Further Thoughts on That BYU Professor, Racism, and His Alleged Explanation for the Priesthood Ban

I’ve been faulted for being too easy on the BYU professor whose uncomfortably condescending remarks about blacks — which I condemned in my immediately preceding post — have created a firestorm of criticism over the past twenty-four hours or so.

Permit me to explain myself.

Partly, I advise against hasty condemnation because I’ve been misrepresented in the media myself, on more occasions than I can count, and because I’m not sure that he wasn’t.  He is, apparently, now claiming that his remarks were taken out of context, and I find that plausible.  (Several times, what I’ve said about Subject A has been distorted in the final printed version as having been about Subject B — and sometimes the misrepresentation has been grievous and publicly embarrassing.)  On the other hand, other statements of his have now surfaced — you should be very grateful that you’re not undergoing such a public colonoscopy as this — suggesting that the depiction of his views in the Washington Post isn’t far wrong.  I’m in no position to know, so I hesitate to pronounce judgment (let alone, as some have been doing, to demand that he be fired).

Partly, too, I urge charity because, although I don’t know him, he’s a person of my neighborhood and class.  And he’s someone who might have been in my ward, or with whom I might have worshiped in the temple.  This hits close to home.  I can easily imagine the little personal hell that he must be going through.  I would hate it.  And the thought that I had brought pain and embarrassment to the cause that I love, believe in, and have served much of my life would make the pain even more intense.  I have no desire to add to his burdens.

I also hesitate to condemn him because people that I know who know him insist that he’s a good and kind man, and I have no reason to doubt them on that.

But I also maintain that cluelessness on racial matters is not the ultimate sin.  Our society has — for understandable reasons, I think — come to regard racism as just about the worst thing of which a person can be guilty.  However, bad as it is, I don’t think that’s right.  There are many other kinds of cruelty and selfishness that are easily as bad, if not worse.

Please note that I’m not justifying racism, and that I’m certainly not trying to exculpate any who are guilty of genuine race-based malice and hatred.  But I’ve known a lot of really good people who harbored currently unfashionable notions about race and ethnicity.  Sentiments and expressions that are wildly unacceptable to us now were routine only two or three generations ago.

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about my interest in the candidacy of my fellow Latter-day Saint Yeah Samaké for the office of president of Mali.  One article about him that I’ve seen recounts an embarrassing moment when a white Mormon supporter, introducing him in Utah, invites him to “smile” for the audience.  One shifts awkwardly in one’s chair, or looks intently at one’s shoes.  It’s reminiscent of those scenes (right out of the black minstrelsy tradition) where the bright white smile of the black tap dancer, contrasting so clearly with the dark complexion, wins the applause of a white audience, who would never, ever, consider him their social equal.

Clueless?  Yes, apparently.  At least somewhat unthoughtful.  A bit uncomfortable, without a question.  But surely not even remotely in the ball park with slave ships and chain gangs and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Mr. Simon Legree.  Not malicious.  Not hateful.  Not cruel.  This is, remember, a supporter of Brother Samaké.  Well-intended and, in a way, innocent.

My own now-departed parents — I broach this topic with some hesitation, and fear to seem to disrespect two people that I loved (and love) deeply — occasionally made comments touching on ethnic or racial matters that caused me to cringe.  But they were loving, gentle people, kind and astoundingly service-oriented.  And in every case where I saw them actually interact with men or women of other ethnic backgrounds, they were polite, good-hearted, gracious, and compassionate.  While they sometimes said grating things about groups, I never knew either of them — ever — to treat any individual poorly on the basis of that person’s race or ethnicity.  Quite the contrary.  They would have gone far out of their way if they could help anybody, of any race, who needed it.  I saw them do it many times.

I would not want my parents to be publicly crucified for their (actually quite rare) comments.  I wouldn’t want them to be graded for their rare unfashionable words rather than their tender-hearted deeds.  I’m not eager to see other good people publicly humiliated and punished for such things, either.

Which brings me to another rather sensitive point:  Did Brigham Young and other past leaders of the Church sometimes make statements on race that are and should be entirely unacceptable today?

Yes, they did.

There’s no denying it.

I can explain my parents’ occasional “transgressions” to a large extent by referring to their dates of birth and the places where they were raised.  My father was born in 1913, to an immigrant Scandinavian Lutheran family in rural North Dakota.  When he served in Patton’s Third Army, the U.S. military was still officially segregated.  (He only joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — I baptized him — in 1972.)  My mother was born and raised in St. George, Utah, when it was a really tiny little Mormon outpost where, as she told me several times when my unhappiness at a comment became apparent, they never actually saw more than one or two black people.

Brigham Young was born in 1801.  He was, in other words, in his early sixties when Abraham Lincoln (who, by today’s standards, would also be a manifest racist) issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  He was roughly thirty when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded, and thirty-two when he joined it.  His racial attitudes were not altogether different from those of many of his contemporaries, and he likely brought most of them with him when, as a mature man, he accepted Mormonism.  (Nineteenth-century attempts to explain the ban on ordaining blacks to the priesthood unmistakably reflect the racial folklore that converts to the LDS Church — in other words, virtually the entirety of the Church until several decades after its founding — brought with them.)

Joseph Fielding Smith was born in 1876; Brigham Young was still president of the Church at the time.  Mark E. Petersen, another favorite whipping boy of critics who like to flatter themselves that their views on racial matters reveal their innate moral superiority rather than sheer chronological good luck, was born in 1900.

Were these men evil because their views of racial matters aren’t in sync with those of the early twenty-first century?  Surely, some of their statements on race are (to put it mildly) distasteful to us today, and embarrassing and cringe-worthy, and unacceptable.  But, in my view, they were still good men, overall.

I’m not particularly eager to condemn them.  I’m serenely confident that many of the assumptions that I take for granted — and, lest they feel too smugly complacent, that my supposedly more “progressive” contemporaries also take for granted — will seem outlandish and silly if not repulsive to later generations.  A little humility might be in order.

“Judge not,” taught the Lord (according to Matthew 5:1-4), “that ye be not judged.  For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged; and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.  And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine own eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?  Thou hypocrite, first cast the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”

“Use every man after his desert,” said Hamlet (II.ii.491-492), “and who should ‘scape whipping?”

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