Thoughts on modern day racial injustices

I wrote a personal story on my feelings regarding racial injustice within my Church earlier this month.  It was a personal story, a conversion account of sorts, about how I was pushed into realizing that standing on the sidelines wasn’t an option anymore.  For the most part, I feel that my personal opinions and actions with regard to combating racism is best done face to face, in an intimate manner with those I personally know.  Outside of that, I think my role is best limited to prodding acquaintances and strangers towards self-analysis and reflection in the hopes that could be a catalyst for personal improvement.  So, that’s why I use this blog or church & work opportunities to encourage others to evaluate themselves.

The area where I personally am most uncomfortable advocating against racism is in public policy.  I’m socially conservative with a libertarian bent when it comes to government power.  I worry about overreach and unintended consequences.  I guess that’s why I abandoned political science after completing it as an undergraduate degree and moved to counseling.  I’d rather help a PERSON through the process of change than try and figure out how to change a group of PEOPLE.

This week though, with the trifecta of Paula Dean, Trayvon Martin, and the Voting Rights Act changes, I thought I would revisit the idea of racism and power and share some of my thoughts about how to move forward.

When it comes right down to it, a person’s skin color is nothing more than an indicator of someone’s geographic heritage.  That’s pretty much it.  It technically is no more determining in a person’s destiny, potential, or significance than hair color or eye color.  It is simply a reflection of where one’s ancestors lived 2000-4000 years ago.  Unfortunately, our human tendency to categorize and rank everything means that cultural influences and social structures have made it so that being born of a certain skin color can have drastic and significant impacts on a person’s life outcomes.

This is, for lack of a better word, unfortunate.  Every person born has been endowed with a consciousness that deserves a chance to explore and find his or her greatest potential.  No exterior marker of any kind, whether skin color or any other distinguishing feature, ought to barricade a person from opportunities.  Yet, we don’t live in a perfect world and we are still dealing with the ramifications of generations of inequality as well as lingering vestiges of racism still today.

It’s a big problem, and it requires a big solution.  Numerous things have been tried in the last 50 years and I would argue that there has been measurable success.  How much of that success can be attributed to public policy versus changing social norms, or some combination thereof, I can’t say.  I hope that most people will acknowledge the improvements in our society that have taken place, despite our ongoing shortcomings.

When in comes to our current shortcomings, I think that  in today’s society most white Americans fall into one of four categories: 1) people who are still racist, 2) people who realize that racism is wrong but don’t really worry about it beyond that, 3) people who have studied the issue greatly are very concerned about systemic power differentials built into our society and culture, & 4) people who foment racial tension to secure positions of power.  I personally believe that groups 1 & 4 are very small; they’re large enough to exist and cause problems, but quantifiably minuscule.  I personally think that most people fall into group 2; in fact, I think that most people who think they are part of group 3 are probably technically in group 2.  That leaves group 3, and I have no idea how big that group really is.  I do think that American liberal groups portray themselves as having a monopoly on people who think that way, and I’ll concede that they have a majority.  However, conservatism and being in group 3 do not have to be a contradiction, but I have to concede that most conservatives, by a huge margin, are in group 2.

Now of course all this depends on definitions.  It’s hard to quantify racism in someone and there are all sorts of psychological measurements out there to ferret out the types of racism that might linger a person, such as overt vs covert racism.  Still, I think if you were to get honest answers from people about how they feel about other people and about racism, most would land somewhere in group 2.

Back to one of this week’s racism trifecta, I would actually argue that Paula Dean is in group 2.  I don’t think anyone believes that she harbors ill feelings towards people with darker skin.  I think she just doesn’t think about it that much.  In addition, she has to rectify within her own personal narrative that she is the descendant of slave holders, and that can be a challenging thing to overcome.  Additionally, being in group 3 is actually kind of hard; you have to constantly self-analyze your behavior and be able to have meta-cognitions.  So sticking in group 2 is usually the easy way to go until a moment of ignorance gets you into trouble.  Then, unless you find a mentor who has multicultural competencies, you’re probably going to keep putting your foot in your mouth as you try and apologize.  Those apologies will be along the lines of “racism is bad, I know that, and trust me I’m not a racist.”  People who have done this, Paula Dean being a prime example, understand that they cannot prejudice someone based on skin color, yet they continue to ignore the power they enjoy simply because of their skin color and they never address it, or even consider it.

The thing is though, is that the group 2 people kind of have a point, they are just not being patient enough in the process and they do not take into account some of the realities of 2013 America.  I truly believe that someday skin color will be as irrelevant to a person’s societal position as eye color is.  I don’t know how many generations it will take to get there, but I think humanity is on that trajectory.  Let’s all face it though, right now, in 2013, we’re nowhere close to that ideal. We might be better than we were in 1963, but we still self-segregate, few of us exchange in honest dialogue, and we assume ill-will in each other when considering laws and regulations to address systemic power differentials.  I think that is why I feel such discomfort engaging in the public policy discussions, I don’t want my motivations misunderstood.  I have finally reached a point in my life when I feel I can comfortably and competently enter a multi-cultural dialogue with a person or group of people.  I also think as we train more people on both sides to be able to do that without offense or contempt at disagreement, then when we look at public policy changes in the future, they can be viewed as collaboration instead of the squabble for power and influence it tends to be today.


Celebrating an Anniversary

I’m turning 35 this year.  It feels in my head like a milestone mark, being closer to 40 than 30, and puts in my mind the number of goals that I need to accomplish in the next 5 years: losing 40 (yes 40) pounds, running a 5k in under 27 minutes again, completing my licensure requirements for the Clinical Mental Health Counselor license and starting my at home part-time practice, earning a promotion to a supervising position in a university advising office, but I digress.

Turning 35 also makes me think of other things turning 35 this year, those events and persons who also came about in 1978 and are still with us today.  The comic strip Garfield.  I’ve loved Garfield since I was about 5 and I was probably about 11 when I figured out that in Garfield’s annual birthday strips he turns the same age I do.  The first test-tube baby.  It’s not me, but my parents bought a funny birthday card when I turned 18 that jokingly implied that (I wonder how many other people got that card in 1996).  Both Pope John Paul I & Pope John Paul II started their papacies.  Also, one that I always remember because it shares my exact birthday is the premier of the original Battlestar Galactica series, although the 2003 version was better.  While, of course, I don’t have any personal memory of any of these events, 1978 seemed like an interesting year.

English: Spencer Woolley Kimball, the twelfth ...

English: Spencer Woolley Kimball, the twelfth president of (LDS Church) from 1973 until his death in 1985. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is one other thing that is turning 35 this year, and other than my own birth is probably the most significant event from that year on my life.  On June 1, 1978 President Spencer W. Kimball along with the other members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles received the revelation extending the Priesthood to all worthy male members putting more than a century of institutionalized racial discrimination to rest.  This was announced publicly on June 9, 1978 and the policy was effective immediately.  There is so much that can be written and said on this topic.  I noticed that the Salt Lake Tribune wrote three articles on it, and I’m sure more from other sources followed.  All of this is on top of all the things that have been written previously, my favorite being the short book President Kimball’s own son wrote for BYU Studies.

Rather than do another scholarly look trying to historical milestones or a  discussion of how the ban impacts the sociological issues of contemporary LDS society, I want to talk about how this ban impacted my life and what I have learned because of its existence.  I stated above that the two most significant events in my life in 1978 were my birth and the this revelation.  Some might wonder though how this could have really effected me, a guy who was born into the Church, white as white could be, who never had to worry about whether or not he would be ordained when he turned 12. Well, life is about connecting with other people and through my years of connecting with others it has become clear to me that despite President Kimball’s revelation, the simple fact that I am Mormon and the simple fact that this ban existed had an impact on how I have been about to connect and get to know people in all my years of life.

I don’t remember how young I was when my mom first told me this story, but I feel like I’ve known it my whole life.  She was still pregnant with me on that fateful June 9th, and she was packing up for a move because my dad had just finished his graduate studies and they were heading back to Southern California to be close to friends and family.  My parents were the only Mormons in their families since both were converts and they didn’t get much support in their decision to join the Church.  In the few times I ever heard my grandparents discuss their initial skepticism of my parents’ decisions the Priesthood ban was never mentioned, but my parents both mentioned questioning joining the Church over the ban.  Both of them said that the comfort and guidance of the Spirit allowed them to overcome whatever skepticism they had and hope in a future day policy change comforted them.  They only had to wait a few years for such a change.  My mom said that all she could do was sit down and cry, she was so overcome with joy.  My dad was off running errands and heard on the radio.  He came home so excited and happy and said he just held my mom and cried the second he came through the door.  It is a touching image I’ve always been able to see in my mind’s eye.

Growing up, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard just about every excuse for the ban that has every been thought up, and I probably adhered to couple of them on occasion at different times in my life.  By my mid-20’s I had pretty much settled on the idea that the ban was instituted by Brigham Young as a non-revelatory policy, and was allowed to continue and prosper in the early church thanks to the bigotry of the era and theories about Cain and whatnot that entered our church via converts and dialog with other Christians.  I personally don’t know why it wasn’t reversed when the idea was explored in the 1920’s and again in the 50’s, but I personally assume it probably has to do with a lack of preparation within the existing Church membership for the eventuality of a multicultural and multiracial Church.  Beyond satisfying my own curiosities and questions about the origin and existence of the ban, I didn’t think about it that much for several years.  However, over the past three years, I have had a number of experiences that have opened my eyes to the legacy of the ban and the impact bigoted members of the Church have had on new converts.  I have now reached a point where I will no longer turn a blind eye to racist comments and I feel very strongly that I need to lovingly work with Church members for change whenever unacceptable behavior, comments, or ideas are perpetuated.

This change within my was gradual and started when I befriended a Haitian member of the Church who was from Chicago.  He was a convert, and talked about how joining the Church had been hard on his family and mother in particular.  I was able to bond over the fact that being a second generation Mormon, I was able to witness a turnaround in my extended family over the years and I wished him hope that he would someday see the same thing.   He countered with the fact that the priesthood ban, and the continuing racist attitudes in the Church would probably make it difficult for his family to ever really be okay with his membership.  I understood how the priesthood ban might be a factor, but I asked him about these continuing racist attitudes, and so he told me.  Story after story about being denied standing in blessing circles, having to listen to stories about his ancestors being less worthy in the pre-existence, and often having his ideas and input ignored in leadership meetings.  It was all very disheartening to hear, so I decided to cheer him up, and what better story to tell then the one that had brought me so much comfort: the story of my dear little pregnant mom becoming so overwhelmed with joy that she had to sit down and cry back on that fateful June 9th.  So, I told the story . . . but, something must have went wrong in the telling.  He responded with, “yeah, some people weren’t ready.”  It was the strangest response to this story I’d ever had, and while quickly rewinding through my mind I figured out that when I said my mom had become overwhelmed when hearing the news, I had left out the critical “with joy.”  I quickly corrected his assumption, but needless to say, that tidbit of info is not as effective a tool when added as an addendum to the story.

I was annoyed with my friend, and actually a little offended that he could have ever assumed my mother was a racist.  It just didn’t compute to me how my point could have been misunderstood that way.  Still, I swallowed my pride and this exchange of ours had no lasting impact on our relationship.  That moment of misunderstanding stuck in my mind though; a reminder to myself to me more conscientious when sharing that story in the future.

About a year later I was in my Master’s program and I reached the semester where I would take the mandatory Multicultural Counseling course.  I hadn’t been looking forward to this class.  For the most part, living in Dallas had given me a distaste for “crying-wolf racism.”  It seemed so prevalent in all local politics and this was also around the time of the 2008 election, so I had unfortunately developed a thick skin to accusations of racism and assumed nearly all contemporary accusations were unwarranted (I still believe there are unwarranted accusations–I’m looking at you Chris Matthews–but I no longer jump to the default position that an accusation is likely unwarranted).  This class though was amazingly insightful.  We had a very diverse group of students and for the first time in our lives we really talked about these issues with the goal to increase our ability to develop empathy across cross-cultural and cross-racial boundaries.  In all honesty, this class was the most spiritually fulfilling exercise in my life outside of Church, and I would still say that even if I had not had the experience I’m about to share.

The professor and the TA who led this class were very thoughtful and deliberate in the approach to the material.  The development of bonds of friendships and trust were encouraged in the early classes so that when we discussed our personal experiences of bias, prejudice, and bigotry we would be able to discuss openly with minimal offense.  Multicultural competence is difficult and being able to bring 20 strangers together of differing backgrounds to openly discuss these issues is challenging.

When we were in the midst of our unit on the African American experience my eyes were opened to their hardships (both historical and current) that most in the community still face.  Being able to discuss life experiences openly with my peers and hear their stories was profoundly impactful.  There was no single one insight, but rather layer upon layer I was able to better understand viewpoints that had previously eluded me in my life.  At the conclusion of one of the classes, I began my 45 minute drive home feeling overwhelmed, but uplifted.  As I drove home the uplifted feeling left because I found myself dwelling on moments in my life when I had not handled a situation as well as I should have, or I had allowed myself to judge someone unfairly.  In this moment of guilt, I found myself most strongly ruminating on the misunderstanding I had had with my friend over my mom’s reaction to the end of the priesthood ban.  I felt so guilty that I had taken offense, however modest, at his assumption.  I should have understood his experience better, and if I had, then of course I would have understood why his perspective was to assume racism unless the opposite had been clearly stated.

I found myself unable to stop ruminating on this feeling of guilt (my tendency to ruminate is something I’ll probably discuss in the future), and as it was locked in my head I began to find myself getting angry.  I was angry at Brigham Young  for instituting the ban, I was angry at subsequent church leaders who let it stand, and I was angry at current Church members who used the ban as an excuse to still hold racist attitudes and to perpetuate falsehoods.  The question formed in my mind, “Why would God have permitted this atrocity within His own Church?”  Those 20 minutes from the moment I got in my car until I reached that point was the strongest challenge to my Testimony I have ever experienced in my life.  I had known the Church was true since I was 16 years old, and nothing had caused me to waiver in my belief like the thoughts and feelings I was experiencing that night.  It might have only lasted about 20 minutes, but the term “crisis of faith,” almost feels like an understatement.

Fortunately, my years of Sunday School classes paid off, because I said a prayer right there while driving.  It was brief, but sincere and can be summarized to basically “Please don’t challenge me like this right now.  Between my work and school responsibility I cannot handle a challenge to my faith to this magnitude right now. Amen”  No sooner had I said “Amen,” my phone rang and of all the people in the world who would have called me at 9:45pm on a Thursday night, it was my Mom.  Now understand, that my Mom almost never called me on weeknights while I was in grad school.  She knew I was almost always in class, so she would wait until Sunday nights to call.  Remarkably too, there was no real news to share, she just wanted to call to say hi and check in.  I was in complete shock, I could barely respond to her questions. I didn’t tell her in that phone call what I had been going through in the 20 minutes before she called.  I just spent those 5 minutes listening to her voice and feeling reassured.  Once our brief conversation concluded, a feeling of peace permeated through my body, and I knew that my prayer had been answered.

I realize that I am posting this publicly and that many who read this may not fully understand how I can view this as more that a “coincidence.” Well, I’m comfortable with people calling it a coincidence for their own interpretation, but understand that this coincidence had a profound impact on me.  None of the frustrations or anger that I had felt towards the priesthood ban left me, but I felt assured that while whatever failings of man had allowed for the creation and perpetuation of the priesthood ban, God had not been negligent.  I was reminded that He works in his own ways and own timetable through us, His imperfect servants.  Also, as imperfect as we are, we need to be striving towards perfection, and the disease of racism is one of the things holding His children back from perfection, but for the first time in all of human history we can finally combat it head on.

Prior to that night, I had been trying to stand on the sidelines of racism, to let others battle it out.  Since that night, I had felt that I need to strive for opportunities to combat it on the front lines, especially within our Church community.  Racism has no place in the hearts of the disciples of Christ and my hope is that by sharing my story others will question their own attitudes and feel motivated to speak up and challenge themselves and others when we engage in racist attitudes or conversation.


I do want to offer a couple more bits of information on this topic before I conclude.  First, many people in the Church and outside often demand that the Church leadership offer a condemnation of myths regarding the origin of the ban, what we forget is that they have, and they did way back in 1978:

“Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world . . . It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject.”

Also, many argue that the Church is looking too much for uniformity among its members in both appearance and attitude, well we have a pretty strong condemnation of that belief from our current leadership:

Latter-day Saints believe in the resurrected J...

Latter-day Saints believe in the resurrected Jesus Christ, as depicted in the Christus Statue in the North Visitors’ Center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“But while the Atonement is meant to help us all become more like Christ, it is not meant to make us all the same. Sometimes we confuse differences in personality with sin. We can even make the mistake of thinking that because someone is different from us, it must mean they are not pleasing to God. This line of thinking leads some to believe that the Church wants to create every member from a single mold—that each one should look, feel, think, and behave like every other. This would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different from his brother, every son different from his father. Even identical twins are not identical in their personalities and spiritual identities.

It also contradicts the intent and purpose of the Church of Jesus Christ, which acknowledges and protects the moral agency—with all its far-reaching consequences—of each and every one of God’s children. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are united in our testimony of the restored gospel and our commitment to keep God’s commandments. But we are diverse in our cultural, social, and political preferences.

The Church thrives when we take advantage of this diversity and encourage each other to develop and use our talents to lift and strengthen our fellow disciples.”

Let us as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints be examples to the world of openness and love to all people regardless of race, color, or creed.  All of us are Children of God and should be treated accordingly.