Mormon Race Issues: Not Just Your Great-Granddad’s ProblemBy: Andrew S
I don’t pretend to speak for every black Mormon (or black ex/post/former/disaffected Mormon), but just speaking for myself, I can say that I basically couldn’t care less about most of Mormonism’s past teachings and treatments of black folks. Maybe I’m just desensitized to the fact that most of history — LDS or not — was a really unfortunate (read: crappy) time and place to be black, but hearing the random Brigham Young quotation about black people doesn’t phase me.
Similarly, when some people talk to me, they express wonderment and amazement that I (or my parents) would be a member of a church that had racist “policies” (or whatever the fashionable term is for it) up until 1978. That’s the 20th century! How can I as a black man live with such backwards policy, and what others deem a disrespectfully tepid avoidance to come to terms with said policy?
Maybe it’s a shibboleth of the greater “millennial” generation, something that transcends race. Maybe it’s a symptom of our disconnection to heritage, our dissociation to history, our disdain to homage.
Still don’t care.
But just as when I talk to people about race issues outside of Mormonism, such as when issues of equity, equality, affirmative action, oppression and privilege arise, I have to point out to people that we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that all of the offense happened in the past and now, we are a bastion of enlightened, liberal thinking. No, race issues are not just our great-granddad’s issues. Race issues are now.
I sometimes like to relay a personal story from church…To put into context, it happened when I was either a deacon or teacher, so the year must have been somewhere between 2001 and 2004 (if my math is correct :D). There was an older speaker who would periodically bear testimony of the success of the church in Africa and his happiness for all the African saints who were hearing the gospel. Sometimes, he would say things that sounded kinda funny, but I didn’t really think much of it…after all, a lot of people said funny things during fast and testimony meetings. (I don’t know if this is how all wards with non-negligible Native American populations work, but there were some people who definitely ran with the idea of being literal Lamanite descendants.)
Well, on one particular day, he and I ran into each other in the hallway. My brother and I had a pretty good reputation for being smart, well-behaved guys in the ward, so it wasn’t uncommon for others in the ward to compliment us to our parents or to us. This was just like that, at first.
And so when we ran into each other in the hall, he talked about how glad he was to see such smart, well-behaved kids. I thanked him for his comments in that awkward way you do when you realize that someone is seriously congratulating you for something that shouldn’t be all that amazing. (What? Mainstream, articulate black guy? I mean, that’s a storybook, man.) But before I could squirm out of the conversation, he continued: he was sure that in the next life, I’d become white just as the Lord has promised.
*Cue record scratch*
Since my parents definitely did raise me to be well-mannered and polite, I thanked him for his comment and went on my way. And even then, I wasn’t entirely too outraged or shocked…after all, I (and many other people) experience these kinds of “micro-aggressions” every day. At some point, you (if you’re a minority who experiences these things all the time) inwardly shake your head (and, as far as I can tell, the twitter hashtag #smh seems to be overwhelmingly used by black people…coincidence?) and perhaps have a weird humor about it, or at the worst, pity for the other person. You realize that all of the anger you could be experiencing would be better saved for another day.
(Coincidentally, this makes the story pretty interesting to tell to other people. Many non-minority people will want to feel vicariously outraged for me, and then comes the implied question from before: how can I as a black man live with this? I think “outrage” is something you need a certain level of privilege to express.)
Honestly, I view the story I just told as a lighthearted, non-serious way to break the ice of the fact that when we talk about race issues in the church, we’re not just talking about things from the 1800s or things from before 1978. We are talking about things that — for whatever reason — have stowed away on the vehicle that is Mormonism to as far as 2004.
And so, when I hear about things like Brigham Young University religion professor Dr. Randy Bott’s comments on race and Mormonism (they are on the 3rd page of the article), and even when I read the socially appropriate level of conspicuously outraged responses and the diligently researched and reasoned rebuttals from thoughtful people, it seems something like deja vu.
From Dr. Bott (in case you get pay-walled):
“God has always been discriminatory” when it comes to whom he grants the authority of the priesthood, says Bott, the BYU theologian. He quotes Mormon scripture that states that the Lord gives to people “all that he seeth fit.” Bott compares blacks with a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car, and explains that similarly until 1978, the Lord determined that blacks were not yet ready for the priesthood.
“What is discrimination?” Bott asks. “I think that is keeping something from somebody that would be a benefit for them, right? But what if it wouldn’t have been a benefit to them?” Bott says that the denial of the priesthood to blacks on Earth — although not in the afterlife — protected them from the lowest rungs of hell reserved for people who abuse their priesthood powers. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder, because you weren’t on the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them.”
As I linked above, I think that a lot of Mormons do want to dissociate from Bott’s thinking. There are (albeit rumored) planned protests from BYU students. The FAIR blog posts a longer apologetic response. Members are sure to call it what it is: folklore doctrine. And to point out that it’s wrong.
But What’s the End Goal?
Every time someone expresses a comment like this (especially in a public space), everyone else predictably tries to distance him or herself from said comment in one way or another. The church has issued its official statement via the LDS Newsroom. Relevant part:
For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.
But what is the end goal for any and all Mormons? What do we hope to accomplish from this?
Do we want confirmation that the church now is not full of Randy Botts, that he is just an anomaly? Do we want comfort that the church’s reasons then weren’t what Randy Bott says they are, that he’s just accumulating and churning folk doctrine or that he’s outdated? (But then, a question might be: how do people fall out of date with new understandings?)
Do we want a repudiation? And what would that look like? Are we, as Brad from By Common Consent writes, “paying a price for our unwillingness to publicly confess our sin, which we instead hide under a cloak of un-Christian folklore and false-doctrine and proud insistence that it wasn’t our fault, it was really God’s“?
Is the Newsroom article a forceful enough repudiation to convince both members and non-members of what the actual Mormon position is? (Brad and others seem to think not).
How much of a repudiation would require the church committing to explanations that it claims not to have? (In other words, if, even on February 29th, 2012, it is not known precisely why, how, or when these policies came to be, then can we satisfactorily repudiate any and all speculative answers about it or unbind ourselves from the speculation or opinions that will fill any official void?)
Why is it that it seems like some people haven’t “gotten the memo”? Is there a memo to be gotten about race?