Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
In light of the recent events in Charleston, Baltimore, Ferguson (and many others…), the topics of race and racism have been prominent topics of discussion in American society. In 2013, the LDS Church made headlines by releasing the “Race and the Priesthood” Gospel Topics essay in which the Church, for the first time, fully repudiated the popular belief that blacks were barred from the priesthood for more than a century due to choices made in the preexistence and stated clearly that today the Church “unequivocally condemn[s] all racism, past and present, in any form.” Given that “all racism, past and present, in any form” is officially condemned by the Church, it would be useful to briefly consider the different types of racism that manifest themselves in modern society and discuss the degree to which the institutional Church is helping to prevent, or sometimes unintentionally perpetuate, each type of racism. In doing so, I do not mean to cast blame but rather to offer an opportunity for critical (and hopefully constructive) self-reflection and examination on how we talk about race in our church culture and public pronouncements. It should be clear that I do not intend to impugn the motives of anyone regarding this topic. I also acknowledge that my discussion is limited primarily to an American context and audience; these factors may play out differently elsewhere in the world.
VARIETIES OF RACIAL PREJUDICE
Academic scholars of American racial attitudes generally identify three primary types of racial prejudice: old-fashioned or “Jim Crow” racism, modern/symbolic racism, and implicit racism. First, “old-fashioned” or “Jim Crow” racism is the belief that blacks are simply inferior to whites due to an in-born deficiency or difference. Social scientists measure this type of racism with questions like: “Do you think there should be laws against marriages between blacks and whites?” or “On average, blacks have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are because most blacks have less in-born ability to learn?” Whereas this type of racism was common in the United States through the mid-20th century, it has steadily decreased to where now less than 10% of the American population indicates agreement with statements like these. For the most part, “old-fashioned” racism is now relatively rare and completely socially unacceptable for the vast majority of Americans.
Second, “modern,” or “symbolic” racism is a type of resentment toward blacks (or other racial groups) on the part of whites due to a perceived unfair advantage or consideration given to blacks to compensate for past or present discrimination, whether the advantage is merited or not. In other words, symbolic racism manifests itself in white resentment toward blacks for a perceived failure to adhere to “traditional” American values such as a hard work ethic and self-discipline. This type of racism is measured by agreement with survey questions like: “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.” or “It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.” While old-fashioned racism has been in steady decline over the last several decades, symbolic racism is still widely manifest by whites in American society. According to the 2012 American National Elections Study survey, somewhere between 50%-70% of white Americans possess at least a moderate degree of symbolic racism (i.e. either “somewhat” or “mostly” agreeing with statements such as those above).
Third, “implicit racism” is a type of racial bias that manifests itself unintentionally, unconsciously, and uncontrollably. Others have described it as negative “thoughts about people you didn’t know you had.” Implicit racism is often formed at a young age based on the messages, attitudes, and stereotypes we pick up from the world we live in which usually tend to line up with existing social hierarchies. The important thing with implicit racism is that even though it operates outside of our conscious awareness, it still exerts a significant effect on other social attitudes and behaviors. Social scientists measure implicit bias using an “implicit association test” (which you can try out for yourself here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html) and research has revealed that about 50% of Americans have a moderate or strong degree of implicit racial bias, with another 15% having a slight degree of implicit racial bias. (See this book for more information in implicit biases.) In sum, even though old-fashioned racism is rare in contemporary American society, symbolic and implicit racism is very much alive and well.
THE UNINTENTIONAL PERPETUATION OF RACISM IN THE LDS CHURCH
The LDS Church is to be commended for its recent efforts to combat both the incidence and effects of old-fashioned racism both in the church and in the wider society. It has publicly condemned the teachings of previous church leaders which suggested that blacks were somehow less worthy than whites in the preexistence. It goes out of its way to highlight its racial diversity (including interracial couples) in its social and public media campaigns. It has called a number of blacks and other racial minorities to its lower- and mid-level global leadership ranks. The Church has indeed come a long ways since 1978 in terms of its attitudes towards race.
Despite this commendable progress, there remain a variety of ways in which Church leaders may unintentionally be perpetuating other types of racism amongst its membership. Recall that symbolic racism is white resentment toward blacks for perceived unearned advantages and violations of “traditional” American values such as a hard work ethic and self-discipline. This commonly manifests itself in the areas of welfare and economic policy in the United States. Research has shown a strong connection between symbolic racism and white attitudes toward welfare policies. Every time a Church leader makes an explicit or veiled criticism of “entitlement mentalities” or “the evils of the dole” (or even a disproportionate emphasis on “self-reliance” at the expense of “caring for the poor and the needy”), it can very often serve to prompt symbolic racial attitudes in the minds of listeners who are cued to perceive the beneficiaries of government welfare programs as morally deficient. Given that a disproportionate amount of welfare beneficiaries in America (and other countries) are racial minorities, it ultimately serves to reinforce and strengthen the symbolic racial attitudes of the membership. This could be counteracted by more deliberate messages from leaders like Elder Holland’s recent General Conference address which emphasized that poverty is not a result of individual moral failings. As of now, however, denouncements of “entitlement mentalities” far outnumber humble calls for empathy and understanding of the poor.
Further, the LDS Church may be unintentionally perpetuating implicit racism by many of its messages and policies. As previously discussed, implicit racism is often formed at a young age in response to cues from the environment that associate “black” with “bad” in a variety of ways. In a Mormon context, primary children often hear stories of how the wicked Lamanites were cursed with a dark “skin of blackness” while the righteous Nephites retained their “pure and delightsome” complexion (2 Nephi 5:21). (We should note that from 1840 to 1981 the text read “white and delightsome.”) We also often read how the descendants of Cain were cursed with a skin of blackness in the Book of Moses (Moses 7:22) without a clear corrective narrative from the Sunday School manual. Each time this happens, it reinforces the implicit “black=bad” connections in the minds of readers and listeners. (In the last example, the manual currently tells us to simply skip over that particular verse while assigning the verse immediately before and after, which ironically serves to emphasize the black=bad association by calling attention to it.) While the Church cannot simply rewrite its sacred texts (or can they?), it could more deliberately offer narratives that contextualize these “black=bad” associations. For example, we could teach our primary children that the Nephites were simply in error to assume that the dark skin of the Lamanites was a divine curse and that we can learn from their mistakes by not doing the same. (Some more discussion of this idea can be found here.)
Also, while the LDS Church is now a majority non-American church, the fact remains that all but one of the current “prophets, seers, and revelators” that our children see portraits of in their primary rooms each Sunday are white Americans (Pres. Uchtdorf of course being a white European), often displayed next to a picture of Jesus Christ who is portrayed as racially white (despite the fact that he was ethnically a Middle Eastern Jew.) Every Sunday when Mormon children view these prominently displayed portraits of the white apostles next to a white Jesus, it strongly reinforces the “white=good” implicit association which conversely further strengthens the “black=bad” association. Now, one obvious way to directly counteract this effect would be for the Church to call a non-white apostle (or two!) into the Quorum of the Twelve to replace the vacancies left by Elder Perry and President Packer. That way, primary children would see a racial minority (or more!) counted among the apostles, which would help form an implicit “black=good” association in their minds to counteract the “black=bad” association that they receive every day from the wider society.
For much of the 19th century, Mormons were viewed as racial minorities and were subject to a great deal of racial prejudice and discrimination from other “white” Americans. That alone should make Mormons all the more sensitive to the effects of racism “past and present, in any form.” While the LDS Church is to be commended for making great strides in addressing its troubling racist past by directly confronting and denouncing old-fashioned racial attitudes and practices, it often continues to unintentionally perpetuate a variety of symbolic and implicit racial attitudes through its rhetoric, curricula, and leadership decisions.
[FN1] It should be noted that a common political campaign tactic is to make veiled criticisms of welfare recipients which trigger symbolic racial attitudes in the minds of listeners. This helps reinforce support for the politician among those who have even moderate degrees of racial animus. This is called “race coding.” It is not generally considered to be an admirable nor morally praiseworthy action for politicians to engage in.