News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.
Saturday, September 13, 2003
History: Blacks and the Mormon Church
I've received several responses from Mormons in regard to the entry below. Sad to say, none of them have addressed the problem of the Mormon Church's historical and continuing problem with racism. Instead, the reaction has been to ignore or defend the bigotry and condemn the messenger. A.Z. is one of the respondents. I believe his reply reveals the continuing cluelessness and/or bad faith of many,if not most Mormons, in regard to this matter.
I must disagree with A.Z. I believe his complete denial of reality is useful because it confirms what the numerous sources cited and linked to say about the Mormons' continuing inability to confront the facts about their history of racism. Notice he believes any racial problem the LDS' might have (he is not admitting it has any) is, to paraphrase 'the blacks' fault.'
That goes right back to the mark of Cain response of blaming of the victims. The glossing over of 150 years of LDS doctrine to blame African-Americans is perversely amusing. Why, pray tell, is the LDS an "organization or society not historically associated with a given race"? The answer is because it made itself that by denying full membership in the organization to people of African ancestry for a century and a half. It is at fault, not the people it dismissed as less than human.
Furthermore, note the refusal to question anything handed down by the elders. That confirms what the sources say about the LDS' authoritarianism being so strong that one generally must talk to people who are no longer active members to reach truth tellers. One of A.Z.'s falsehoods is the cited quoted material is so old it is not relevant to modern times. Not so. The earliest come as late in history as the 1950s and 1960s. (No, that is not just an oversight on his part. The dates are listed in the entry and links.) Furthermore, some of the men who made those remarks are the senior leaders of the LDS today.
On the bright side, A.Z. did not quite get around to blaming the LDS' errors (I think religious people call them sins) against millions of people over what will likely be two centuries, on Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. But, give him a little more space and I suspect he will.
The Critical Legal Studies movement's critiques of discriminatory behavior, as explained by Derrick Bell, among others, focus on the predictability of certain responses as white people fight against giving up racism. The persons who are most in denial about Mormons' historical and continuing race problem fit those predictions to a T. However, I believe them to be extremists. If most people, of whatever color, were to read a synopsis of the topic, like the one below, I don't believe they would deny the reality of the Mormons' history of bigotry.posted by J. | 10:58 PM
Thursday, September 11, 2003
History: Blacks and the Mormon Church
There are some things I take for granted Americans know.
I have been reminded that I am in error to conclude there is no need to discuss 'everyone knows' issues of this type.
The Mormons are a proselytizing religion. From the age of 12, every male member is considered a priest. In their teens or early twenties, Mormon males are expected to dedicate a year of their lives to recruiting members to the religion. Female Mormons, who are expected to attend to home and hearth, not the 'male' domain of the larger world, do not have that responsibility. However, they sometimes choose to proselytize, too.
For most of their history, which began in the 1830s, the Mormons have excluded African-American men from full membership. Black boys were explicitly not included among the priesthood when they turned twelve. Since all women are denied full membership in the Church of the Latter Day Saints, the issue would not, of course, arise for black women.
The reasons why blacks were excluded from real membership in the Church are a window into the history of the white supremacist mind. People with that mindset have used religion to justify enslavement of and discrimination against persons of African descent for centuries. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church had that type of mind.
The leader who followed Smith, Brigham Young, was perhaps even more of a racist. The leadership of the Mormon Church is said to be infallible. So, the beliefs of Smith, Young and subsequent leaders were not and are not to be questioned by practicing Mormons. The words of later leaders, in relatively recent times, reveal a deep fount of racist thinking.
Read a compendium of similar remarks collected by researchers into the history of Mormonism here. Unless you have a strong stomach, you will want to have a pail nearby or do your reading in the bathroom. One of the things you will notice is that, based on the dates of the statements, the men making them are part of the senior leadership of the contemporary LDS.
It is not my intention to suggest there haven't been 'members' of the Mormon Church who are black. A few were doubtlessly present in the ranks all along. There are minds so empty they find the idea of being a servant in heaven alluring, I'm sure. However, contact between African-Americans and Mormons was usually disastrous. A common note in the autobiographies of black people who visted Utah, an overwhelmingly Mormon state, is the abuse they suffered, often after the laws guaranteeing people of color equal accommodations were passed. One of the most appalling incidents I recall from my reading happened to Nichelle Nichols, the actress and singer made famous by "Star Trek." Black entertainers made a habit of avoiding Utah like the, um, black plague. However, Nichols, pressed for money, accepted an engagement there at Salt Lake City's premier hotel. When she arrived, she was told she could not live in the hotel. Efforts to find other lodgings failed as well since other hotels would not accommodate someone bearing the 'mark of Cain.' A disconsolate Nichols fled Utah with pockets just as empty as when she arrived.
By the late 1970s, the picture of the world as white that most Americans had long held in their minds had changed. The civil rights movement had peaked a decade earlier. On paper at least, people of color had the right to go to any public venue whites did. Black mayors had been elected in many large American cities. Colonization had ended in most of Asia and Africa and was being assailed in hold-outs such as apartheid states Rhodesia and South Africa. There were capable people with dark skin performing in just about every area of expertise, both nationally and internationally.
Black men were finally made eligible to become full members of the Church of Latter Day Saints after a sudden and politically expedient 'revelation' to its leadership in 1978.
LDS has gained about 180,000 black members, mainly in Africa, where its young men are sometimes sent to proselytize, since it lifted the ban.
But, alas!, the natives are restless. African-American members of the church appear to be disproportionately dissatisfied. Though I can't find data about the exact numbers of lapsed black Mormons, based on newspaper coverage, I believe it is high. Anecdotes of racial abuses within the LDS are common.
Despite continuing efforts to recruit African-Americans, the LDS seems unable to hold on the ones it has.
I live in a region with a large Mormon population and have many friends who were formerly Mormons. My impression is the LDS is losing its more thoughtful white members at an alarming rate as they refuse to accept its strict authoritarianism, gender discrimination and history of racism. It seems unlikely the LDS will compensate for the loss of whites by recruiting minorites, as the Anglican Church has, since they exit even faster. The few people of color I know who've been attracted to the LDS, who are Asian, black and Hispanic, enjoyed the "exaggerated" attention they received as novelties. For the first time in their lives, they were being sought out, and, they thought, embraced, by white people. One of them, a black woman from the South now in her sixties, acknowledges she had a history of feelings of inferiority because she is black, and, of putting white people on a pedestal simply because they are white. She felt privileged to become a member of a very white church. So, when interest in her faded after she had been successfully converted, she felt betrayed, having mistaken proselytization for friendship.
I thought the history of the Mormon Church and African-Americans was pretty well-known until recently. I hope I haven't made a similar faux pas in regard to the 'everyone knowing' what traffic lights mean and the law of gravity.posted by J. | 9:13 AM
Wednesday, September 10, 2003
Responses to Bell's Rules of Racial Standing
I've recently been doing some thinking and writing about legal theorist Derrick Bell's Rules of Racial Standing. Mike Bowen of Cobb the Blog swears by them as a roadmap to how uppity, i.e., smart, black people will be treated if they say or do anything that can be interpreted as challenging white supremacy. So far, I agree with him.
The Rules of Racial Standing
Those are the rules -- five simply expressed analytical summaries of what can be expected to occur when a bright black person speaks his or her own mind -- instead of the minds of the white people who would 'advise' him or her. Despite their brevity, they do seem to cover every permutation of such situations.
My brief foray into discussing the Rules online has resulted in some positive responses, but mainly denial. There have been two varieties of deniers:
(1)The person who comments on, but obviously has not read the Rules, and
(2) The person who comments after reading the Rules, but mangles or dismisses them.
The first form of denial, refusing to read the rules, is the more typical. I believe that is because the majority of white Americans have a stock response whenever the issue of racism arises. Therefore, from their perspective, they don't need to actually read information about how racism works. They can just issue their stock responses.
For liberals, the second type of response, denial after reading the rules, usually involves saying the black actor must have been in the wrong because they, white liberals, are too enlightened to engage in bigotry. End of discussion. The uppity Negro was deservedly lynched and it had nothing to do with racism. (Yes, I know white liberals say they don't engage in the symbolic lynching of black 'troublemakers,' under discussion. But, if I had a grand for every episode I've witnessed that contradicts that, a two-year sabbatical would be easily affordable.) This response is evidence of Rule No. 1.
The law grants litigants standing to come into court based on their having sufficient personal interest and involvement in the issue to justify judicial congnizance. Black people (while they may be able to get into court) are denied such standing legitimacy in the world generally when they discuss their negative experiences with racism or even when they attempt to give a positive evaluation of another black person or of his work. No matter what their experience or expertise, blacks' statements involving race are deemed 'special pleading' and thus not entitled to serious consideration. [Emphasis mine.]
The white people involved dismiss what the black complainant has to say completely and substitute their 'better' judgment. Why do they believe their judgment is 'better'? They believe that being white makes their judgment superior. In fact, in most cases, they believe being white makes them superior, period, though many are too deeply in denial realize it.
Sometimes, to enhance deniability, the white person in denial will point to a black person who engaged in the racial abuse as proof the abuse wasn't abuse. Why is the mere inclusion of someone black in the wrongdoing supposed to prove it isn't wrongdoing? Couldn't the black participant be just as wrong as the whites? Bell probes that issue in Rules No. 3 and No. 4.
Few blacks avoid diminishment of racial standing, most of their statements about racial conditions being diluted and their recommendations of other blacks taken with a grain of salt. The usual exception to this rule is the black person who publicly disparages or criticizes other blacks who are speaking or acting in ways that upset whites. Instantly, such statements are granted 'enhanced standing' even when the speaker has no special expertise or experience in the subject he or she is criticizing.
When a black person or group makes a statement or takes an action that the white community or vocal components thereof deem "outrageous," the latter will actively recruit blacks willing to refute the statement or condemn the action. Blacks who respond to the call to condemnation will receive superstanding status. The blacks who refuse to be recruited will be interpreted as endorsing the statements and action and may suffer political or economic reprisals.
An aspect of the appointment of 'our Negro' to defend discrimination offline is also very apparent online. The black person recruited is usually less capable, or as Bell would say, lacking in expertise, compared to the black person being attacked. The qualitative difference can be general or specific to the field involved. In real life, I've actually observed a black custodian be tapped by a store manager to put a complaining customer who was an upper middle-class black professional in his place twice. In each episode, the janitors performed their role with what appeared to be relish. I felt as if I had been transported back to a plantation sometime before 1860. In an online situation I observed, a Hispanic woman who can barely construct a sentence properly was deemed one of the best women bloggers in the blogosphere in return for attacking a very capable female writer of color. (Though Bell says 'black' in his description, I believe the rules may apply to interracial interactions in general.)
The typical conservative response to Bell's Rules by persons who read them is to dismiss them, or any critique of racism, as provocation by the people they persistently claim are the 'real racists,' people of color who say discrimination is a still a problem and speak up about it. If that evasion doesn't work, the conservative may also resort to the 'Our Negro' ploy to make the denial of the bigotry more credible to many white people. However, in the situations I've witnessed, the use of the black lackey is usually a tactic of white people who consider themselves liberals. White conservatives, especially those of the far Right, do not like to grant African-Americans even the tainted legitimacy of being their pets for a day, week or month.
Neither of these two responses is the worst I observed in the blogosphere. That status was achieved by a white male blogger defending a black person who had volunteered for what Bell deems 'enhanced standing.' He said the complainant his charge was helping demean must deserve being abused if several people were involved in the abuse. That is the worst response to a claim of racial abuse possible because it affirms all the racism that has occurred and continues to occur in America. Slavery was approved of by the majority of the people allowed to participate in drafting the Constitution. Jim Crow, or de jure segregation, was approved of by the majority of whites in Southern states. The thousands of physical lynchings that took place were not merely approved of by millions of white Southerners, they were deemed causes for celebration. People would come from miles around to participate, treating the events as festivals and even collecting parts of the victims' bodies as souvenirs. By this man's reasoning, all of that was well and good because a multiplicity of persons approved of and participated in it. It was the victims, who often stood alone, who were in the wrong.
I will stop short of saying Bell's Rules of Racial Standing are the perfect critique of how the able person of color who challenges either liberal or conservative whites will be treated by many or most of them. However, I believe its predictive value to be very high.
Note: I have used the phrases 'white liberals' and 'white conservatives' as a form of shorthand here. I realize many people who would be included in those categories are not rationalizers of racial abuses.posted by J. | 12:17 AM
There is a rural legend that poor, semi-literate African-Americans misunderstood what was being said when civil rights workers came to register them to vote in the Deep South during the 1950s and '60s. They said they wanted their 'silver rights.' I don't know if the legend is true, but I like the phrase.
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