Silver Rights


News, thoughts and comments on civil rights and related issues.


Saturday, September 13, 2003  

History: Blacks and the Mormon Church
A Mormon responds

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.

As a member of the Church -- and by the way properly called "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints" -- I find his charge of institutional racism offensive since I know first-hand how sensitive church leaders are to this issue and how members bend over backwards to welcome minorities into the church. If anything, typical Mormon families try too hard to reach out to African-American families. . . . Is that racist? Does that make them second-class citizens?

That the Church has struggled to integrate African-American families has less to do with racism and more to do with America's poisonous racial-identity movements which put enormous pressure on individuals to identify and behave as a member of their race above all else. Since any organization or society not historically associated with a given race is immediately seen as suspect, minorities who choose to join any such organization may find themselves ostracized by their own community. The church is by no means unique in this respect. As an American, I find it frustrating that some of the loudest voices of racial accusation now come from those who routinely determine their course of action solely on the basis of race.

And for us to apply 21st century speech codes to the opinions of 19th century Americans who have led the church in the past is a bit unfair. While church members hold that revelation received by Prophets and Apostles of the church is infallible, none of these quotes rises to this level and would be considered a reflection of their personal opinion. That those opinions sometimes reflected the racial attitudes of that era should not be shocking. Even the most progressive Americans of that era spoke about race in a manner that we find paternalistic and offensive in our own time.

. . .As a Mormon, I have no problems discussing the challenges we face in bringing more minorities into the church. But that wasn't the point of [this] post, was it? For . . . religious bigots it isn't about eliminating racism so much as discrediting a church that offends them for other reasons.

And while I could use this as an excuse to villify [sic] blogging and the inaccuracies and excesses it promotes, I'm not going to do that. Frankly, Mormons have themselves been villified [sic] in the press for most of our existence and it's refreshing to be able to respond to drivel like this in the blogosphere, even if it does mean feeding a few trolls now and then.

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 the Church has struggled to integrate African-American families has less to do with racism and more to do with America's poisonous racial-identity movements which put enormous pressure on individuals to identify and behave as a member of their race above all else. Since any organization or society not historically associated with a given race is immediately seen as suspect, minorities who choose to join any such organization may find themselves ostracized by their own community. The church is by no means unique in this respect. As an American, I find it frustrating that some of the loudest voices of racial accusation now come from those who routinely determine their course of action solely on the basis of race.

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.

• A red light means 'stop, a yellow light 'caution' and a green light 'go.'

• Gravity is the reason objects that rise, unless they are suspended by mechanical means, must fall.

• The Church of Latter Day Saints has a peculiar history that explains why African-Americans and women are considered second-class citizens in the religion.

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.

According to Mormon Doctrine, we are not punished for Adam's transgressions, but some are born into this world with other sins they comitted in the pre-existence. These born-sinners get black skin and are born as the decendants of Cain.

"It is one of the most abominable, cruel and unreasonable doctrines that Satan ever introduced into this world to lay at the door of innocent, helpless babies, a sin which they never committed. Jesus Christ paid the debt for "original sin," or the bringing of death into the world. No other soul ever born, or that may yet be born, will be charged with any taint because of Adam's Fall. Jesus Christ came and paid that debt, and the sprinkling or touching the body of a baby with water to cleanse it from original sin, and to condemn it to "limbo," and deny it the mercies of the Lord if it is not so touched or sprinkled, comes close to being an unforgivable sin. Spirits who have received the privilege of coming to this earth had their agency in that spirit world. Some of them failed because of rebellion and were cast out with Lucifer. Others were not valiant and therefore came into this world under some restriction, and the Lord deals with them according to their works.

-- Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, Volume 2, Page 178

There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantage. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less.... There were no neutrals in the war in heaven. All took sides either with Christ or with Satan. Every man had his agency there, and men receive rewards here based upon their actions there, just as they will receive rewards hereafter for deeds done in the body. The Negro, evidently, is receiving the reward he merits.

--Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, Vol.1, pages 66-67.

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.

•Now WE ARE GENEROUS WITH THE NEGRO. WE ARE WILLING that the Negro have the highest kind of education. I WOULD BE WILLING to LET every Negro DRIVE A CADILLAC IF THEY COULD AFFORD IT. I WOULD BE WILLING that they have all the advantages they can get out of life in the world. BUT LET THEM ENJOY THESE THINGS AMONG THEMSELVES." LDS "Apostle" Mark E. Petersen, "Race Problems - As They Affect The Church," Address delivered at Brigham Young University, August 27, 1954, as quoted in Jerald and Sandra Tanner's book entitled, The Changing World of Mormonism, p. 307.

• "Those who were LESS VALIANT IN PRE-EXISTENCE and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed upon them during mortality are known to us as the NEGROES."

-- LDS "Apostle" Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 527, 1966 edition, emphasis added.

• Is there reason then why the type of birth we receive in this life is not A REFLECTION OF OUR WORTHINESS or LACK OF IT IN THE PRE-EXISTENT LIFE? ...[C]an we account in any other way for the birth of some of the children of God in DARKEST AFRICA, or in FLOOD-RIDDEN CHINA, or among the STARVING HORDES OF INDIA, while some of the rest of us are born here in the United States? We cannot escape the conclusion that BECAUSE OF PERFORMANCE IN OUR PRE-EXISTENCE some of us are born as CHINESE, some as JAPANESE, some as Latter-day Saints. ...A CHINESE, BORN IN CHINA WITH A DARK SKIN, and with all the HANDICAPS OF THAT RACE seems to have little opportunity. But think of the mercy of God to Chinese people who are willing to accept the gospel. IN SPITE OF WHATEVER THEY MIGHT HAVE DONE IN THE PRE-EXISTENCE TO JUSTIFY BEING BORN OVER THERE AS CHINAMEN, if they now, in this life accept the gospel and live it the rest of their lives they can have the Priesthood, go to the temple and receive endowments and sealings, and that means they can have exaltation. Isn't the mercy of God marvelous? Think of the Negro, cursed as to the priesthood.... THIS NEGRO, WHO, IN THE PRE-EXISTENCE LIVED THE TYPE OF LIFE WHICH JUSTIFIED THE LORD IN SENDING HIM TO EARTH IN THE LINEAGE OF CAIN WITH A BLACK SKIN, AND POSSIBLY BEING BORN IN DARKEST AFRICA.... IN SPITE OF ALL HE DID IN THE PRE-EXISTENT LIFE, the Lord is willing, if the Negro accepts the gospel with real, sincere faith, and is really converted, to give him the blessings of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. IF THAT NEGRO IS FAITHFUL ALL HIS DAYS, he can and will enter the celestial kingdom. HE WILL GO THERE AS A SERVANT, but he will get celestial glory." [Emphasis mine.]

-- LDS "Apostle" Mark E. Petersen, "Race Problems - As They Affect the Church," Address delivered at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, August 27, 1954, as quoted in Jerald and Sandra Tanner's book entitled The Changing World of Mormonism, p. 294.

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.

Salt Lake City -- Mormon church leaders describe what happened 25 years ago as a shared, simultaneous revelation from God.

While gathered inside the faith's Salt Lake City Temple, the officials said God revealed that they should allow black men to become members of the Mormon priesthood, reversing more than a century of church practice.

The church ended the ban with a four-paragraph statement released on June 8, 1978, that said ''every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood.''

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.

But Natalie Sheppard, a black American who joined the church 20 years ago, said she feels the church has never done a good job of encouraging black membership. When she moved from Ohio to a Salt Lake City suburb, ''I experienced the rudest awakening of my life,'' Sheppard said.

She recalled storming into church headquarters and demanding to speak to Mormon leaders on a cold day in 1982 when her 6-year-old son -- waiting for her to pick him up -- was made to stand outside the home of another church member because he was black. ''I'm not saying that people need to apologize,'' Sheppard said, ''but we lose a lot of black members.''

Despite continuing efforts to recruit African-Americans, the LDS seems unable to hold on the ones it has.

A major drive during the early 1980s by the Mormon mission in North Carolina brought in about 900 black converts, [Armand] Mauss [a Mormon historian] writes, but a few years later only a hundred remained active.

Mauss suggests several reasons for a large turnover rate among black Mormons in the United States: perpetuation of racial myths, discomfort over class and cultural differences, feelings of being treated categorically as black people instead of as individuals, exaggerated attention as "novelties," white resistance to intermarriage or even interracial dating, and a level of white acceptance that was considered civil but not warm.

Darron Smith, who teaches a Mormon cultural studies class at Utah Valley State College in Orem, says black people likely to stay in the church are those who are "ideologically white."

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


FIRST RULE
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.

SECOND RULE
Not only are blacks' complaints discounted, but black victims of racism are less effective witnesses than are whites, who are members of the oppressor class. This phenomenon reflects a widespread assumption that blacks, unlike whites, cannot be objective on racial issues and will favor their own no matter what. This deep seated belief fuels a continuing effort - despite all manner of Supreme Court decisions intended to curb the practice - to keep black people off juries in cases involving race. Black judges hearing racial cases are eyed suspiciously and sometimes asked to recuse themselves in favor of a white judge - without those making the request even being aware of the paradox in their motions.

THIRD RULE
Few blacks avoid diminishment of racial standing, most of their statements abot racial condidtions being diluted and their recommendations of other blacks taken with a grain of salt. The ususal 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.

FOURTH RULE
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.

FIFTH RULE
True awareness requires an understanding of the Rules of Racial Standing. As an individuals understanding of these rules increases, there will be more and more instances where one can discern their workings. Using this knowledge, one gains the gift of prophesy about racism, its essence, its goals, even its remedies. The price of this knowledge is the frustration that follows recognition that no amount of public prophesy, no matter its accuracy, can either repeal the Rules of Racial Standing nor prevent their or prevent their operation.

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
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