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Op-ed: Follow Christ to eliminate racism

by | Jun. 11, 2020

The wave of support for racial justice following the senseless murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, after countless others, has been encouraging. Moved by recent events, we wonder what more we can do to keep our baptismal covenant “to mourn with those that mourn.”1

How can we follow President Ballard’s 2017 plea to “eliminate [...] racism”2? What, in the recent words of President Nelson, are “our spheres of influence”3? Though our spheres differ, four principles can guide us in locking arms as Latter-day Saints of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to make a difference:

  1. Hear—truly listen to—the racist experiences of our sisters and brothers of color.
  2. Recognize and repent of racism within ourselves.
  3. Study the issues.
  4. Join a movement for racial justice.

We can follow Christ by enacting these principles. By doing so, we participate in the “ongoing Restoration of the Savior’s gospel.”4

What Is Racism?

To eliminate racism, we must see its complexity—its interpersonal, institutional, and implicit aspects. Doing so, we come to the necessary and painful realization that we have beams in our own eyes to cast out in order to see clearly to help cast motes from others’ eyes.5 We see how the three aspects of racism are interwoven and entrenched.

A colleague’s personal experience in the Church as a black convert is illustrative. Not long after her baptism as a young adult, joining a mostly-white ward, she was invited to participate in performing baptisms for the dead. She was thrilled. Studying a painting in the temple of Jesus depicted with European features, surrounded by racially white angels, she asked a ward member why nobody in it looked like her. The member tried to reassure her by saying that once we’re in heaven, we’ll all be white. This notion, of course, is untrue. Reconciling grievous consequences of falsities like this requires us to understand the complex sin of racism.

Interpersonal Racism. Because it’s apparent, interpersonal mistreatment of a person of color is how we generally define racism. We understand racial jokes, caricatures, and claims, meant to demean and marginalize, as wrong and inappropriate. Church leaders have denounced these intentional acts in recent years. In 2006, President Hinckley said that “no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ.”6

Yet interpersonal racism can also be unintentional, as in my colleague’s experience in the temple. In response to her ward member, there are no theological grounds to say that all celestial bodies will be racially white. To assume this is simply incorrect. Less intentional racism is not necessarily less harmful, even when meant as benevolent, such as calling Asians “smart” or blacks “athletic.”

Institutional Racism. Social science research provides overwhelming evidence that differences in life opportunities are stratified by race. We see it in healthcare, wealth, income, education, housing, criminal justice, etc. Centuries of oppression live in institutions that privilege white people and marginalize people of color. US children of color, for example, attend schools with fewer resources and less prepared teachers than white children.7 The median wealth of white households is 10 times the median wealth of black households.8 In 2017, the imprisonment rate for blacks was nearly six times higher than for whites.9 In 2020, black Americans are more than twice as likely as white Americans to die from COVID-19.10

Sometimes I hear white folks, including Latter-day Saints, decry “reverse racism” because a person of color was rude to them, or because they couldn’t apply for student aid intended for minorities. When we account for systemic injustices, however, we understand “reverse racism” does not exist. Institutional advantages are stacked heavily in favor of whites.

Indeed, racism in the English-speaking world is a white problem. People of color are at the receiving end. Whiteness is not a neutral, default, or superior racial group. It's the dominant one; institutions reproduce this dominance.

Implicit Racism. The last aspect of racism may be the most difficult to change because it concerns our subconscious—split-second decisions about situations and snap judgments of others. We are all wired to make inferences based on very little information, which exposes our biases.11 Implicit racial bias explains purse clutching of white women passing black men on the sidewalk, harsher discipline for black students than white students for the same behaviors,12 and excessive force of police with blacks.13

Kindness is not enough to dismantle implicit racism. I am sure the ward member had a nice tone in her voice when she told my colleague that her racial identity and divine destiny were incompatible. Refining snap judgments that lead to implicit racism requires “priming”—neural rewiring through regular and meaningful experiences with different people and situations.

Four Gospel Principles

I find Paul’s “body of Christ” a spectacular way to frame how to be and act as disciples to eliminate all three aspects of racism, which are inseparable. All members of the body are in need of each other, with rather than in spite of our racial differences.14 The experiences and perspectives of people of color strengthen the body to accomplish His purposes. When a member of the body is overworked, neglected, or hurt, it affects the whole. Our responsibility to work together to heal is part of our baptismal covenant. The following principles are meant to guide us, through Christ, to eliminate racism, starting with ourselves.

  1. Hear—truly listen to—the racist experiences of our sisters and brothers of color. To hear one’s personal accounts of racial injustice is to see. Hearing—careful listening—is more concerned with understanding than responding. We need to hear sincere emotions associated with being feared, disregarded, handcuffed, silenced, and otherwise marginalized for being black or brown. To hear is to validate—the hurt, the frustration, the loneliness, the uncertainty, etc. The chief recommendation of Bryan Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative, is to “get proximate” to those living at the margins.
  1. Recognize and repent of racism within ourselves. Few of us are immune. I’m certainly not, and having it pointed out to me is hard. As a white man, I acknowledge my unearned privileges. I don’t have to change the way I talk or dress or feel or think at work or Church or in my community to be heard and accepted. People of color have to do this all the time. My privileges make it difficult for me to see my biases. It’s in regular and meaningful relationships with persons of color that my racial biases reveal and refine themselves. The implicit nature of my biases does not make me less responsible for them. Alma testifies that “our thoughts will […] condemn us”15, and King Benjamin exhorts us to refine our natural inclinations “through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and become as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, [and] full of love.”16

In this spirit, we must recognize and repent of institutional racism as well, including within the Church. Repentance is working through Christ’s grace to effect change. Concerning priesthood and temple restrictions for blacks, in place for over 126 years, Church leaders “disavow 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 […] or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else.” The consequences of these previously taught theories, still reverberating in 2020, are excruciating. Institutional repentance requires us to correct doctrinal falsehoods used to justify past and current racism in the Church. Now is the time to familiarize ourselves with and study the Race and the Priesthood gospel topics essay,17 and then boldly teach its doctrinal truths in gospel lessons, talks, and other discussions.

  1. Study the issues. We eliminate racism “no faster than [w]e get knowledge”18 of its causes and consequences. Examining racism requires knowledge and skills of history, psychology, humanities, economics, sociology, and so on. For us, it requires “learning […] by study and also by faith.”19 If prayerful, heaven “will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost”20 where to focus and how—be it education, criminal justice, health care, employment, banking, housing, etc. There are wonderful, public resources to start. The Equal Justice Initiative, for example, has free texts on the slave trade, lynching, and racial segregation. PBS has documentaries and other resources on race, and there are lots of popular books on racism.
  1. Join a movement for racial justice. We cannot eliminate racism without working to dismantle policies and practices that continue to oppress. Church leaders have provided the example, partnering recently with the NAACP to enhance education opportunities and humanitarian support for communities of color.21 We need more Latter-day Saints “anxiously engaged”22 in all sorts of alliances with other humans to eliminate racism. Legislative actions at state and federal levels are especially needed to combat institutional racism. If prayerful, heaven will direct us to know who to partner with and how to make a difference. God will call us out of our comfort zones to accomplish His purposes if we “yield ourselves [to let] Him know we want to be of use, seeking His direction, and accessing His strength.”23

Conclusion

By following Christ to eliminate racism, we participate in the “ongoing Restoration” of His gospel and prepare for His Second Coming. We are all children of God, members of a body. Some members have been terribly mistreated, for a very long time. The senseless murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd have awoken more of us to this deep-rooted fact.

Let’s work arm-in-arm—Latter-day Saints of all racial and ethnic backgrounds—to eliminate interpersonal, institutional, and implicit racism. He lives and loves us all, with our differences. He asks us to do the same.


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Thanks to Janan Graham-Russell for her perceptive feedback to an earlier draft of this article.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bryant Jensen is an Associate Professor of Teacher Education at BYU, and currently serves as a bishop. He and his superhuman spouse, Taryn, have five children. They love to garden and camp together. Bryant’s views are his own. 

Lead image: Shutterstock

  1. Mosiah 18:9
  2. M. Russell Ballard, “The Trek Continues!,” Ensign, Nov. 2017
  3. “President Nelson Shares Social Post about Racism and Calls for Respect for Human Dignity,” Church Newsroom, 1 Jun. 2020
  4. Russell M. Nelson, “My 2020 Invitation to You: Share the Message of the Restoration of the Savior’s Gospel,Church Blog, 1 Jan. 2020
  5. Matthew 7:3-5
  6. Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Need for Greater Kindness,” Ensign, May 2006
  7. Wade A. Boykin and Pedro Noguera, “Creating the Opportunity to Learn: Moving from Research to Practice to Close the Achievement Gap,” ACSD, 2011
  8. Rakesh Kochhar and Anthony Cilluffo, “How Wealth Inequality Has Changes in US Since the Great Recession, by Race, Ethnicity and Income.” Pew Research Center, 1 Nov. 2017
  9. John Gramlich, “The Gap Between the Number of Blacks and Whites in Prison is Shrinking.” Pew Research Center, 20 Apr. 2019
  10. CDC, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19): Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups,” Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 22 Apr 2020.
  11. Sendhil Mullainathan, “Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions,” New York Times, 3 Jan. 2015
  12. Brett Arends, “Black Kids More Likely to be Suspended than White Kids Over Same Behavior,” New York Post, 16 Oct. 2019
  13. Roland G. Fryer, Jr., “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” The National Bureau of Economic Research, Jan. 2018
  14. Bryant Jensen, “The Blessings of Diversity,” Ensign, Jul 2019
  15. Alma 12:14
  16. Mosiah 3:19
  17.  “Race and the Priesthood.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed 5 Jun. 2020.
  18. History of the Church, 4:588
  19. D&C 88:118
  20. D&C 8:2
  21. Church Newsroom, “First Presidency and NAACP Leaders Call for Greater Civility, Racial Harmony,” 17 May 2018
  22. D&C 58:27
  23. John C. Pingree, “I Have a Work for Thee,” Ensign, Nov. 2017
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