Misunderstanding Racism

With Randy Bott’s comments in the Washington Post a few weeks ago, the subject of the Priesthood Ban has become a hot topic of late.  Jeff Spector at Wheat and Tares feels that racism is the wrong word to describe the Priesthood Ban.  He says, “To me, there is a difference between been a racist and being prejudiced.”  I think the problem comes down to one of definitions.

Dan Wotherspoon of Mormon Matters recently interviewed Brad Kramer, Marguerite Dreissen, and Gina Colvin about the priesthood ban, and discussed why racism seems to be misunderstood.  Brad is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Michigan in socio-cultural anthropology, and permablogger at By Common Consent.  Marguerite is an Adjunct Professor at BYU in Law and Communications.  Gina Colvin is a professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.  They were part of a fascinating panel discussion on this topic, and I wanted to highlight the points relative to Jeff’s recent post.  Here is a transcript of part of their interview.

Brad Kramer - By Common Consent blogger

Brad Kramer, “I’m seeing is a tendency to treat racism as a problem but not a super, super bad problem.  Like a more sort of “let’s put things in perspective folks.”  Yeah, it’s bad, but it’s not that bad.  And this is something that—I grew up in Utah.  I’m a white male, grew up in Utah, one of the things that I have come to realize in retrospect is that there’s a lot of racism in Utah, but it’s a racism of a peculiar flavor.

It’s not a sort of deeply entrenched white supremacy racism like you might encounter in residual forms in the American south.  It’s a racism that manifests itself in part by trivializing racism as a problem, so I encountered it most often in the form of a persistent willingness of my LDS friends, mainly my male LDS friends to be totally comfortable making really offensive racist jokes really casually.  These would be the kinds of friends that would never use the f-word in a joke because they were Mormon, and they probably wouldn’t, they probably knew at some level that historical forms of racism and segregation and certainly slavery were really bad things.  Using the n-word in a joke, if there weren’t any black folks around to hear it and have their feelings super hurt by it, using the n-word as a punch line was not really that big a deal.

So it got me thinking that if you on the one hand try to say that we don’t like racism. Racism is bad, and we believe in equality and this and this and that, but were not really gonna say anything bad about the fact that we had this policy of excluding black  folks from savings ordinances for most of our history.  We’re just going to sort of not comment on that.  That actually reflects and reinforces a culture that says that racism is bad, but it’s not that bad.”

Marguerite Driessen, Adjunct Professor at BYU

Marguerite Driessen, ”Let me interject as someone that currently lives in Utah County.  I have definitely encountered the attitudes that Brad is talking about, but really it goes a different step which is that there are a lot of people here who don’t just trivialize racism, they clearly do not recognize it.  They act in these ways that are discriminatory, that clearly evince racial stereotypes or racial prejudices, and yet have a total inability to acknowledge that that is racist.  A dear friend of mine in an employment situation had the bosses absolutely treating her differentially based on race, and here’s what they did.

They said, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to give you an executive parking place like all the other executives, but you can’t have one up at the front because we’re in this upscale area, and of course our neighbors saw that we’d given a black girl a position of this kind of authority, that would be terrible, so your parking place is going to be in the back by the dumpster.’

And they’re thinking ‘we’re not racists, of course not.  We’re simply acknowledging the racism that exists inside the community, and trying to protect you.  You’re going to be hired to have this title, but we’re not going to print you business cards because heaven forbid if that got out and people see that we had given a black girl a position of such authority then there will be racist backlash against you’, and these people do not understand that treating her differently because she was black IS racial discrimination.

I scratch my head because this is not you know 1950, this was happening in 2006, you know.  These are things that were happening recently from people who don’t even recognize it.  I scratch my head thinking, don’t they have a TV?  Haven’t they heard of the civil rights era?  Don’t they understand that discrimination is treating people differently based on race.  And there are people here in Utah County who I think don’t.  They think it’s not racism or discrimination unless it comes from a position of race hatred.”

Dan Wotherspoon, “Good.  Good.”

Kramer, “That is so absolutely spot on.  That’s one of these underlying factors that I’ve seen this response is that when I’ve been trying to make the case that the ban was racist, it turns out that people who are unwilling to see the ban as racist, are people who think that racism is a solely mental phenomenon.  Racism is only carrying mean-spirited attitudes toward black folks or towards minorities.  Therefore I say the ban is racist, and they say ‘how do you know?  You don’t even  know where it came from?”

Dan Wotherspoon, Host of Mormon Matters

Dan, “Or why?”

[Dreissen laughs.]

Kramer, “It doesn’t matter where it came from.  It doesn’t matter if it came from people who thought that black people were superior.”

Driessen, “Right.  It’s differential treatment.”

Kramer, “It’s racism.  It discriminates on the basis of race.  It excludes on the basis of race. It is functionally racist.  Its consequences and its effects are racist.  It is racism.  No matter what motivates it.”

Dreissen, “Right.”

Kramer, “The story that you described there to me it, you couldn’t script a better microcosm of the problem, which is that in the Mormon corridor, in Mormon Utah where you have this long history and this really horrible skeleton in the closet, to say racism is bad at the same time that you’re not willing to acknowledge that a deeply and transparently racist practice was racist, you’re just going to breed a culture in which people who  think that racism is wrong are simply incapable of recognizing the racist behaviors all around them.”

Wotherspoon, “Good, Good.  Hey, I want to tease that apart.  So you mentioned it’s not purely a mental state, and there’s just that because I don’t have hatred, or because I don’t think they’re inferior, I’m not racist.  How much is it like just the conflation in their minds of racism means bad people versus racism is embedded in systems of power and privilege, and all the different—you guys with all your sociological backgrounds and Gina, you’re probably dying to throw in the right language here, but is it because it feels like oh I would be so bad to acknowledge that I’m part of a system of power that’s racist?  You know, they’re worried that that’s going to reflect on them?

Is there a way to tease those two things apart, and could we deal with it better if we could just say, ‘Brigham Young was not a bad person.  This wasn’t a reflection on his character.  This was a systems of power and storytelling and all that stuff, that he inherited.  Get rid of the idea that he was a bad person because of those things coming out of his mouth. Does that make any sense?”

Dr. Gina Colvin, University of Canterbury, New Zealand

Gina Colvin, “Yes. Absolutely.  I think sort of one of the key ideas that perhaps Mormonism fails to grasp is that white folk, particularly in the church, there’s certain kind of Mormon disposition when it comes to matters of race.  I thoroughly agree with you Brad, there’s the sense that if I think nice thoughts that will make me a nice person, therefore I couldn’t possibly be racist.  But one of the issues is that white folk, they’ve got the luxury of choosing whether or not to know black or brown truth.  They can engage with it, or they don’t have to engage with it.  Whereas black and brown folk don’t have that luxury, and I consistently with the need to survive in a racialized communities, in racialized societies, and so there’s inequity right  there. There’s an advantage to whiteness which doesn’t get acknowledged of not having to deal directly with the exigencies and the problems and the brutality of racism.  You can kind of opt in or opt out.”

Dan, “Interesting, thank you.”

Brad, “Yeah, and I think that going back to this question of thoughts versus larger systems and power structures and sociological structures and things like that, you know, it’s really easy to treat racism as a problem that exists in the minds and the hearts and minds of people, and only there.  Because if you do that, you don’t have to worry about changing how things actually operate, how things actually work.  So you can say, I’m not going to let you park here because you’re black, and that would cause problems, and it’s not in my interest to let a black person have this parking spot.  So because you’re black you don’t get to park here.  But I’m not a racist.  This isn’t racism because I like you, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with black people myself, so it’s not racism.  In other words, we don’t have to change anything that we do, and the most extreme version of this—you see this dichotomy break down with people saying, hey we’re repudiating all the folklore, we’re repudiating the racist doctrine, we’re repudiating the racist sentiments and ideas and mythologies and all these things, all the teachings we’ve  repudiated.  We don’t need to repudiate the ban because we don’t know where it came from.”

[Driessen laughs.]

Kramer, “The logical extension of all that is to say, if the ban were still in place, and the 1978 revelation had only repudiated all the racists teachings, and therefore we have got rid of all the doctrinal folklore but the ban was still in place, that we wouldn’t have a racism problem in the church.  Because even though we’re excluding blacks—

Driessen interrupts, “Yes, it would, yes they would.”

Brad continues, “I know but that’s a sort of logical outcome of thinking in these terms.  You can imagine for yourself a church in which it’s somehow—that the ban still exists and that’s somehow not racism.  Of course it’s racism.”

Dreissen, “It’s not that it’s not racism because you don’t acknowledge that it was.  There’s a difference between you know saying ‘oh yea it was, and I’m guilty and just leaving it to be and do what it says, but I would also add that it says to that Brad that there is a chicken and egg issue here: in that sure there was no big revelation pronouncing the ban and the reason.  However, people made up reasons because there was a ban.  If in 1978 all that had happened was that the church had specifically repudiated the 3 say most popular theories or all of the then known theories, if that had happened, they simply would have invented other ones.  It was not that it would exist in a vacuum.  They would have come up with other reasons why the black people were singled out for this treatment.  They created them, because there was a policy and they needed some way to explain the policy, and if you actually get into Mormon doctrine, get into the scriptures, get into the core beliefs of the church, everything they came up with to explain the ban is contradicted in the basic core doctrines.  Just go into the Articles of Faith.  Every reason they came up with is repudiated in the Articles of Faith.  They were reaching, they were grasping at straws to explain the inexplicable in any other terms and if we got rid of those as you side, maybe there would have been a half day, that day in ’78,  but then the very next day, they would have come up with something else because the ban still existed.“

Colvin, “I think one of the questions here though is who are we talking about when we say ‘they’?  Because I think the elephant in the room is the ‘they’ happen to be a succession of presidents of the Church, and so the elephant in the room is, yes they could have come up with it, and they do so in the positions of president and a prophet, but how much or that is revelation and are we to understand that kind of equivocation around the priesthood ban to be coming from God?  How are we supposed to understand the relationship with kind of prophetic instruction and revelation and something that just feels theologically out of step?”

Dreissen, “Well, and it wasn’t just the prophets of the Church, however.  I mean there were certainly things that Brigham Young said, but a lot of his most racially derogatory, racially-tinged comments were not spoken from a pulpit at General Conference.  They were spoken by him as the Governor of Utah or in some political meeting having to do with getting Utah’s statehood, which was coming up around the same era of time when Brigham Young was not just the chief, the CEO of the Church, but the head of the government as well.  He wore multiple hats, and spoke in that context in multiple ways, and a lot of the other things they arose after his time.

The ideas were promulgated by people, religious professors, and religious scholars.  Bruce R. McConkie was never the prophet of the church, and yet a lot of the theorizing can be laid at his door.  So when I say ‘they’, I really do not mean just the prophets of the church, I mean people in the church who either came up with or accepted for themselves the truths of these various tracts of folklore to explain the policy that was then in place.”

Gina, “But there’s still presidents of the Church who legitimated it.  They gave it some kind of credibility.”

Marguerite, “Well, they gave it credibility in so much as they didn’t change it. They certainly didn’t repudiate them, and they didn’t change them even if they never spoke these words themselves from the pulpit.  They had power to repudiate them, they had the power to make the change, and chose not to.”

Brad, “And there’s something that we have to come to terms with, I think is the underlying sentiment of my post, which is that once we commit ourselves to he proposition that racism is a sin, we have to come to terms with the fact that the worst sin in our history is not something Brigham Young said, it’s not something that Joseph Fielding Smith said, or Bruce R. McConkie said, or Alvin Dyer said.  The worst sin in our history if racism is a sin is THE BAN: the actual practice of excluding black folks from access to temple ordinances, covenants and sealings. Everything else is extraneous to it.”

[Group agrees.]

Gina, “Then it becomes systemic.”

Dreissen, “It’s not extraneous, ancillary to.  They are certainly playing around out there, but we have to go back to defining racism, and that’s where the problem is.  You saw it in the Washington Post article.  How did Randy Bott describe racial discrimination?  Do you remember what he said? He said simply denying people something that is a benefit to them.  He missed the point altogether.

Discrimination based on race is not simply denying someone a benefit.  It’s treating people differently because of race, and he did not define it that way, which then prevents the question that Brad just framed from ever being asked, or the assertion inherent therein, and from ever being asserted or discussed which is if we define racism is some really silly way, then of course we don’t have anything to worry about.  You know?  What do you care?  Denying someone a benefit?  People get denied benefits all the time, yada, yada, yada.

That to me was the part of the article that shocked me the most, because quite frankly I’ve heard all the theories.  I’ve heard all the folklore.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is here is someone who says discrimination is simply denying someone something that would be a benefit to them, and that’s not what discrimination is.  It’s differential treatment based on some characteristic based on some characteristic.   That is discrimination based on that characteristic.”

Brad, “And how often do folks who discriminate?  Do people who participate in patterns of discrimination rationalize discrimination on the grounds somehow they are doing something nice for the people on behalf of the people they’re discriminating against.  It doesn’t matter if you think it’s nice. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re blessing them in the process.  It’s discrimination.”

Marguerite, “Right, you’re treating them differently.”

Dan, “Good.  And that’s a way to kind of defang it right?  It depersonalizes it, it takes a lot of the emotion out of it, right?  I at least see an opening there Brad if that can simply be communicated really well that you know—Does it make it easier to deal with?”

I think this is a good place to end the quote.  Do you think that the panel properly defines racism?

12 comments on “Misunderstanding Racism

  1. Treating someone differently based solely on race is racism. That seems to be their definition. I can agree with that.


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  3. I think their definition leaves out the power relationships involved. It’s like defining abuse as “hurting someone,” and then my abusive parents insist I abused them by getting mad at them. The fact that they held (and continue to hold some) power over me, and I was their dependent child and should not have been hurt by them or used to meet their emotional needs, didn’t even enter into it.

    Likewise, a lot of racists insist that they’re colorblind, and that people accusing them of racism are asking to be treated differently based on their race, especially like with programs that have been shown to reduce inequality and improve outcomes like affirmative action. These arguments completely miss the ways that racism is baked into the system, and how the people making them are its beneficiaries whether they want to be or not.

  4. But Glenn, you previously said that the prophet had to admit that it was racism. How do you reconcile the two views?

  5. MH, I was waiting for that. But the answer is very simple. I’m going to split hairs a bit, but I think I am justified in this, especially after reading Edward Kimball’s article on the events leading up to the 1978 revelation. The ban was not race based, but lineage based. The descendants of Cain. And anyone of mixed heritage, the “one drop of blood” rule were also banned.


  6. NH, just to clarify a bit. I feel that if the current, or any other future prophet, were to publish a statement that the origin of the priesthood ban was based upon prejudice and racism rather than a belief that the ban was from God on the descendants of Cain, or that the ban did not originate with God, would have to be done through the process of revelation.
    Any other method would crucify many prophets who firmly believed that the ban was from God, and who had prayed mightily to have the ban lifted, but were told “not yet.”


  7. Glenn, that Kimball book is awesome. I do agree that it is splitting hairs a bit. I am aware that George Albert Smith allowed Negritos in the Phillipines to hold the priesthood, because they had no known African ancestry, so they wouldn’t have been under the Curse of Ham/Cain. But even still, the ban excluded probably 99% of black men, with that large majority coming from Africa.

    The “one drop rule” didn’t exist until about 1847, since Elijah Abel, Joseph Ball, Black Pete, and other black men held the priesthood.

    I’m sure that many prophets, including Brigham Young thought that God was on their side regarding the ban. My personal belief is that inter-racial marriage (leading to the one-drop rule) was the impetus for the ban. Warner McCary started polygamy with white women, and it seems to me that there was a desire to cut off any future opportunities for inter-racial marriage to continue. See http://www.mormonheretic.org/2011/06/26/william-mccary-the-black-prophet/

  8. MH, I have long had some type of dissonance over the priesthood ban. I am what some would call a TBM.
    I was raised in the south (North Carolina) and was raised in a prejudiced society. My prejudices were taught to me. I could not understand, as a five year old boy, why my mother called me to her side urgently, disapprovingly, when I was playing with a Negro boy in the cotton field where my mother was helping pick cotton.
    It was easy, though, to absorb the prejudices all around me. I am making no excuses, just telling what happened. It was also easy to buy into the varied explanations that I have come to learn were all speculation about the reasons for the ban. Brigham Young was the one that stated pretty unequivocally that it was the lineage of Cain that was the basis for the ban and pretty much asserted that it was from the Lord.
    A career in the Navy helped loosen those prejudices, although some of the Navy efforts to promote racial prejudice awareness was more of a detriment than a help. It was mixing and living with people from so many different backgrounds, cultures, and races that helped open my eyes. I had already began to question my attitudes and prejudices in light of the gospel doctrine.
    I was able to accept the priesthood ban because I was assured that those who were affected would not be denied any of the gospel blessings. I really did not question the origins of the ban for many years. I was a very happy person when the ban was lifted. And by the method I felt that it should be, by revelation.
    The dissonance I have experienced comes from my TBM convictions. I.E. would God allow some of His children to be denied the full blessings of His One True Church by leaders that He had chosen because they were prejudiced. Would God allow this error to be perpetuated by leaders He chose through the decades that followed?
    These are answers that we do not know. They were not revealed with the actual revelation that lifted the ban, nor with any subsequent revelations.
    You have come to your conclusions. I have some of my own, but they are really nothing but speculation. My conclusions are based upon the history of this nation.
    Until we receive more light upon the subject, we are going to have to continue to try to understand ourselves better, and to try to understand our forbears better, and try to make this world a better place.


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  11. […] Africans session. Rick presented, and Marguerite Driessen, about whom Mormon Heretic has written a few articles transcribing Mormon Matters interviews featuring her, was the […]

  12. […] you’d like to see the previous conversation, I talked about Misunderstanding Racism with this same panel.  What do you think of Marguerite’s belief that 1978 was the right […]

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