(Author’s Note: This was a tough post to write and I expect a tough post to read. Please read carefully for what I am and am not saying before commenting. I think we can have a productive conversation, but only if we’re committed to doing so.)
Before we dive into this post, we need to define a term: racism. The problem is, racism is persistent and evolving, so it can be hard to pin down. Personally, I find Ta-Nehisi Coates’s formulation to be most helpful: racism involves plunder. Specifically, racism is an ideological system that enables one group to plunder another group on the basis of the perceived inherent inferiority of the group (race) being plundered.
That’s a lot to take in if you’re not used to talking about race, so let me simplify a bit. Racism is a way of thinking that justifies theft, in large and small forms. It does so by claiming that there is something inherently wrong or inferior with the losing group, linked to their skin tone or ancestry.
Recognizing racism in this way should make us look at the Book of Mormon a bit differently.
Nephi, Jacob, and Mormon all express racist ideas. They state that dark skin is a curse, an inheritance tied to loathsomeness, sinfulness, and filth. They believe the Lamanites of their time to be worthy of lesser things because they are – based on the sign of their skin color – inferior people. Furthermore, Nephi explains that the darkness was intended to preserve the purity of the Nephite race from the pollution of miscegenation. (For a slightly different – and more detailed – analysis, see this post from Miguel.)
This leaves believers with a central question: Whose racism are we seeing here?
Is God racist? Did He really use skin color as a marker, bestowing greater blessings upon some and withholding blessings others, simply on the basis of their skin tone? Furthermore, did he encourage the Nephites to act similarly by creating these racial distinctions in the first place?
Or, were these prophets racist, inventing racial explanations to justify their behavior toward and beliefs about the Lamanites? Where they seeing inherent inferiority where there was none? In this, of course, they wouldn’t be alone. Modern Church leaders embraced racism, so it wouldn’t be that surprising if ancient prophets had done likewise.
And before you trot out the “it was different back then” and “we have to judge them by the morals of their time” arguments, let me tell you about one other Book of Mormon man, one who gets little attention. He was never regarded as a prophet, his peers seemed to think he was crazy, and Mormon’s narrative treats him like a fool. But he’s one of my heroes: Zeniff.
Zeniff, if you’ll remember, was originally part of a group sent to spy on the Lamanites so that the Nephite armies could destroy them. (This aggressive plan we know only from Zeniff’s account – Mormon makes no other mention of it.) But despite his upbringing, he “saw that which was good among them” and “was desirous that they should not be destroyed” (Mosiah 9:1). Desiring that someone not be destroyed seems like a pretty low bar for the people of Christ, but it caused quite a contention with Zeniff’s fellow spies, to the point of bloodshed.
Eventually, Zeniff brought another group to the land, one that was determined to inherit the land without resorting to war. Their plan worked, imperfectly, for a time. Zeniff’s record is not without it’s share of anti-Lamanite rhetoric, especially in explaining why they continually attack his people. But notably, he never references their skin color. And in fact he goes to great pains to provide a cultural explanation for their customs and antipathy toward the Nephites. For Zeniff, the Lamanites are different not because of a divine curse connected with their skin tone but because they’ve been taught to hate the Nephites. The same Nephites which he had once joined in plotting to slay all the Lamanites.
So, it was possible to adopt a non-racist attitude toward the Lamanites, even when they repeatedly tried made war with your people. When we question the racial attitudes of Nephi, Jacob, and Mormon we’re not applying some retroactive idea of modern liberal racial morals. We’re asking, why couldn’t Nephi or Jacob or Mormon see as clearly as Zeniff? Why couldn’t they look past skin and see people, wonderfully complicated people who were equally as valued by God as anyone else?
Back to the central question: If the Book of Mormon is a real account of ancient peoples and contains these racist depictions of Lamanites, who is to blame? Neither answer is comfortable for the Church, especially after a clear statement condemning racism as “morally wrong and sinful.” But there can really only be one choice for believers: If God is no respecter of persons, He cannot be racist. But some of the Book of Mormon prophets were.
It is high time we faced the implications of this head-on. Only if we’re willing to do so can we begin to heal from our own history of racism.