Now I think that the best place to start here is with a discussion of the Centaur character known as Sunflower. Sunflower was a young female centaur that was depicted as a servant to the older centaurs. She tended to their appearances. Below is a compilation of all of the scenes that she appears in.
Sunflower, is clearly meant to be a black centaur. She is subserviant to the other centaurs who vary in colour from yellow to pink to blue. I think that it is very obvious that by depicting Sunflower as they did in the role that they put her in, Disney was perpetuating racial stereotypes.
I am not trying to defend Disney in any way for their decision here, however I think that it is important to remember that the numerous social movements that pushed forward African American rights in the United States had not yet taken place and would not take place in ways that would gain any traction for another 20 years. The 1960s was the period where African American rights, equality, and integration were ideas that came to the forefront of social consciousness.
Sunflower is not the only young black centaur though. There is another, referred to as Otika who appears in only one scene. She is shown rolling out the red carpet for Bacchus.
1) 1954 - Brown v.Board of Education. This determined that separate but unequal schools for black and white children were inherently unequal.
2) 1955-1956 - Rosa Parks Bus Boycott. In this instance, though pre-planned, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white person.
3) 1957 - The desegregation of Little Rock Central Highschool
4) 1961 - Freedom Rides. Black and white people traveled by bus across state lines in non-violent protests.
Certainly these event and the growth of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s contributed to Disney's decision to remove these two characters from the film. The fact that Disney chose to remove these characters from the film and their reasons for doing so leave little to the discussion of whether or not racism was present in these segments. Clearly it is, clearly it was recognized, and Disney chose to deal with it by removing the characters from the film all together.
What is interesting here is Disney's decision to completely remove the characters from the film in re-releases. In older films where there is smoking, with the exception of the re-release of Saludos Amigos (where cigarettes and cigars were removed), Disney places a disclaimer about the dangers of smoking at the beginning of the film.
I think that likely, they were embarrassed about the racism that had been so blatantly perpetuated by their films that instead of really addressing or apologizing for the mistakes they just took it out, modified history, and pretended that their mistakes never happened. Indeed, Disney has done this several times throughout the years, perhaps most notably with the company's apparent denial that the film Song of the South even exists. An incredible feat considering that one of the major attractions throughout the Disney Parks is "Splash Mountain" which is based on the animated characters of Song of the South.
While I am glad that Disney did something to deal with the apparent racism in this segment, I think that a better and more positive approach would have been to do like Warner Bros. did when they released the "Looney Tunes Golden Collection". The "Looney Tunes Golden Collection" was a series of six four disc DVD box sets of Looney Toons and Merrie Melodies cartoons. Their release began after the apparent success of the "Walt Disney Treasures" series. Releases ran from October 2003-October 2008.
In the "Looney Tunes Golden Collection" the following disclaimer was placed:
Warner Bros. decision to depict the cartoons as they were originally created ensures that they are not portraying a false history of their company. It shows responsibility, acknowledgement, and a commitment to the brand. It is, one might say, an adult way to deal with past decisions of the company. Indeed, in comparison to Disney's sweep it under the rug and pretend that it never happened approach, the Disney approach seems quite immature.