I don’t think kids should be restricted from it. Visually it was eye candy for me.

That’s the thing about the segregation of the proms that’s so upsetting – prom is the biggest thing for these kids. People are planning for prom and investing in their dresses and suits for months. So the fact that such an important and poignant night in their life, a real milestone, is marred with such discrimination was so sad to me.

Keyke and Terrance at ‘black prom’ in Mount Vernon, Georgia in 2008. Photograph: Gillian Laub / Courtesy Benrubi Gallery

Gillian Laub’s photographs from Montgomery are currently on display at the Benrubi gallery in New York City. They will also be published in a forthcoming book, Southern Rites, in June 2015.

A Brief History Of How Racism Shaped Interstate Highways

Some of the country's highways were built through existing Black and brown communities. President Biden's infrastructure plan aims to address racial inequities. Richard Baker/Corbis via Getty Images hide caption

Some of the country's highways were built through existing Black and brown communities. President Biden's infrastructure plan aims to address racial inequities.

Richard Baker/Corbis via Getty Images

In his $2 trillion plan to improve America's infrastructure, President Biden is promising to address the racism ingrained in historical transportation and urban planning.

Biden's plan includes $20 billion for a program that would "reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments," according to the White House. It also looks to target "40 percent of the benefits of climate and clean infrastructure investments to disadvantaged communities."

Planners of the interstate highway system, which began to take shape after the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, routed some highways directly, and sometimes purposefully, through Black and brown communities. In some instances, the government took homes by eminent domain.

It left a deep psychological scar on neighborhoods that lost homes, churches and schools, says Deborah Archer, a professor at the New York University School of Law and national board president of the American Civil Liberties Union. Archer recently wrote for the Iowa Law Review about how transportation policy affected the development of Black communities.

She says the president will face major challenges in trying to rectify historical inequities.

America Reckons With Racial Injustice

'The Wrong Complexion For Protection.' How Race Shaped America's Roadways And Cities

"What is not clear is whether and how that money will be distributed in a way that will address the racial inequalities that are built into our transportation system and our infrastructure," she tells NPR's Morning Edition.

"I think it's also important for us to think about how we will shift culture within the relevant agencies so that white middle-class and affluent neighborhoods will not continue to be favored at the expense of communities of color, producing lopsided and skewed patterns of infrastructure development."

Here are highlights from Archer's interview with NPR:

Biden's New Infrastructure Might Begin To Dismantle Racist Urban Planning

Why would officials have targeted thriving vibrant communities? Was it just because the people who lived there were Black and or brown?

Some of the time, yes, that was actually the case. The highways were being built just as courts around the country were striking down traditional tools of racial segregation. So, for example, courts were striking down the use of racial zoning to keep Black people in certain communities and white people in other communities. And so the highway development popped up at a time when the idea, the possibility of integration in housing was on the horizon. And so very intentionally, highways were sometimes built right on the formal boundary lines that we saw used during racial zoning. Sometimes community members asked the highway builders to create a barrier between their community and encroaching Black communities.

As I read your paper, I was astonished to realize how many places this happened. Was there any successful resistance?

There was certainly successful resistance. We can see good examples in Greenwich Village in New York. There were examples from Washington, D.C., which is where the phrase "no white men's roads through Black men's homes" came from. That was the rallying cry for folks in D.C. who resisted it. And there was also a successful effort in New Orleans.

But I think it's important to point out the most successful efforts to stop the highways were not those that focused on racial justice or those that were put in place to protect Black communities. The people who were most successful were the ones that focused on environmental justice and protecting parks and their communities in that way.

If this initiative works, in what ways do you see the country being different in five or 10 years?

I think that right now, we can see that race frequently explains which communities receive the benefits of our transportation system and infrastructure and which communities were forced to host the burdens.

Our transportation systems have really led to racial disparities and discrimination, which are reinforced daily from highways, roads, bridges to sidewalks and public transit. We make it harder for Black people and other people of color to access and take advantage of opportunities.

So I would hope that at the end of this project — at the end of this plan — as you say in five years, that race would not be a way to explain who gets the benefits and who gets the burdens. It would not be a way to explain who has access and who doesn't.

Marc Rivers and Simone Popperl produced and edited the audio interview. Digital News intern Farah Eltohamy produced for the Web.

‘Don’t even drive by there’: Black TikToker explains the racist history of infamous ‘haunted’ lake

A Black TikTok star is shedding light on the racist treatment of a community in Georgia after a body been discovered in a lake that was built on the community’s land. Lake Lanier reportedly has a reputation for mysterious deaths.

TikToker @blackbeltbabe, real name Monique Sampson, has more than 218,000 followers and has been sharing videos following the news that a 19-year-old’s body was found in Lake Lanier. The teen went missing while he was swimming on Thursday in the 44-mile reservoir in Georgia.

“I hope people will learn about the thriving Black community that paid the ultimate price of losing their community simply because the city wanted to build a lake,” Sampson told the Daily Dot about why she shared her videos. “It is my hope they won’t be forgotten.”

She said in her video that 675 people have drowned or disappeared in the lake since 1957.

Sampson told the Daily Dot that she didn’t know about the legacy of the lake until her brother “almost drowned” in a jet ski accident after her family moved to north Georgia when she was 15.

“When describing the experience he said he felt as if he was being pulled down by something,” she said.

“Stay the heck away from Lake Lanier, period,” Sampson warned her viewers in one TikTok video on Sunday. “Don’t even drive by there.”


VIDEO FROM LAST YEAR. Since y’all won’t leave me alone about the #lakelanier videos. Here ya go!

♬ original sound – BlackBeltBabe

“The real story of Lake Lanier is something that is more dark and more cynical than you’ll ever learn,” Sampson, who teaches American history in Jacksonville, Florida, says in another video.

The video shows a beach that Sampson describes as fun—before she drops the truth bomb.

In 1957, the U.S. Army Corp wanted the land that, at the time, had a “thriving” Black community, Sampson said in the video. She says the community had a racetrack, farmland, and convenient stores.

“[The Army Corp] drove residents out of the space, demanded that they leave and decided to flood the entire area where the residents were,” Sampson said. “It was absolutely horrible.”

She shared news clips of what was discovered under the lake: Forestland, farmland, old homes, barns, and a racetrack allegedly surfaced during a drought.

“This was stadium seats,” Sampson says in the next video, highlighting the success of the Black community in the area. “They had all of these different amenities that they built for them, by them. The U.S. Army Corp came in and decided they wanted to build Lake Lanier at the expense of the Black community that was thriving.”


Videos from last year. Here y’all go since y’all keep bothering me about the Lake Lanier Videos lol

♬ original sound – BlackBeltBabe

The “haunted” reputation of the Lake is nothing new it has been extensively covered by travel blogs, CNN, Newsweek, which report its reputation as one of America’s deadliest lakes.

News articles about the lake, however, don’t mention the lake’s displacement of the Black community. The CNN article only mentioned that the lake displaced indigenous communities.

“Often times people white wash history because telling people the true history of this country makes many people uncomfortable,” Sampson told the Daily Dot. “I always say that if we don’t learn the good, bad and ugly we are almost destined to repeat the ugly. “

Sampson’s videos about the lake and her belief that it’s “haunted” have hundreds of thousands of views.

“You can’t just flood an entire city of people and think that the ancestors won’t pay back that misdeed in full,” Sampson said. “I believe in karma … a thriving Black community paid the ultimate price.”

On Twitter, it was clear that the lake’s negative reputation is well-known to Georgians—and even some people from out of state.

“I’m not from Georgia but I know not to take my ass to Lake Lanier,” one user wrote.

I’m not from Georgia but I know not to take my ass to Lake Lanier

&mdash DAMN! Double Homicide… (@Jazzy_Charrisse) May 21, 2021

this is the second time lake lanier has been trending this month … have y’all not learned? DON’T TAKE YOUR ASS TO LAKE LANIER.

&mdash cam! (@wilsonsrue) May 21, 2021

When Lake Lanier is trending we don’t even have to look for why, us Georgia folk know why…

&mdash Therra (@Therra) May 21, 2021

Other social media users noted that Lake Lanier’s history would make it an ideal backdrop for a horror film or TV show.


&mdash kay thee pony✨ (@x_LilFunSized) May 21, 2021

Today’s top stories

Samira Sadeque

Samira Sadeque is a New York-based journalist reporting on immigration, sexual violence, and mental health, and will sometimes write about memes and dinosaurs too. Her work also appears in Reuters, NPR, and NBC among other publications. She graduated from Columbia Journalism School, and her work has been nominated for SAJA awards. Follow: @Samideque

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Racist ‘promposal’ shows disconnect between affluent Palos Verdes Estates and the rest of L.A.

The young couple appeared jubilant as they held up a poster-board sign adorned with hearts meant to cement their date to Palos Verdes High School’s upcoming prom — a quintessential teenage event with the dreamy theme “Wish Upon a Star.”

The boy, identified by his peers as a foreign exchange student, smiled as he looked off into the distance. The girl threw her head back in laughter. Someone snapped a photograph — in an instant memorializing the moment and the hateful message on the poster.

“Bianca You are racist, but I would give anything for you to go with me to prom.”

Six extra-large letters within the message clearly spell out the N-word. The bold lettering of the racial slur stands out starkly against the pearl-hued poster-board.

The photograph spread quickly on social media this week, prompting backlash from students and parents who argue the situation highlights larger issues about the normalization of hate speech among youth in affluent, predominantly white communities.

Perched atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Palos Verdes Estates is, in many ways, isolated from the rest of Los Angeles. Residents often move to the suburban community in search of a good education for their children and a quiet life away from the bustle of city streets surrounding downtown Los Angeles.

“PV is a disconnected bubble. We don’t feel like we’re part of a greater community,” said Hayden Fuchino, a senior at the high school. “That has led some, especially younger ones, to grow up in a community that doesn’t have a lot of diversity, which is detrimental when it comes to understanding other people’s viewpoints.”

On Wednesday, a day after the “promposal” photo surfaced on social media, Principal Allan Tyner visited classrooms to address it with students. He said the conversations were to “review appropriate behavior” and “how the use of hurtful racial slurs … is unacceptable.”

The campus was more empty than usual because some students opted to stay home after threats of a shooting circulated on social media following the promposal photo. Others bustled from BMWs, Jeeps and Lexuses into the beige single-story campus buildings where Advanced Placement exams were being held.

Students and parents have demanded in online posts that the school investigate the photograph and punish those involved.

School administrators have contacted the two students in the photograph and their families to inform them they should anticipate severe consequences, though officials have declined to say what specifically the students face. Officials are also attempting to determine who else might have been present when the photo was taken, and who took it.

“At this time, I am asking all teachers and parents in our school community to join me in reminding our students that we live in a society that must respect diversity and tolerance,” Tyner said. “Indeed, this life lesson is critical and is one that school and home must partner to teach.”

This isn’t the first incident of racism that the school has experienced. Students have spoken about hearing their peers casually drop epithets aimed at African Americans, disabled people and people of Asian descent.

A few years ago, someone wrote a racial slur in the dust on an African American student’s car that was parked on campus. The incident prompted school officials to hold assemblies and conversations about diversity.

But save for a few broad conversations about race, the connotations of the N-word have not been directly addressed on campus, said Tyler Hickson, a junior.

Some students view the word as a joke, he said.

“I’ve heard people use it a little, but the focus has never been on the significance behind that word,” he said.

Tyner caught heat from some in the community after he called the N-word a “slang term for African Americans” in a statement sent to The Times on Tuesday. The comment sparked additional outrage from some who said the racial slur is offensive and shouldn’t be referred to merely as slang.

The principal strengthened his language in a letter to parents on Wednesday.

“I know that this one unfortunate event does not represent us as a school community,” he wrote. “Racist words and racist acts have no place in our school community. We will rise above this, learn from this, and be a better school community because of it.”

Promposals with racist messages have recently made headlines across the country in Ohio, New York, Texas and Arizona, as well as closer to home at East L.A.’s Garfield High. Similar incidents were reported last year in Florida.

The Palos Verdes High students’ promposal is the most recent in a series of incidents involving schools in predominantly white, wealthy communities in Southern California.

Earlier this month, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District investigated a series of overtly racist messages shared among young people, including students from Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach, in a private Instagram group.

One group member asked if anyone wanted a souvenir while the group member was in Alabama and Mississippi, noting, “I’ll get you a real confederate flag.”

Another person in the group then asked: “Do they still sell black people down there?”

The group member taking the trip responded: “If they do, I’ll get everyone a new plantation worker.”

It’s the same school that made national headlines in March when a group of students at a party posed with red plastic cups arranged in the shape of a swastika as some stood with hands outstretched in Nazi salutes.

In September, after a high school football game in Orange County, Santa Ana High principal Jeff Bishop said in a Facebook post that he was upset over what he saw as racially tinged intimidation by Aliso Niguel students.

Students from Aliso Niguel, whose student body is majority white, hung signs at the football game that read “We love White” and “Build the Wall.” Their opponent, Santa Ana High School, has a student body that is almost entirely Latino.

Brian Levin, director of Cal State San Bernardino’s Center on Hate and Extremism, said that while California is rapidly becoming more diverse, there are still communities that are highly segregated. This, he said, along with such factors as ignorance and bigotry can contribute to an increase in hate incidents.

“Many of these people who are engaging in hate speech are not hardcore hatemongers,” he said. “We have this middle group of people who think bigotry is funny. In today’s social media world, all kinds of bigotry — whether it’s committed purposefully or recklessly — oftentimes is going to be aired in a way that’s hurtful and divisive in a community irrespective of intent.”

What are the antebellum photos of Rachael Kirkconnell?

Kirkconnell faced backlash earlier this month after photos of her at a "antebellum plantation-themed ball" while at Georgia College & State University in 2018 resurfaced.

One snap that she had liked shows two Caucasian women dressed in hula outfits posing in front of a Confederate flag.

Another displays a trio of ladies proudly posing in traditional Mexican ponchos and sombreros while donning large fake moustaches.

Kappa Alpha throws their annual bash during “Old South Week” - a popular event that has previously been held on plantations and used Confederate flags for decoration.

On February 11, 2021, The Bachelor contestant broke her silence on the race controversy.

Taking to Instagram she apologized and pledged to educate herself while encouraging others to learn from her mistakes, writing: "Racial progress and unity are impossible without (white) accountability, and I deserve to be held accountable for my actions."

The 24-year-old posted a video on her Instagram account on February 25 addressing the controversy. She admitted in the video she was "tired" of "not saying anything" through the ongoing outrage.

“If you are in my comments or anywhere defending me or telling people that I did nothing wrong or that there is nothing to be hurt or offended about, please stop," she said in the video.

“That’s not our place to tell people what they can and can’t be offended about. That's wrong and that’s part of the problem so stop saying I did nothing wrong, that’s not true.

“If you really want to support me then encourage me to do better.”

Kirkconnell added she was "going to post some resources" she used or "planned on using because the learning never stops." She said she was hesitant in the past to post links or resources because she didn't "want people thinking it’s performative or not something I really stand by.”

The BMI, lost and found

Weight wasn’t considered a primary indicator of health until the early 20th century, when U.S. life insurance companies began to compile tables of height and weight for the purposes of determining what to charge prospective policyholders.

Like Quetelet’s Index, however, those actuarial tables were deeply flawed, representing only those with the resources and legal ability to purchase life insurance. Weight and height were largely self-reported, and often inaccurately. And what constituted an insurable weight varied from one company to the next, as did their methods of determining weight. Some included “frame size” — small, medium, or large. Others did not. Many didn’t factor in age. Insurers were staffed by actuaries and sales agents, not medical doctors. But despite their lack of medical expertise and insurers’ inconsistent measures, physicians began to use insurers’ rating tables as a means of evaluating their patients’ weight and health. This trend reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s.

By the 1970s, medical science was on the hunt for a more effective measure of weight. Enter researcher Ancel Keys. Keys and a cohort of fellow researchers conducted a study of 7,500 men from five different countries, aiming to find the most effective of medicine’s existing measures of body fat, that would be both easy and cost-effective enough for regular office visits

As in Quetelet’s work, the researchers’ subjects were drawn from predominantly white nations (the United States, Finland, Italy), along with Japan and South Africa, though their study notes that findings in South Africa “could not be suggested to be a representative sample of Bantu men in Cape Province let alone Bantu men in general.” Most of their findings, the authors note, apply to “all but the Bantu men.” That is, Keys’ findings weren’t representative of, or applicable to, the very South African men included in the study. Like Quetelet’s Index, whiteness took center stage in their research.

But unlike Quetelet, Keys and his colleagues set out to test which diagnostic tool was the best existing measure of body fat. In Keys’ landmark study, he and his fellow researchers hedged their findings significantly:

Again the body mass index […] proves to be, if not fully satisfactory, at least as good as any other relative weight index as an indicator of relative obesity. Still, if density is truly and closely (inversely) proportional to body fatness, not more than half of the total variance of body fatness is accounted for by the regression of fatness on the body mass index.

That is, the BMI was the strongest of three weak and imperfect measures (alongside water displacement and the use of skin calipers). Its claim to fame? Accurately diagnosing “obesity” about 50% of the time. As recently as 2011, that number held fast, as the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology found that the BMI detected less than 50% of “obesity” cases in Black, white, and Hispanic women.

In Keys’ same landmark study, he renamed Quetelet’s Index the “Body Mass Index.” And with that, a statistician’s largely forgotten index entered the world of individual health care — directly counter to its inventor’s wishes.

‘Let’s kill all the blacks’: School investigates students' racist rendition of ‘Jingle Bells’

The incident took place late Friday afternoon at Dover High School and was at least partially recorded by another student in the classroom, according to district Superintendent William Harbron. In the video, which was published to YouTube and appears to have been originally posted on Snapchat, two students are seen singing their assignment to the tune of “Jingle Bells.”

“KKK, KKK, let’s kill all the blacks, burn a cross in their front yard and hope they don’t come back,” the students sang. Not all the lyrics in the one-minute video are audible, but they continue the racist sentiments. Other students in the class are heard laughing at points during the song.

According to Harbron, students in the class were instructed to create a jingle about an event that took place in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. In the wake of the video, the school district — where children of color make up less than 5 percent of the student body — is calling the song “an incident of extreme racial insensitivity.”

In a letter to the district community sent Monday and obtained by The Washington Post, Harbron wrote that the school was working with students and educators to address the “harmful” incident. He added that administrators are “deeply concerned” about the incident, as well as the emotional toll that it could take on the district community.

Harbron acknowledged in an interview Monday afternoon that the instructor did not intervene during the students' performance. He added that the school’s principal is continuing to gather information about what happened.

The Racist History of Portland, the Whitest City in America

It’s known as a modern-day hub of progressivism, but its past is one of exclusion.

PORTLAND, Ore.—Victor Pierce has worked on the assembly line of a Daimler Trucks North America plant here since 1994. But he says that in recent years he’s experienced things that seem straight out of another time. White co-workers have challenged him to fights, mounted “hangman’s nooses” around the factory, referred to him as “boy” on a daily basis, sabotaged his work station by hiding his tools, carved swastikas in the bathroom, and written the word nigger on walls in the factory, according to allegations filed in a complaint to the Multnomah County Circuit Court in February 2015.

Pierce is one of six African Americans working in the Portland plant whom the lawyer Mark Morrell is representing in a series of lawsuits against Daimler Trucks North America. The cases have been combined and a trial is scheduled for January 2017.

“They have all complained about being treated poorly because of their race,” Morrell told me. “It’s a sad story—it’s pretty ugly on the floor there.” (Daimler said it could not comment on pending litigation, but spokesman David Giroux said that the company prohibits discrimination and investigates any allegations of harassment.)

The allegations may seem at odds with the reputation of this city known for its progressivism. But many African Americans in Portland say they’re not surprised when they hear about racial incidents in this city and state. That’s because racism has been entrenched in Oregon, maybe more than any state in the north, for nearly two centuries. When the state entered the union in 1859, for example, Oregon explicitly forbade black people from living in its borders, the only state to do so. In more recent times, the city repeatedly undertook “urban renewal” projects (such as the construction of Legacy Emanuel Hospital) that decimated the small black community that existed here. And racism persists today. A 2011 audit found that landlords and leasing agents here discriminated against black and Latino renters 64 percent of the time, citing them higher rents or deposits and adding on additional fees. In area schools, African American students are suspended and expelled at a rate four to five times higher than that of their white peers.

All in all, historians and residents say, Oregon has never been particularly welcoming to minorities. Perhaps that’s why there have never been very many. Portland is the whitest big city in America, with a population that is 72.2 percent white and only 6.3 percent African American.

“I think that Portland has, in many ways, perfected neoliberal racism,” Walidah Imarisha, an African American educator and expert on black history in Oregon, told me. Yes, the city is politically progressive, she said, but its government has facilitated the dominance of whites in business, housing, and culture. And white-supremacist sentiment is not uncommon in the state. Imarisha travels around Oregon teaching about black history, and she says neo-Nazis and others spewing sexually explicit comments or death threats frequently protest her events.

A protester at a Portland rally against the reinstatement of a police officer who shot a black man (Rick Bowmer / AP)

Violence is not the only obstacle black people face in Oregon. A 2014 report by Portland State University and the Coalition of Communities of Color, a Portland nonprofit, shows black families lag far behind whites in the Portland region in employment, health outcomes, and high-school graduation rates. They also lag behind black families nationally. While annual incomes for whites nationally and in Multnomah County, where Portland is located, were around $70,000 in 2009, blacks in Multnomah County made just $34,000, compared to $41,000 for blacks nationally. Almost two-thirds of black single mothers in Multnomah County with kids younger than age 5 lived in poverty in 2010, compared to half of black single mothers with kids younger than age 5 nationally. And just 32 percent of African Americans in Multnomah County owned homes in 2010, compared to 60 percent of whites in the county and 45 percent of blacks nationally.

“Oregon has been slow to dismantle overtly racist policies,” the report concluded. As a result, “African Americans in Multnomah County continue to live with the effects of racialized policies, practices, and decision-making.”

Whether this history can be overcome is another matter. Because Oregon, and specifically Portland, its biggest city, are not very diverse, many white people may not even begin to think about, let alone understand, the inequalities. A blog, “Shit White People Say to Black and Brown Folks in PDX,” details how racist Portland residents can be to people of color. “Most of the people who live here in Portland have never had to directly, physically and/or emotionally interact with PoC in their life cycle,” one post begins.

As the city becomes more popular and real-estate prices rise, it is Portland’s tiny African American population that is being displaced to the far-off fringes of the city, leading to even less diversity in the city’s center. There are about 38,000 African Americans in the city in Portland, according to Lisa K. Bates of Portland State University in recent years, 10,000 of those 38,000 have had to move from the center city to its fringes because of rising prices. The gentrification of the historically black neighborhood in central Portland, Albina, has led to conflicts between white Portlanders and longtime black residents over things like widening bicycle lanes and the construction of a new Trader Joe’s. And the spate of alleged incidents at Daimler Trucks is evidence of tensions that are far less subtle.

“Portland’s tactic when it comes to race up until now, has been to ignore it,” says Zev Nicholson, an African American resident who was, until recently, the Organizing Director of the Urban League of Portland. But can it continue to do so?

From its very beginning, Oregon was an inhospitable place for black people. In 1844, the provisional government of the territory passed a law banning slavery, and at the same time required any African American in Oregon to leave the territory. Any black person remaining would be flogged publicly every six months until he left. Five years later, another law was passed that forbade free African Americans from entering into Oregon, according to the Communities of Color report.

In 1857, Oregon adopted a state constitution that banned black people from coming to the state, residing in the state, or holding property in the state. During this time, any white male settler could receive 650 acres of land and another 650 if he was married. This, of course, was land taken from native people who had been living here for centuries.

This early history proves, to Imarisha, that “the founding idea of the state was as a racist white utopia. The idea was to come to Oregon territory and build the perfect white society you dreamed of.” (Matt Novak detailed Oregon’s heritage as a white utopia in this 2015 Gizmodo essay.)

With the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments, Oregon’s laws preventing black people from living in the state and owning property were superseded by national law. But Oregon itself didn’t ratify the Fourteenth Amendment—the Equal Protection Clause—until 1973. (Or, more exactly, the state ratified the amendment in 1866, rescinded its ratification in 1868, and then finally ratified it for good in 1973.) It didn’t ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, which gave black people the right to vote, until 1959, making it one of only six states that refused to ratify that amendment when it passed.

The Champoeg meetings organized early government in Oregon. (Joseph Gaston / The Centennial History of Oregon)

This history resulted in a very white state. Technically, after 1868, black people could come to Oregon. But the black-exclusion laws had sent a very clear message nationwide, says Darrell Millner, a professor of black studies at Portland State University. “What those exclusion laws did was broadcast very broadly and loudly was that Oregon wasn’t a place where blacks would be welcome or comfortable,” he told me. By 1890, there were slightly more than 1,000 black people in the whole state of Oregon. By 1920, there were about 2,000.

The rise of the Ku Klux Klan made Oregon even more inhospitable for black people. The state had the highest per-capita Klan membership in the country, according to Imarisha. The democrat Walter M. Pierce was elected to the governorship of the state in 1922 with the vocal support of the Klan, and photos in the local paper show the Portland chief of police, sheriff, district attorney, U.S. attorney, and mayor posing with Klansmen, accompanied by an article saying the men were taking advice from the Klan. Some of the laws passed during that time included literacy tests for anyone who wanted to vote in the state and compulsory public school for Oregonians, a measure targeted at Catholics.

It wasn’t until World War II that a sizable black population moved to Oregon, lured by jobs in the shipyards, Millner said. The black population grew from 2,000 to 20,000 during the war, and the majority of the new residents lived in a place called Vanport, a city of houses nestled between Portland and Vancouver, Washington, constructed for the new residents. Yet after the war, blacks were encouraged to leave Oregon, Millner said, with the Portland mayor commenting in a newspaper article that black people were not welcome. The Housing Authority of Portland mulled dismantling Vanport, and jobs for black people disappeared as white soldiers returned from war and displaced the men and women who had found jobs in the shipyards.

Dismantling Vanport proved unnecessary. In May 1948, the Columbia River flooded, wiping out Vanport in a single day. Residents had been assured that the dikes protecting the housing were safe, and some lost everything in the flood. At least 15 residents died, though some locals formulated a theory that the housing authority had quietly disposed of hundreds more bodies to cover up its slow response. The 18,500 residents of Vanport—6,300 of whom were black—had to find somewhere else to live.

Men wade through the Vanport flood in 1948 (AP photo)

For black residents, the only choice, if they wanted to stay in Portland, was a neighborhood called Albina that had emerged as a popular place to live for the black porters who worked in nearby Union Station. It was the only place black people were allowed to buy homes after, in 1919, the Realty Board of Portland had approved a Code of Ethics forbidding realtors and bankers from selling or giving loans to minorities for properties located in white neighborhoods.

As black people moved into Albina, whites moved out by the end of the 1950s, there were 23,000 fewer white residents and 7,000 more black residents than there had been at the beginning of the decade.

The neighborhood of Albina began to be the center of black life in Portland. But for outsiders, it was something else: a blighted slum in need of repair.

Today, North Williams Avenue, which cuts through the heart of what was once Albina, is emblematic of the “new” Portland. Fancy condos with balconies line the street, next to juice stores and hipster bars with shuffleboard courts. Ed Washington remembers when this was a majority black neighborhood more than a half a century ago, when his parents moved their family to Portland during the war in order to get jobs in the shipyard. He says every house on his street, save one, was owned by black families.

“All these people on the streets, they used to be black people,” he told me, gesturing at a couple with sleeve tattoos, white people pushing baby strollers up the street.

Since the postwar population boom, Albina has been the target of decades of “renewal” and redevelopment plans, like many black neighborhoods across the country.

Imarisha says she is often the only black person in Portland establishments. (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

In 1956, voters approved the construction of an arena in the area, which destroyed 476 homes, half of them inhabited by black people, according to “Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940-2000,” a paper by the Portland State scholar Karen J. Gibson. This forced many people to move from what was considered “lower Albina” to “upper Albina.” But upper Albina was soon targeted for development, too, first when the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 provided funds for Portland to build Interstate 5 and Highway 99. Then a local hospital expansion was approved, clearing 76 acres, including 300 African American–owned homes and businesses and many shops at the junction of North Williams Avenue and Russell Street, the black “Main Street.”

The urban-renewal efforts made it difficult for black residents to maintain a close-knit community the institutions that they frequented kept getting displaced. In Portland, according to Gibson, a generation of black people had grown up hearing about the “wicked white people who took away their neighborhoods.” In the meantime, displaced African Americans couldn’t acquire new property or land. Redlining, the process of denying loans to people who lived in certain areas, flourished in Portland in the 1970s and 1980s. An investigation by The Oregonian published in 1990 revealed that all the banks in Portland together had made just 10 mortgage loans in a four-census-tract area in the heart of Albina in the course of a year. That was one-tenth the average number of loans in similarly sized census tracts in the rest of the city. The lack of available capital gave way to scams: A predatory lending institution called Dominion Capital, The Oregonian alleged, also “sold” dilapidated homes to buyers in Albina, though the text of the contracts revealed that Dominion actually kept ownership of the properties, and most of the contracts were structured as balloon mortgages that allowed Dominion to evict buyers shortly after they’d moved in. Other lenders simply refused to give loans on properties worth less than $40,000. (The state's attorney general sued Dominion’s owners after The Oregonian's story ran the AP reported that the parties reached a settlement in 1993 in which Dominion’s owners agreed to pay fines and to limit their business activity in the state. The company filed for bankruptcy a few days after the state lawsuit was filed U.S. bankruptcy court handed control of the company to a trustee in 1991.)

The inability of blacks to get mortgages to buy homes in Albina led, once again, to the further decimation of the black community, Gibson argues. Homes were abandoned, and residents couldn’t get mortgages to buy them and fix them up. As more and more houses fell into decay, values plummeted, and those who could left the neighborhood. By the 1980s, the value of homes in Albina reached 58 percent of the city’s median.

“In Portland, there is evidence supporting the notion that housing market actors helped sections of the Albina District reach an advanced stage of decay, making the area ripe for reinvestment,” she writes.

Construction in Portland along the Willamette River (Don Ryan / AP)

By 1988, Albina was a neighborhood known for its housing abandonment, crack-cocaine activity, and gang warfare. Absentee landlordism was rampant, with just 44 percent of homes in the neighborhood owner-occupied.

It was then, when real-estate prices were at rock bottom, that white people moved in and started buying up homes and businesses, kicking off a process that would make Albina one of the more valuable neighborhoods in Portland. The city finally began to invest in Albina then, chasing out absentee landlords and working to redevelop abandoned and foreclosed homes.

Much of Albina’s African American population would not benefit from this process, though. Some could not afford to pay for upkeep and taxes on their homes when values started to rise again others who rented slowly saw prices reach levels they could not afford. Even those who owned started to leave by 1999, blacks owned 36 percent fewer homes than they had a decade earlier, while whites owned 43 percent more.

This gave rise to racial tensions once again. Black residents felt they had been shouting for decades for better city policy in Albina, but it wasn’t until white residents moved in that the city started to pay attention.

“We fought like mad to keep crime out of the area,” Gibson quotes one longtime resident, Charles Ford, as saying. “But the newcomers haven’t given us credit for it …We never envisioned the government would come in and mainly assist whites … I didn’t envision that those young people would come in with what I perceived as an attitude. They didn’t come in [saying] ‘We want to be a part of you.’ They came in with this idea, ‘we’re here and we’re in charge’… It’s like the revitalization of racism.”

Many might think that, as a progressive city known for its hyperconsciousness about its own problems, Portland would be addressing its racial history or at least its current problems with racial inequality and displacement. But Portland only recently became a progressive city, said Millner, the professor, and its past still dominates some parts of government and society.

Until the 1980s, “Portland was firmly in the hands of the status quo—the old, conservative, scratch-my-back, old-boys white network,” he said. The city had a series of police shootings of black men in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, the police department was investigated after officers ran over possums and then put the dead animals in front of black-owned restaurants.

Yet as the city became more progressive and “weird,” full of artists and techies and bikers, it did not have a conversation about its racist past. It still tends not to, even as gentrification and displacement continue in Albina and other neighborhoods.

“If you were living here and you decided you wanted to have a conversation about race, you’d get the shock of your life,” Ed Washington, the longtime Portland resident, told me. “Because people in Oregon just don’t like to talk about it.”

The overt racism of the past has abated, residents say, but it can still be uncomfortable to traverse the city as a minority. Paul Knauls, who is African American, moved to Portland to open a nightclub in the 1960s. He used to face the specter of “whites-only” signs in stores, prohibitions on buying real estate, and once, even a bomb threat in his jazz club because of its black patrons. Now, he says he notices racial tensions when he walks into a restaurant full of white people and it goes silent, or when he tries to visit friends who once lived in Albina and who have now been displaced to “the numbers,” which is what Portlanders call the low-income far-off neighborhoods on the outskirts of town.

“Everything is kind of under the carpet,” he said. “The racism is still very, very subtle.”

Ignoring the issue of race can mean that the legacies of Oregon’s racial history aren’t addressed. Nicholson, of the Urban League of Portland, says that when the black community has tried to organize meetings on racial issues, community members haven’t been able to fit into the room because “60 white environmental activists” have showed up, too, hoping to speak about something marginally related.

Protesters at a ruling about a police shooting in Portland (Rick Bowmer / AP)

If the city talked about race, though, it might acknowledge that it’s mostly minorities who get displaced and would put in place mechanisms for addressing gentrification, Imarisha said. Instead, said Bates, the city celebrated when, in the early 2000s, census data showed it had a decline in black-white segregation. The reason? Black people in Albina were being displaced to far-off neighborhoods that had traditionally been white.

One incident captures how residents are failing to hear one another or have any sympathy for one another: In 2014, Trader Joe’s was in negotiations to open a new store in Albina. The Portland Development Commission, the city’s urban-renewal agency, offered the company a steep discount on a patch of land to entice them to seal the deal. But the Portland African American Leadership Forum wrote a letter protesting the development, arguing that the Trader Joe’s was the latest attempt to profit from the displacement of African Americans in the city. By spending money incentivizing Trader Joe’s to locate in the area, the city was creating further gentrification without working to help locals stay in the neighborhood, the group argued. Trader Joe’s pulled out of the plan, and people in Portland and across the country scorned the black community for opposing the retailer.

Imarisha, Bates, and others say that during that incident, critics of the African American community failed to take into account the history of Albina, which saw black families and businesses displaced again and again when whites wanted to move in. That history was an important and ignored part of the story. “People are like, ‘Why do you bring up this history? It’s gone, it’s in the past, it’s dead.” Imarisha said. “While the mechanisms may have changed, if the outcome is the same, then actually has anything changed? Obviously that ideology of a racist white utopia is still very much in effect.”

Read Follow-Up Notes

Talking constructively about race can be hard, especially in a place like Portland where residents have so little exposure to people who look differently than they do. Perhaps as a result, Portland, and indeed Oregon, have failed to come to terms with the ugly past. This isn’t the sole reason for incidents like the alleged racial abuse at Daimler Trucks, or for the threats Imarisha faces when she traverses the state. But it may be part of it.


  1. Sped

    Thank you for this information, but I dare to add some criticism, it seems to me that the author overdid it with the presentation of the facts, and the article turned out to be rather academic and dry.

  2. Erian

    God only knows!

  3. Tomlin

    Yes, thanks

  4. Templeton

    It doesn't quite come close to me. Who else can say what?

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