The story of white Mormon racism gives me heartburn. It makes me sad, tragically so. And tragedies are only possible when there’s something–something big–to lose. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed, though “few are guilty…all are responsible.” Deflection and projection will not do. To paraphrase the haunting language of poet Jeremy Loveday, “the culture of violence [though I would say, “racism”] touches us all. And by dismissing perpetrators as monsters, it allows us not to analyze our own actions.” It is the simple and sincere question asked of Jesus: “What lack [we] yet?” Jesus did not coddle the inquirer but directed him to give up the things he valued the most in order to follow him. The young man walked away glumly; he never had considered the kind of sacrifice that Jesus’ kingdom required.
Unfortunately, people seem reticent to ask this very question on matters of race and Mormonism. Is it because we are scared of the implications? One commentator recently observed that [white] “Mormons have historically engaged in a pattern of blaming anyone and everyone possible for actions of Church leaders except for the leaders themselves.” Many indeed have. But that is not the greatest danger racism in Mormon history poses. The greatest danger is that in our plight for self-validation, we allow ourselves “not to analyze our own actions.” Self-victimization does nothing to bring about social change. Instead, it cultivates an atmosphere of finger-pointing, deflection, and self-vindication. In both our personal and institutional relationship, this only enshrines an adversarial relationship in our family and faith communities.
One of the many things that makes racism such a curse and evil is that it is more like a disease than a villain. “Who do I shoot?” cried out one of John Steinbeck’s disenfranchised “Okie” in The Grapes of Wrath. He wanted targets and names. So do we. He wanted to put the perpetrator’s name on a wall and hire an assassin to take him out. So do we. It’s always easier to fire a bullet than to diagnose and treat a disease.
Though Mormonism had its few hardline racists (Brigham Young having transformed into one of them from December 1847 through February 1849), racism flourished amid generally willing hosts. Indeed, the transformation happened fast and violently; in March 1847, Brigham Young was happily welcoming a black man into the fold. After a black con-man had incited a scandal in the Winter Quarters community, Young lost all patience and began to speak of how interracial couples deserved death (Meeting Minutes, March 26, April 25, 1847, and February 19, 1849, as well as Nelson Whipple’s Autobiography). In spite of its provincial beginnings, the priesthood ban metastasized over the decades; by 1978, it had become enshrined as a corporate fact of life. If the ban’s roots roots looked like a bunch of ragged Mormon refugees trying to lynch a black man, its fruits took the face of corporate managers signing memos.
Over the course of our history, there has been an occasional voice in the wilderness who called into question the racial wisdom of the day. Men such as Marvin Jones, Lowry Nelson, and myriad others expressed their concerns privately about the soundness of Mormonism’s racial doctrines and policies. But a letter here and diary entry there are but acknowledgements that the disease exists; they are not proof of eradication. Rooting it out would require a global conglomeration of forces to compel the Saints to revisit those assumptions they had once held dear. From its earliest days, Mormonism was meant to be a religion for the “weakest of all Saints.” In a context where racism has largely been stock-in-trade for white Americans, the “least” looks ugly indeed. Making matters worse, leaders reinfornced the doctrines that the Saints were all too ready to believe. Even if racism began as a collective experience, it was an experience reinforced by church leadership throughout most of the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries.
For those of us who have valiantly tried to transcend the racism that has troubled our people, they deserve commendation. To the Saints who wrote letter to leadership, who questioned apartheid in South Africa, who maintained their church membership even while being excluded from the highest ritual blessings Mormonism has to offer–I thank you and commend you. I wish we all could have adopted your perspective; maybe things would have turned out differently. The rest of us can only say that while it was the sentiment of the time, We “[sh]ould not excuse [our]sel[ves] because of the weakness of other men.”
It is not a happy thought to believe that the Mormon people–from top to bottom–could be so guilty of excluding a large demographic from the body of Christ. How could God’s people become so infected with such notions? This is not a story of defense, for there are no innocents. This is not a story of triumph, for there are no victors. Sadly, it is a tragedy all too familiar to the Mormon and Judeo-Christian canonical traditions. Ancient Israel succumbed to idolatry, and they wandered for forty years because of it, even imploring: “Let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:19). They continued to have a leader, but they were left to live an inferior law because of their intransigence. As Tim Wise has said, we do not deal with these things because we are guilty; we deal with them because we (and they) are here.
Whether you want to say that the Mormon people shut out God or perhaps simple decency, it matters little. We are not victims. We are molders of our destiny as families, a people, and a Church.
For a fuller discussion of the historical relationship between blacks and Mormonism, see For the Cause of Righteousness: A Documentary History of Blacks and Mormonism, 1830-2013.