Racist by Association

September 2, 2004 | 21 comments
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More than once in my career, I have been told by colleagues that they had me wrong. They had assumed, because of my religion, that I had unkind feelings toward racial minorities. After observing me in various settings, however, they had concluded that their initial assumption was unfair.

These moments are always bittersweet. On the one hand, I am pleased to have gained some measure of approval, even if I have not consciously sought it. On the other hand, I wonder how many other people never get past the initial assumption. When I was an undergraduate, a marketing professor told me that Proctor & Gamble assumed that every customer complaint was representative of six (or was it eight?) other unhappy customers. Similarly, I assume that for every person who admits to having this initial negative opinion of me based my religion, many more people simply harbor the opinion without ever giving it expression. Moreover, I fear that some people will not take the time to disabuse themselves of this unfair assumption or, even worse, will find confirmation for their opinion in some errant word or action on my part. I am starting at a deficit, and it can be tough to climb out.

My concern is not simply about wanting to be perceived a someone who is fairminded, but about being able to function effectively as a teacher and colleague. If, for example, I am asked to lead the law school’s hiring committee (not merely a hypothetical), will my efforts be viewed as an honest search for the best candidate, or will the search be tainted by doubts about my views on race?

Let me be right upfront about this: I am raising this issue for the most selfish reasons. While I can sympathize with black members of the Church, who feel personal pain about the history of the Church on this issue and who desire to have the Church do something more to acknowledge that pain, I also have begun to feel that this is important for me in a different, though still personal, way. Although I joined the Church after the revelation regarding blacks and the Priesthood in 1979, I am still connected to that history. In the minds of some of my non-member colleagues, I am a racist by association. You may fault them for making such assumptions, but I think that it is not only common, but understandable. While I cannot pretend to know the right course of action, I have come to feel that something more — perhaps a new proclamation of some sort — would be very welcome.

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21 Responses to Racist by Association

  1. danithew on September 2, 2004 at 9:45 am

    Nice post Gordon.

    No one wants to be called a racist but issues related to race are still very controversial and probably will be for a long time. When I hear the word “racism” it is often a reflexive reaction I have to think of white racists oppressing blacks — but my experiences with people from a great variety of backgrounds tells me that racism is pretty much a universal problem — that is, you can be prejudiced and biased regardless of your race and background. That seems obvious but I’m not sure people always figure that out. I have yet to meet a non-black race that hasn’t felt extreme prejudice and dislike towards blacks in the past and is still struggling to overcome it. I think blacks as a race suffer the brunt of racism from all others. Other races experience racism as well — I just don’t think it’s as universal a prejudice as the one against blacks. And I have seen that blacks can also be racist as well (just look at historical relationships between blacks and Koreans in New York, for example).

    Speaking of the church — it’s not news to anyone that the Church’s hierarchical structure is male and mostly white — and the apostleship and First Presidency has been all-Caucasian as long as it has been in existence. Due to the fact that people have seen the Church as racist in the past, it’s easy for them to generalize about the organization as a traditional conservative white-male racist organization.

    I won’t break here about speculating who will be the next member of the Quorum of the Twelve … but I’d certainly suggest that a non-Caucasian apostle would have a larger impact on the Church membership’s thoughts about race and the perspectives of nonmembers about the Church’s relationship to racism — far greater than any new proclamation could accomplish.

  2. Not Ophelia on September 2, 2004 at 10:35 am

    Interesting points, Gordon.

    I’ve not had much of the LDS racist by association problem, but I have had similar experiences in a different context: i.e. when my gay acquaintances find out I’m LDS. I *really* start in the hole there. I’ve found that it’s always best if they find out I’m LDS *after* having known me for a while. They have [hopefully] already decided I’m OK, so they just choke and sputter with surprize rather than dismiss me out of hand as a bigot.

    Not Ophelia

  3. another on September 2, 2004 at 10:39 am

    fix

  4. greenfrog on September 2, 2004 at 1:10 pm

    Moreover, I fear that some people will not take the time to disabuse themselves of this unfair assumption or, even worse, will find confirmation for their opinion in some errant word or action on my part. I am starting at a deficit, and it can be tough to climb out.

    Your wording here is penetrating, as I can easily imagine a person of color or a woman using exactly the same words to express their experience in dealing with racism and sexism.

  5. greenfrog on September 2, 2004 at 1:13 pm

    Moreover, I fear that some people will not take the time to disabuse themselves of this unfair assumption or, even worse, will find confirmation for their opinion in some errant word or action on my part. I am starting at a deficit, and it can be tough to climb out.

    Your wording here is penetrating, as I can easily imagine a person of color or a woman using exactly the same words to express their experience in dealing with racism and sexism.

  6. greenfrog on September 2, 2004 at 1:17 pm

    Moreover, I fear that some people will not take the time to disabuse themselves of this unfair assumption or, even worse, will find confirmation for their opinion in some errant word or action on my part. I am starting at a deficit, and it can be tough to climb out.

    Your wording here is penetrating, as I can easily imagine a person of color or a woman using exactly the same words to express their experience in dealing with racism and sexism.

  7. greenfrog on September 2, 2004 at 1:31 pm

    dang

  8. Gordon Smith on September 2, 2004 at 1:42 pm

    greenfrog, exactly right. While I cannot claim that anti-Mormon bias is as pervasive or as strong as racism or sexism, many of us have shared the experience of being discriminated against, and it isn’t fun.

  9. Kaimi on September 2, 2004 at 1:51 pm

    Gordon,

    I’m familiar with the feeling. I think that, on reflection, it is one of many factors (along with my own sense of justice, the interesting nature of the literature, the timing of different ideas I had, and more) that motivated me to do scholarship on African-American reparations.

  10. Bryce I on September 2, 2004 at 2:01 pm

    I’ve been fretting about issues like this over in the Sheri Dew thread — how the actions and opinions of those associated with the Church reflect upon other’s perception of my beliefs.

    Actually, I’ve been worrying about this in non-Church related areas of my life as well. My wife and I have chosen to homeschool our children. Our reasons are our own, and are different from the large majority of the US homeschooling community. I worry that my status of a homeschooling parent causes those who do know me well to view me in a certain light.

    So I resolve to avoid making assumptions about others based on their associations with particular groups, and fail daily. If it’s that hard for me, who actively recognizes the problem, how can I expect others to give me the benefit of the doubt? A problem indeed.

  11. Nathan Tolman on September 2, 2004 at 2:07 pm

    Interesting question raised here:

    Is it prejudice to assume members of certain groups are racist?

    Interestingly enough, I have never had this problem. Of course I am in Chinese studies, am married to a girl from Hong Kong, and have many Asian friends. Perhaps this overrules any latent thoughts of Mormon racism in people’s minds.

  12. Nathan Tolman on September 2, 2004 at 2:10 pm

    Interesting question raised here:

    Is it prejudice to assume members of certain groups are racist?

    Interestingly enough, I have never had this problem. Of course I am in Chinese studies, am married to a girl from Hong Kong, and have many Asian friends. Perhaps this overrules any latent thoughts of Mormon racism in people’s minds.

  13. Aaron Brown on September 2, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    Danithew wrote:
    “I’d certainly suggest that a non-Caucasian apostle would have a larger impact on the Church membership’s thoughts about race and the perspectives of nonmembers about the Church’s relationship to racism — far greater than any new proclamation could accomplish.”

    I’m not so sure. I think Mormonism’s pre-1978 teachings on race are more responsible for non-Members’ perspectives on Mormon racism than are mere observations that there just don’t happen to be a lot of Black Mormons. Of course, a non-Caucasian apostle would probably be big news, and it probably would be received positively in the world at large. Within the Church it would also be received positively, I believe, but it wouldn’t really address what I see as the crucial problem: A racist priesthood regime that was rationalized for decades (even if “unofficially”) by some fairly specific theological rationales. Most orthodox members of the Church would welcome a non-Caucasian apostle, because, post-1978, there’s no reason for them not to. But the pre-1978 theological rationales that propped up the priesthood ban have never been repudiated, and such a repudiation would go far, in my view, to setting many members straight on the real religious significance of race (or lack thereof).

    (No, I’m not so naïve as to think this is likely to happen. Yes, I realize I’m a broken record on this topic).

    Of course, it’s not clear what Gordon would want his new Proclamation to say exactly. I presume he’d want it to do more than just announce “We’re not racists.” I’m guessing he’d want it to tackle certain historical and theological issues head-on. He’ll have to tell us.

    Aaron B

  14. Aaron Brown on September 2, 2004 at 2:35 pm

    Danithew wrote:
    “I’d certainly suggest that a non-Caucasian apostle would have a larger impact on the Church membership’s thoughts about race and the perspectives of nonmembers about the Church’s relationship to racism — far greater than any new proclamation could accomplish.”

    I’m not so sure. I think Mormonism’s pre-1978 teachings on race are more responsible for non-Members’ perspectives on Mormon racism than are mere observations that there just don’t happen to be a lot of Black Mormons. Of course, a non-Caucasian apostle would probably be big news, and it probably would be received positively in the world at large. Within the Church it would also be received positively, I believe, but it wouldn’t really address what I see as the crucial problem: A racist priesthood regime that was rationalized for decades (even if “unofficially”) by some fairly specific theological rationales. Most orthodox members of the Church would welcome a non-Caucasian apostle, because, post-1978, there’s no reason for them not to. But the pre-1978 theological rationales that propped up the priesthood ban have never been repudiated, and such a repudiation would go far, in my view, to setting many members straight on the real religious significance of race (or lack thereof).

    (No, I’m not so naïve as to think this is likely to happen. Yes, I realize I’m a broken record on this topic).

    Of course, it’s not clear what Gordon would want his new Proclamation to say exactly. I presume he’d want it to do more than just announce “We’re not racists.” I’m guessing he’d want it to tackle certain historical and theological issues head-on. He’ll have to tell us.

    Aaron B

  15. obi-wan on September 2, 2004 at 2:44 pm

    I have variations of Gordon’s experience with some frequency. Especially in a city like Washington, I have been told not quite daily, but at least weekly, in so many words, “Oh, you’re not mindless brainwashed zombie!” or “Oh, you’re not a backwater Utah hayseed!” or “Oh, you’re not a right-wing ideological nut-case!” or “Oh, you haven’t tried to shove your religious beliefs down my throat!” or “Oh, you didn’t befriend me just so you could lure me into meeting with those missionaries!”

    Unfortunately, I frequently discover that my friends’ and accquaintances’ surprise at my unexpectedly non-stereotypical behavior is occassioned by previous interactions with self-proclaimed Latter-Day Saints who did in fact fit one or more of the above stereotypes.

    In other words, I do a lot of PR damage control. In one sense I’m glad to have the opportunity to correct people’s image of the Church, but at the same time it’s extremely depressing to have to clean up the messes left by fellow Saints.

    I console myself with the thought that some other unluckly Saint likely has to clean up after my messes.

  16. sid on September 2, 2004 at 3:42 pm

    Living in hyper-politicall correct Ann Arbor, I have had ocassion to hear all the comments mentioned by Obi-Wan in his comment above.
    Though, there are some folks who may have formed negaive opinions based on actual encounters with others in our Church, my experience is that if one takes the time and makes the effort, it is possible to change minds – havent managed to get any of my non-LDS friends to start the Discussions with eth Elders – probably, because they find the very thought of the Word of Wisdom too daunting!!

  17. danithew on September 2, 2004 at 3:53 pm

    Aaron,

    I’m not so sure. If there was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve who was Asian, Latino, Black or from some other non-Caucasian group, I think it would have a huge influence on how LDS people think as well as people outside the Church. This would send a very strong message that the Church leadership (whether we are speaking of the Lord or of the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve) are willing to consider the possibility that a non-Caucasian could become the President of the Church someday.

    Obviously this is a sacred calling that can’t be made with some kind of affirmative-action approach. But this is a world-wide Church now with world-wide constituencies and it would be completely appropriate for the top leadership of the Church to start being a bit more diverse in its appearance.

  18. Gordon Smith on September 2, 2004 at 4:05 pm

    Nathan: “Is it prejudice to assume members of certain groups are racist?”

    I am neither the deepest thinker nor the most eloquent speaker on issues of discrimination, but I have come to a sort of accommodation that seems to work for me, and it involves resisting the natural inclination to make judgments based on group status. While I am pretty sure that one cannot entirely dispense with such judgments — and, frankly, doing so would be a bad idea (imagine if you could not assume that mothers generally love their children or that a business person generally want your repeat business or that law students generally have a desire to learn) — I find that treating people as individuals is the highest form of respect and breaks down all sorts of barriers. The limiting factor, of course, is time. We make judgments based on associations, particularly voluntary associations, because such judgments save time. We are not willing or able to invest that much time in each individual we encounter, nor can we expect people to invest that sort of time in us. That’s why I would like to explore ways to reverse the group assumption. Imagine what a quality of life difference it would make for members of the Church, and how much easier it would be to introduce the Gospel to friends.

    As for Aaron’s request for more specifics about the proclamation, I am pretty short on those, but would confirm his guess that I would “want it to tackle certain historical and theological issues head-on.”

  19. MDS on September 2, 2004 at 8:42 pm

    why does the homepage say there are 18 comments but I only see six?

  20. Ethesis (Stephen M) on September 2, 2004 at 9:19 pm

    Hmm, greenfrog seems to have really wanted to make the point. A good point, but …

    Reminds me of my brother getting called in when he had recommended that they transition a guy from temp to employee.

    “Why did you make this recommendation?” “Well, the guy is sharp, hard working [etc., etc., making a full case.]”

    “Er, yes, but why *you*? After all, he’s Black and your file states that you are a Mormon racist.”

    “Uh.”

    (Really happened to my brother while working at Nike).

    Or my Dad. He’d known this other GI for six months when a couple other GIs started getting on to him about how could he stand to talk to a mormon racist.

    The guy, who was Black stated “You know, for three months, while I was waiting for the Air Force to get my car over here to Germany, the only person who would give me a ride to work was Marsh. Unlike you [deleted]s, he lives on the other side of the base from me, but he came by every morning for three months. I know who the [deleted] racists are.”

    Though my dad did get a combat medal awarded and then recinded because the barracks he evacuated was a Black barracks and not the appropriate race for a white guy. I’ve been trying to get that reopened (one of the classified chunks of my dad’s service record).

    If anyone knows anyone I can contact, let me know.

    But there is a lot of hostility that LDS people have to deal with based on race assumptions.

  21. Chad too on September 2, 2004 at 10:26 pm

    I’m having very similar problems, MDS. I’m guessing the bugs still aren’t 100% worked out.

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