Patrick Mason is one of ourDialogue guests. He may or may not be related to one of our permabloggers.
In March 1961 President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925. It dictated that any contractor doing business with the federal government “will take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” This was the first time the phrase “affirmative action” was used by the federal government (although it built on previous laws and policies reaching back to the Fourteenth Amendment), and it was gradually built upon by Presidents Johnson and (the most unlikely advocate) Nixon before beginning to be dismantled somewhat under Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II.
The confusing thing about Kennedy’s order was that on the one hand the government was telling employers they needed to hire minorities (especially African Americans), but on the other hand they were saying that hiring had to be done without special preference or treatment or quotas (“without regard…”).
In the Church, it’s no real surprise that we have something of a race problem. The most egregious and structural element of this problem was solved in one fell swoop twenty-nine years ago (thank God for revelation), but it is abundantly clear that the issue remains with us. The Church does not track membership by race, and so it is unclear how many African Americans have joined since 1978, but it is certainly disproportionately low for a church that idealizes its universal appeal. (We seem to do better with Hispanics, and I have no idea about Native Americans, always the forgotten minority in America.)
It seems to me that the Church suffers from the same paradox as affirmative action programs have from the beginning. If the ultimate goal is to eliminate distinctions and privilege based on race, is the best strategy to emphasize race in the short-term so as to tailor programs and policies that will aid the traditionally underprivileged and underrepresented, or do you ignore race completely in the hopes that it will simply go away on its own accord? There are good arguments–and significant problems–for each approach. Race will always be an issue so long as you talk about it, and when you give special advantages to one group it is inevitable that other groups (particularly the majority) will become resentful to some degree and will see any accomplishments by the minority group as a result of a handout rather than actual ability. But ignoring the problem does not solve it, and only reinforces the status quo that is defined by an inequality in power and representation.
My question is whether affirmative action has any place in Zion? Our collective goal, if I read my scriptures right, is for the members of God’s Church to be “of one heart and one mind” (Moses 7:18), for if “[we] are not one, [we] are not [God's]” (D&C 38:27). Furthermore, our best example of Zion, the post-Resurrection church in the Americas, was notably classless and raceless: “neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (4 Nephi 1:17).
Currently, the Church seems to both acknowledge and downplay race. They still do not track race, and President Hinckley’s answers to journalists’ questions on the issue are characteristically forward-looking and upbeat (his recent castigation of priesthood holders for any lingering racism was a welcome call to repentance and thus admission of the problem, but also insinuated that there shouldn’t be any problem since 1978). More proactively, the Church created and still supports the Genesis Group to minister to African Americans, and has recently gotten heavily involved in genealogy work for African Americans.
I’m not of the inclination or in a position to critique Church policies, and generally find them praiseworthy. Instead, I’m more interested in a question of how we as a collective membership helps move Zion toward the vision put forward in 4 Nephi. Do we accentuate race or ignore it?