Darron Smith teaches “Introduction to Sociology” at Westminster College in Salt Lake City and is working towards the completion of his PhD in the Education, Culture and Society department at the University of Utah. His has recently co-edited the book “Black and Mormon.” Catch his interview with Mormon Stories here.
The announcement made by President Hinckley at Saturday night’s priesthood session was very welcome. I was encouraged by his denouncement of the LDS racism that continues unabated in many parts of North America, Utah in particular. The extent of the racist practices by well-meaning and not so well-meaning members of the church is widespread. Many of my white brothers and sisters do not see this reality in their personal lives in the church, and therefore exclaim that Black folks are being too sensitive or that racism does not exist simply because such behavior does not happen to them. White people are not in the best position to understand the many manifestations of racism, despite the disgruntled white folks who cry reverse discrimination. The data does not reveal that whites are experiencing systematic discrimination to the extent that their financial well-being, health status and other markers are deleteriously harmed.
But Black members in the LDS Church sometimes hear the notion of “blackness” as cursed. I have found in my own experience that many members, especially white, make it a point to remind me and other Blacks that we were at one time under a divine curse from deity. These individuals then recite the common latter-day folklore about Black folks as “fence sitters” or as sharing a “common ancestry” with Cain, the first murderer. Remember the second article of faith. The scriptures simply do not explain “blackness,” therefore many church members take enormous liberties at interpretation, and they have former church leaders to validate this point regardless of how wrongheaded their ideas may be.
When I first joined the church in Nashville, Tennesse back in the early eighties, I would hear these pernicious concepts surface from time to time but thought nothing of it. I wondered why more Blacks did not participate in the church, and figured it had to at least be related to the church position. We have made some significant strides toward reconciliation but, despite the Prophet’s call to repentance, there is much work that is still needed. In fact, had President Hinckley gone just one step further and explicitly called on all members to no longer teach or believe in antiquated folklore about Blacks as spiritually inferior to whites, this would truly be cause for celebration — not just a small victory. As such, the need continues to push for a public announcement in hopes that a final resolution is forthcoming, and my wish is that you good people will send letters to church headquarters with the specific request that the church make a declarative statement about the need to abort all racist teachings in the past about people of African descent.
The Prophet’s call to end racism was in effect a plea to end individual acts of meanness and aggression directly at people based on phenotype. This is something slightly different from institutional racism. What the church needs, in my opinion, is to root out the vestiges of institutional racism in tolerating members who teach hatred about Black people as anything other than brothers and sisters in Christ, and who then blame Black folks for being concerned and disinterested in the faith. We can do better!