Mia Love and The Triad of Oppression–Part 2:

In the zany world of Utah politics where Republicans naturally remain right of center, but Democrats venture toward the middle, Mia Love’s recent rise to national prominence came about after defeating former state legislator Carl Wimmer for the right to run against the well-funded Democrat incumbent, Jim Matheson, thus positioning herself as the first Afro-Haitian American Mormon GOP House candidate. If she wins, Mia could make history as the first black female politician ever elected to the House of Representatives from the state of Utah, an amazing feat when considering the odds of her of actually winning in a predominately white, conservative, Mormon state.

If Mia Love is victorious in her bid for the House seat, it will do wonders for the image of the state of Utah, and especially the LDS Church whose recent spate of high profile race-based debacles captured national attention. There have been insensitive racial statements made from former church authorities in past time (see pdf here). However, BYU religion professor Randy Bott’s recent remarks of justifiable racism found within the LDS cannon triggered one the strongest public statements against racism to date uttered by LDS Church headquarters, but not before the church’s own racial beliefs were once again questioned.

Additionally, comedian David Ackerman’s interviews with predominately white students while dressed in “blackface” on the campus of BYU in February 2012 went viral on YouTube, as it highlighted the ignorance of race awareness in Utah (by both Ackerman and the students alike). Highly publicized in the national media, it proved embarrassing, yet again, for the flagship school of the LDS Church. Against this backdrop, emerged Mia Love.

How does a black female who is a conservative and a Latter-day Saint manage to negotiate so many foreboding white spaces and, yet, publicly appear oblivious to the racial tensions found within each space? This is a complicated question that, in all fairness, only Mia can truly answer for herself; however, research has been beneficial at elucidating the complexities of racial identity development as we observe groups. We begin by understanding what the eminent scholar W.E.B. Du Bois meant when he coined the phrase “double consciousness” over one hundred years ago to explain the sociological conditions and democratic contradictions of living with everyday racism(s) that black Americans endure. That black and white folk live in two existentially dissimilar worlds with opposing codes of power and rules of conduct, Du Bois argued those rules and codes preferentially benefited whites at the expense of African Americans. The respective codes of power form a fairly predictable and sanitized environment where the dominant ideology of whiteness is proffered and diversity of bodies and experiences is generally discouraged, particularly in predominately white-controlled organizations. Though the language of these organizations will profess diversity, their actions insinuate otherwise, chiefly when viewing the structure of these institutions.

In order for someone like Mia Love or myself, for that matter, to gain some rewards and advantages in white America, we along with scores of other typically middle-class and well-educated people of color have to be proficient in these preferred racial codes of power which are often hidden from plain sight, but have enormous consequences for social mobility. For example, religious persuasion is highly valued along with particular hairstyles, musical tastes, and clothing. Additionally, white sounding names (as compared to black sounding names), educational status, and English language proficiency are but a few codes of power found in U.S. society, particularly with respect to hiring. For African Americans, the need and ability to tread between two separate and opposing codes is identified as “code switching.” Though this is often unconscious, it affords black Americans the ability to traverse white norms and values in order to “succeed” in the illusion of the American Dream, while still maintaining a connection with and understanding of the black community and its struggles as they move up the social ladder and try to preserve their status as middle class. The constant shifting of context that African Americans must tolerate, however, carries the burden of disease. The consequences for their health and well-being take the form of higher cortisol levels, which produces higher rate of chronic ailments that lead to increased morbidity and mortality.

To many African Americans and other individuals interested in politics who are following Mia Love’s Utah candidacy, she is a paradox. As a black, female Mormon, her conservative ideals are deemed peculiar as she runs for office in the Republican Party while balancing a triad of oppressive social constructs that are leveled against her. Not only have Blacks historically and continually had to battle for their right to coexist as equals in U.S. society, but women have similarly pushed against a glass ceiling. Even today, women still struggle for equal pay, equal rights and equal protection under the law in the workplace as well as in the armed forces.

Mia represents one of the most racially discriminated groups in the country as a black female. The same can be said for her Mormon identity as the LDS faithful endured bitter hatred and state-sanctioned terrorism in Missouri and Illinois in the 1800s. Mormonism remains grossly misunderstood and often unfairly judged with respects to their religious views while mainline evangelical traditions continue to wield Christian privilege at the expense of ‘fringe” religions like Mormonism. (Many republican supporters outside of Utah politely ignore Mia’s membership in the LDS Church, lionizing her as a fresh face in the party while secretly lambasting her for belonging to a “religious cult.”) Yet, Love’s political convictions show a strong support for values that do not necessarily represent her interests as a member in any of these oppressed groups.

In fact, Mia along with other conservative Blacks such as Allen West, Michael Steele, Amy Holmes, Alan Keyes, and Herman Cain ascribe to a party that rejects any notion of group inequality within its basic tenets of individualism. What many conservatives fail to recognize is that individuals are connected to larger groups, and those groups display patterns and behaviors that assess their levels well being in relation to society. When a group lags as a whole in the American scheme of profitability, it is because they typically display conduct in variance to the all around code that the white, male norm subscribes to. For example, Blacks aren’t doing well with respects to education, economics, and health outcomes while women still lag behind in salary and positions of power. These actualities of Mia’s reality seem to be in concert with her values that are based in a white male Christian context.

But the biggest quandary with respect to Mia lies with her inability to grasp Du Bois’ double consciousness. Whether this is due to her Mormon faith and the apparent Stockholm syndrome of black Mormons (whose membership in the LDS church differs widely from those of The Black Church which helped to sustain the African American community through some of the most difficult and turbulent times in American history rather than perpetuate racist folklore to justify black marginality) or due to her racial consciousness, by lacking the ability or refusing to code switch with the black community, Mia and others like her are seemingly out of touch with the political realities of African Americans and what remains at stake for them. It would be a mistake to assume that all black people are cut from the same cloth and share the same political inclinations. The Pew institute estimates some 3 million self-identified Black Americans are registered republicans; however, there has yet to be a ground swell of support for the right-wing ideology amongst the vast majority of African American voters. Thus, for most African Americans, it appears absolutely preposterous that someone black, Mormon, and female could possibly support the GOP so strongly given its history of anti-black, anti-feminist, and anti-Mormon sentiment. But this isn’t so preposterous when we recognize that American politics is a broken system in the business of servicing big corporations wherein Americans are duped into voting their values even when they contradict their political interests and success as a social group. African Americans are the only racial group that votes in blocks and, I would argue, the only group to vote their interests. But Mia Love does not align herself with African American interests, which is why a figure like her is so fascinating.

As potentially the first Mormon, black female from the state of Utah in the House, she has captured national attention. And her recent ascendency onto the political scene could not have come at a more convenient time when there has been a surge of interest in Mormonism due to definitive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. With the race beliefs and ideology that Mormons have been subjected to defending, Mia Love, as a seemingly bright and well-spoken GOP candidate, will prove to be a counter-answer to those raised eyebrows.

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I Might Look Black, But I Ain’t Like “Y’all”: Utah Politician Mia Love

Don’t be fooled by what you see. Mia Love, the conservative Republican political candidate for Utah’s new fourth congressional district, might look black, but she ain’t like “us.” Despite the well-known racist notion that “all blacks look alike,” there is more to being black than looks alone. Black people generally share in common African ancestry and specific alleles that control for variations in skin color and other physical features; besides that, black folk are as rich and diverse a group as they come with many distinct cultures, languages, and dialects. To most Americans, however, what the casual observer typically categorizes as a “black person” is not always someone who identifies as “African American.” By African American, in this sense, I mean those individuals whose African ancestors where enslaved and then transported to the Eastern shores of what is now the United States, and through natural increase, became the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of former slaves. With that history comes a bloody and violent past replete with pain and suffering at the hands of white power and privilege. Africans enslaved in America centuries ago were forced to shape new relationships with former rival tribesman out of sheer necessity, thus developing into a culture that we know currently as African American. With that rich tapestry of African culture forged through a record of struggle and long-suffering, African Americans survived the onslaught of white supremacy by producing rich and vibrant Black communities, tight knit in personal connections, where knowledge was gathered and disseminated about how to survive and agitate for social justice that had long been denied.

This is not to say that Mia Love and others of more recent immigrant lineage are not American, but the category of “African American” illuminates a particular heritage, enticing a certain frame in our minds. Haitian Americans, on the other hand, as well as other black Americans of different emigrant origin and history have their own unique chronicle. Mia’s parents, for example, emigrated from Haiti to the United States in the 1970’s, some 170 years after their homeland gained its independence. With them, then, they brought received wisdoms unique to Haiti from its history of French colonial oppression. But also with them, they brought wisdoms, sensibilities, and frames associated with a history of black rule and sovereignty.

After arming themselves under the direction of military leader Toussaint L’Ouverture and, subsequently, Jean Jacques Dessalines , Haitian slaves fought for their freedoms in the revolution of 1791 and finally gained their independence in 1804 after trouncing Napoleon’s forces for the second time. Mia’s Afro-Haitian ancestry is very similar to that of North American Blacks with equally violent and complicated interactions with Europeans. It differs from U.S. slavery and emancipation in that Napolean and his white army were forced out of Haiti, leaving a predominately black country to govern itself as the second democracy in the Americas. Haitian citizens were now in control of there own destiny, but not before they inherited many of the same European racisms that plague the U.S. mainland such as colorism, which is discrimination on the basis of skin tone. Since then, Haiti has been a predominantly black nation with unprecedented high levels of illiteracy, poverty, government instability, and other challenges. However, Haiti is the only black nation in the Western hemisphere, which means that despite its problems, they are free from white supremacy (within their country at least). Mia’s parents come from a culture that was literally created by a black majority who has experienced two hundred years of freedom and black command.

In contrast, African Americans have only been “free” since the passage of civil rights laws some forty-five years ago and continue to experience discrimination in housing, education, health care, and other forms of civic life in a white dominated culture. In fact, black Americans have merely lived an illusion of freedom. The richness of the African American culture is deeply rooted in social justice and a tradition of fighting against the absurdity of white supremacy that persists even today. From 1619 when 20 Africans landed in Jamestown, Virginia on a Dutch frigate to 1968 when the last civil rights law was passed, African Americans endured 350 years of slavery and near slavery-like conditions. In this country where white privilege and power is the norm, racial and ethnic immigrant groups of lighter, white appearing complexion (mainly from Southern and Eastern Europe) have consistently and inevitably been able to assimilate into the American culture and come to be considered “white” in American context. Immigrant groups of darker skin have not had that opportunity. Instead of being granted government succor in both the guarantee and upholding of justice at every corner of life as our constitution promises each American regardless of their station, African Americans have continually been denied or had limited access to decent and affordable housing, a world-class education, and low cost, high quality health care. And as society’s income and wealth gap widens, systemic racism continues to pervade every facet of American life.

Although weak legal strides have been made to redress some our most pressing racial vexations as a nation, serious deprivations remain for too many Americans of color. These deprivations are centuries-old and fly in the face of our universal appeal toward “go it alone” and “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” attitudes, questioning the validity of these metaphors. The image of successful people who rose from the ashes to make something of themselves is an enduring theme in U.S. society and enough to reinforce the idea in popular culture. Because white America is the architect of these improbable white frames of success, scores of immigrants came to the Americas in hopes of better days ahead. Yet, African Americans whose ancestors were involuntarily brought to this country do not follow a similar life trajectory and, thus, feel differently about race than one whose family voluntarily immigrated here for opportunity sake. Where Mia’s experience is one of hopes and dreams, albeit largely reinforced by popular stories, images, and myth-making of the American propaganda machine, the mass media, African Americans’ experience as a group is one of despair.

Mia’s history and challenges are not so different from other African Americans. What is different, however, are the philosophical tools by which Mia interprets her experiences; put differently, the way in which she buys into the notion of the American dream and individualism as well as how she views herself as a black woman through the prism of a U.S. white lens. As all “races” in North America view themselves through a white lens, Mia’s hair style, diction, cultural orientation, friendships, mannerisms and habits, nevertheless, are an extension of her degree of acceptance of white supremacist norms and values which induce her unconscious hatred for all things African American. This behavior should not be seen as strange, but instead an effect of living in a white world that has historically devalued black people and their accomplishments. All black Americans do this to some extent. The difference with Mia Love is that her upbringing, stemming from a more recent immigrant state of knowing and being, causes her to continue to believe these “norms” of whiteness without questioning their basis and origin. African Americans, on the other hand, have developed counter frames to protect themselves against white supremacist notions, creating an alternative way of “viewing” their position and circumstance. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett detail in their book, The Spirit Level, only once we correct the widening income gap will we see improvement in every major social indicator from health and crime to education and jobs. Such opportunity comes from community as well as a greater sense of fairness and justice.

This tradition of fighting and struggling against systemic racism is distinct for African Americans, something that recent immigrants of African descent cannot completely comprehend. Because Mia Love and others like her have not come from an institution of perpetual battle for their freedom, voice, and right to exist in a supposedly egalitarian society, they have the luxury to be unconscious of the white-black paradigm in this country. However, this much is true about U.S. racial understandings about blackness, it doesn’t much matter if you where born in America or immigrated here, the one-drop rule is still alive and well in contemporary America. No one person of color is free from discrimination in this country. With even the slightest hint of “black” (African) features, white America still sees that person as black. And with that comes the white centered frames of what it means to be black despite the cultural variations of blackness. Mia Love has the unique opportunity to learn two distinct histories and cultures. It would behoove her to understand and embrace the African American social-cultural history because the reality is she looks like “us.” We are all the sons and daughters of former slaves; we share this fight together.

Cross-posted from http://www.darronsmith.com

Is Love Enough? Limits of Whiteness in Transracial Adoptions

The recent explosion in transracial adoptions (especially white parents adopting black children) within United States, especially by high profile celebrities such as Sandra Bullock, Madonna and Angelina Jolie, sends a dangerous message to ordinary Americans that race, racism and the persistence of discrimination has all but faded from our national memory. And more so, that love alone is enough to raise a child of color. White parents that definitively espouse, “Love is enough” are doing a huge disservice to their black children.

Research shows that black adoptees experience a high degree of uncertainty in deciphering the onslaught of race-based information (particularly with regards to self-image) they inevitably encounter in predominately white communities where they are raised; the adoptees often experience daily racial micro-aggressions that are typically “unseen” or misinterpreted by the white parent, thus leaving them exposed without developing effective coping strategies in a life-long battle for their racial identity. The concern is not that these white parents are willing to love and raise a child of a different color, but that they are typically resistant to openly examining our nation’s racial history and identifying their role as benefactors in a system of white privilege where white people receive a multitude of unearned, hassle-free benefits.

One of the limitations of white-adopting parents raising black children is that the parents are viewing race through the lens of whiteness. In the history making of what it means to be white, this constructed lens is what white people use to view society and the world. This has been a privilege undeservingly bestowed upon Whites in which they do not have to think about what it means to be a white person in society, but this poses a barrier to raising mentally and emotionally healthy children of color who will be confronted with their position in society on a daily basis. White privilege, which includes views on race through a white lens, stems from this nation’s history of race and racism. Part of the challenge of being a white parent adopting children of color is comprehending the children’s racial group history in relation to past and present. In order to understand racism today, one must examine its origins and evolution in history. To understand this is to gain some awareness of what a person of color experiences and the burden they carry for this country’s past deeds. In that process, a white parent has to come to grips with racism and his/her place in a white racialized society. Only then can a parent begin to provide their child with the tools (tools that black parents tend to pass down as received wisdoms through mere experience) to have a strong racial-identity and to contest the experiences and challenges they will surely encounter as a person of color in America.

Nearly two and a half centuries (more than half this country’s history) of white racial framing of black Americans as the objects of white scorn has left a legacy of deep-rooted demons that lurk about just beneath the surface of consciousness, dictating how we think and act on our racial assumptions. Hence, the body has become a canvas on which (racial) discourse is painted according to the unconscious and conscious images seen, providing the interlocutor with specific understandings and awareness about human difference, whether real or imagined. According to Lakoff and Johnson (1999), “Consciousness goes way beyond mere awareness of something, beyond the mere experience of qualia (the qualitative senses of, for example, pain or color), beyond the awareness that you are aware, and beyond the multiple takes on immediate experience provided by various centers of the brain. Consciousness certainly involves all the above plus the immeasurably vaster constitutive framework provided by the cognitive unconscious, which must be operating for us to be aware of anything at all” (Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, p. 11).

Because these thoughts exist below the level of conscious awareness, unconscious frames developed which are cognitive maps or conceptual systems, ways of thinking about human difference. Racial frames are specific forms of knowledge production around black bodies that evolved from uneven historical conditions of far-reaching black exploitation and, in a number of significant ways, built up and sustained the wealth of the nation for centuries through the horrors of European colonialism and African slavery. White elites (i.e., lawyers, doctors, scientists, clergyman, etc.) extorted socially constructed ideas about blacks to justify that exploitation. Racial frames are deeply rooted in the image of the body and are remarkably resilient. Thus, each successive new generation of Whites is racially primed with old racist folklore inherited from their white forbearers and reinforced through media portrayals as well as the larger white context of family and friends. For example, white racial frames about black males as scary are well known among a substantial numbers of Whites and, unfortunately for black men, can result in life or death. Certainly George Zimmerman acted on white racial assumptions of black males, which in part lead the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. The recent shootings in Tulsa that left three black men dead and two critically injured is an added reminder of the salience of race in American life. Black Americans know all too well the continued high costs of living with racism.

The election of President Barrack Obama as the nation’s first African American commander and chief emboldened the rhetoric among many white Americans that race no longer matters as a significant U.S. problem. The Obama presence in the White House only strengthens and reinforces in the minds of many that racism is nothing more than randomized situations where individual “acts of meanness” directed at one racial group by another play out. Through this mindset, any one person can be racist, but most Americans see themselves as not racist. Unfortunately, these popular understandings of race are “normal” thinking that largely ignores our racial history of white-generated forms of oppression and violence directed at African Americans and other Americans of color, the aftermath of which can still be felt presently in our modern day society from school performance to the criminal justice system. Whether it’s recoiling in the presence of a black man on an elevator, attending same-race church services or selecting a mate, race matters in virtually ever aspect of our lives.

Given that race remains is a salient factor in the lives of African Americans and other Americans of color, white Americans remain mystified when it is suggested that they are the recipients of unearned white-skin privilege that considerably shape the quality of their life experiences. The uncritical examination of race by white Americans and the perpetuation of the platitude of “colorblindness” to succeeding young white compeers only forestalls any real efforts toward progressive change. As humans, we are generally not open to the idea of evaluating and correcting our personal shortcomings, particularly when it pertains to distasteful parts of our identity and self-image (or ego). Ask any African American or progressive white person and they will invariably tell you that white folks are not particularly receptive to robust discussions about the continuing problems of racial injustice especially if such discussions involve reparations or social justice as it pertains to black Americans. But fear of white offense and their subsequent silencing should not detour important moments of discussion with the goal of radically transforming our society toward a more democratic way, principally in the practice of transracial adoption where white adopting parents have an incentive and duty to rear physically, mentally and emotionally healthy black children.

Black adoptees must be inoculated against white racial understandings, stereotypes and insults to black identity by well-intentioned and not so well-intentioned Whites, and ignoring or de-emphasizing the needs of black children’s racial identity development can have a profound effect on mental health. Black children need an outlet to discuss, process and analyze race in ways that are both productive and protective for them. Because many white Americans hotly contest their own culpability in the maintenance of white racism, how is it then possible for white Americans, the most racially privilege group, to effectively teach black Americans, the least privilege group in our society, to cope with race-based mistreatment? In other words, how can whites parents teach their black children how to handle being black in America?

In 1972, The National Association of Black Social Workers (NASBW) expressed strong reservations against the practice of transracial adoption for many of the reasons mentioned above. Although I strongly understand their viewpoint and agree whole-heartedly with their rationale, I also believe that white adopting parents have every good intention in raising their children with love. The reality is that the majority of black children in foster care will stay there until they age out on their eighteenth birthday, and I certainly cannot say that this is a better alternative to being reared in an all white context. However, I believe there is an additional alternative, and that is to encourage white parents to educate themselves and take ownership of their place in history and the unearned benefits they receive from a racist society. The recent death of Trayvon Martin combined with the Tulsa killings should be a troubling wake-up call for those who thought racism was a thing of the past and particularly concerning for white adopting parents as foresight of what potential pitfalls their children may face by simply being black in America. By pretending that racism doesn’t exist or suggesting it only exists in localized settings, parents are setting their children up for a lifetime of grief and self-doubt. Instead, parents must provide their children with cultural armor to protect them against the pervasiveness of daily racists insults and practices. By giving your black children the understandings of our whitely framed world and the tools to handle this world, you are only preparing them with positive strategies to engage inevitable circumstances that they will encounter.

There are ways in which white parents can gain understanding and skills that are useful for their black children. For example, read books by well-written, black authors on the subject of white privilege and white racism, move into more racially integrated communities, attend an African American church and other social functions, and finally, increase friendships with more African Americans of equal status. I remain hopeful that white adopting parents have the desire, courage and conviction to move beyond the racial frame that “race no longer matters in American society” and to recognize their own white privilege which represents a considerable stumbling block to improving the overall quality of experience of transracial adoption for adopting parents and children alike. However, if Whites fail to take ownership of this problem in order to deflect any semblance of racism away from them, then we as a society further fail in our efforts to instill wholesale change.

~ Cross-posted from Prof. Darron Smith’s blog (www.darronsmith.com).

Walking While Black: The Senseless Killing of Trayvon Martin

The recent slaying of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin is yet another reminder of the every day presence of racism in the United States. I find it necessary to remind everyone that this is not an isolated incident, but one that occurs daily across America for most black men. The difference here is that the normal threats and harassment that Trayvon would typically encounter on any given day as a black man, turned into his innocent death. As Malcolm Gladwell discussed in the death of Amadou Diallo, an innocent black man in New York City who was mistakenly shot 19 times by 4 police officers (who fired a total of 41 shots), the decisions that George Zimmerman made about Trayvon Martin were done in a “blink of an eye”. His actions, on the other hand, were done in justification of his already conceived (and likely subconscious) thoughts about this young man rather than in response to Trayvon’s clearly non-threatening behavior. Any one of Zimmerman’s compilation of actions that fateful evening, if terminated, would have likely resulted in a different outcome, one where Trayvon would still be alive today. But Zimmerman is operating on societal-based stereotypes and assumptions of anti-black racial frames about black men that has been around since the mid-1600’s and continues in today’s white-dominated society.

I find it hard to understand why anyone would be foolish enough to discount the continuing assault on the black male presence. Black men have always been public enemy number one in white America, and that has not changed much in 400 years. Since slavery times, African American men were seen as threats to white manhood. Unrelenting white racial stereotypes around black male bodies provided the perfect justification for the incredible violence directed at them, whether in the cotton fields or working for his master in the big house.

Black men were clearly not on equal footing with other men, especially white men for centuries. The conditions, stories, received wisdoms and other discourses created by whites about black folk constituted predictable cognitive road maps or frames that white folks enacted on black bodies. Frames are patterned ways of thinking about human differences such as race that apply generally to people at large and influence our legal system, schooling, healthcare, unemployment and housing to name a few. The white racial frames created around “Black” were and remains anathema, which is certainly the case with Trayvon’s senseless death. The shooter, George Zimmerman, a man of apparent Latino heritage and self-proclaimed neighborhood watch captain, mystifies many white observers. Given that both black and brown people in American are oppressed, how could this be? What’s happening here is that Zimmerman is acting on the existing white racial frames that operate as unconscious scripts on how to interact with racial “others” in our society.

White racial framing of black male bodies is a large-scale centuries-old undertaking that not only affects white behavior toward Blacks, but black and Latino behaviors toward each other and themselves. These racial understandings have existed ever since Europeans first stepped foot on the Western shores of Africa and began a long and tortuous relationship with Africans. And this continues today where the steady stream of media portrayals of young black men as “dangerous” predators is too prolific in our society to ignore. Anyone reading this blog can certainly think of one or more stereotypes about black men. When you think of the face of crime, it is easy to conjure the image of Trayvon or another young man of color as the scary and dangerous “other” or the boogey man. Minorities are not immune to this frame or thought process. Latinos, Blacks and other Americans of color receive and act on many of the same white racial stereotypes and impulses, and Mr. Zimmerman is no exception.

Now, take the context of white society from its historical vantage point and see how it continues the play out (albeit less overt at times). Floridians have instituted a law that has resurrected the Wild Wild West, which allows an individual to take the law into his/her own hands. A law seemingly provoked by the looting that occurred following several Florida hurricanes. After filtered media images following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the assumption is that the people looting are black. Thus, the law can be interpreted such that if a black man is stealing, a white man can shoot and kill him. And the onus is placed on the victim from prove he was innocent of a crime before being shot. We have now gone even beyond the egregious “eye for an eye” and moved to a place where a heart can be taken for the loss of a finger, but no one seemed to care that the law implied it was the heart of a black man until it was taken literally. What results is that someone like Trayvon Martin has become caught in the crosshairs of a nation that has yet to truly reconcile its profoundly racist past.

While the nation continues to mount an all out and justifiable assault on the circumstances surrounding Trayvon’s death, let’s not forgot the conditions that gave rise to this young man’s death in the first place: white supremacy, or to put it nicely, a white dominated society. Rest in peace Trayvon Martin; may your death not be in vain.

Please sign this petition and forward to all concerned stakeholders.

How Does It Feel to be a Curse? LDS Racism

On Tuesday, Randy Bott, a BYU professor of religion, told the Washington Post that the LDS Church’s historic prohibition on black priesthood ordination for men was a “blessing” to blacks because they were not “ready” for priesthood authority.

Just when we thought things had quieted down in Provo after several busy years of open and public displays of what can only be described as pure hatred for African Americans, up pops the Brandon Davies controversy, BYU Blackface video, and now BYU professor of religion Randy Bott’s recent remarks underscoring the enduring Latter day belief in black inferiority. “You couldn’t fall off the top of the ladder. So, in reality the blacks not having the priesthood was the greatest blessing God could give them,” the professor told the Washington Post, highlighting a significant problem for the Mormon faith.

Some years ago, I conceived of plan that had the potential to transform the way Black folk and other progressive thinkers within and outside the Mormon faith understood race. Black members are made to suffer by dealing with the continued belief among many well-intentioned Whites that having black-skin was an unequivocal mark of God’s disfavor. Yet, I believed that if enough like-minded white members could lend their voices and concerns to church authorities regarding this enduring pain and struggle, then we could cajole church authorities to issue a public apology in order to dispel the persistent racial folklore well-known in Mormonism. Unfortunately, the group I was trying to convince (Mormons for Equality and Social Justice) was not on board with my plan.

The folklore explains that the biblical counter-figure, Cain, was allegedly “cursed” with a skin of blackness for slaying his brother Abel. Despite official statements from LDS Church headquarters to the contrary, many active members still believe this to be the case. And this (mis)belief led to the many racial practices of the Church, such as those that denied black males the right to hold the priesthood and black women the blessings of the LDS temple ceremony. And though these practices were never official doctrine, through the many teachings from Brigham Young to Joseph Fielding Smith, these became assumed doctrine or pseudo-doctrine, if you will. In fact, many of these teaching still circulate today in Mormon theological published works. (pdf here).

White members are not the only ones, however, to believe in black Latter-day Saint inferiority. Surprisingly, many Black members of church actually believe the folklore as well, making it difficult to understand why anyone of African descent with a reasonable mind would consider joining the Mormon faith given its history of marks and curses upon black folks. And sadly, there are many other racist concepts found within the LDS Church.

Church authorities stubbornly sidestep charges that the predominately white faith is a racist organization. When racial issues arise such as with Randy Bott, it becomes significant enough to warrant an official statement by church authorities. However perfunctory it may be, it is still not enough. Mormons are not alone. African-Americans historically experienced similar racist encounters in other predominately white churches as well, which led to the creation of the Black Church and later caused Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to declare, “Sunday is the most segregated day of the week.” Regrettably, this fact has not changed much in America. Yet, the continued silence of the LDS Church implies that it is okay for black Mormons to bare the greater burden to defend the Mormon faith; a burden that is often turned inward in the psychological toll imposed on black members by white mythmaking which has an impact on mental wellbeing (White Parents, Black Children). The LDS Church must go further by issuing an official apology to all people of African descent.

Randy Bott’s comments made in this day and age in the 21st century are not unlike those of the white slave master who felt that slavery was ultimately good for blacks. Given his recent remarks, it would serve LDS Church authorities well to straightforwardly and unequivocally denounce all racist folklore ever uttered by any church authority on the matter. But to denounce these comments would be to openly admit that the Brethren made mistakes in their teachings and interpretations. Thus far, we have not seen anyone of authority in the church willing to take that stand.

This is Mitt Romney’s headache: to inherit and answer the definitive question (if he indeed gets the GOP nomination) of whether or not the LDS Church is or was ever racist. The truth is, the constitution states that there shall be “no religious test” to hold office. But Romney, must be prepared for a flurry of questions from media representatives and other political pundits as to how, if elected to the highest office in the land, can he actually be a president for all the people given his connection to the Mormon faith and its racial history. Though Romney is not a church official and, therefore, should not be made to represent the church, he will be deemed a de facto spokesperson by the media and nation. Romney has thus far avoided bringing his faith into the political arena, but he may not be able to avoid these questions for much longer. All issues are fair game. The American people deserve to know the particular social, cultural and religious experiences that shape the character and ideology of their leader. The American people want to know does Romney feel the same as Professor Bott?

BYU Black Face and the Meaning of Race in America

It has been nearly a year since Brigham Young University was heralding as “America’s University” for its unapologetic devotion to the honor code when it suspended Brandon Davies, an African American basketball player, on the eve of the 2011 NCAA Basketball tournament. Davies reportedly confessed to having premarital sex with his girlfriend, which is prohibited by the honor code office. The controversy arose when the numbers broke of purportedly much higher rates of black student athletes suspended compared to white student athletes. It appears they are at it again; the institution and the students at BYU, the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, are highlighted in a new and provocative video on YouTube that attempts to show how little white students actually know about Black History month.

Fountain in Front of Administration Building at BYU in Provo
Creative Commons License photo credit: benmckune


This previously posted video underscores a major concern in the profound lack of understanding about race in America. It appears as though many of the students that comedian David Ackerman interviews know very little about the significance of the month of February, and furthermore, very little about the black experience in general.

References in Ackerman’s video by the students regarding black Americans having an affinity for fried chicken or Jay-Z as an acceptable way to celebrate Black history month is a symptom of something more sinister. These notions are deep-seated stereotypes about the black experience, controlling metaphors regarding the nature and character of people of African descent. People have died over these words in our nation’s past, and the re-enforcement in a highly racialized society like ours today allows these images and words to continue to wound the soul. The evidence is everywhere-just look at any major social indicator from health care to education and analyze how mobile Black Americans have been in 50 plus years after the civil rights movement. The vast majority of Black Americans aren’t doing so hot, despite the “success” of a few.

The “humor” in the video demonstrates, perhaps, the profound ignorance of the students not knowing how racist they’re actually being. However, I cannot help but find it disheartening that Americans still struggle with the vestiges of race, racism and discrimination even amongst our most promising: young folk who weren’t even around during the horrors of the civil rights movement, and students at a major university in America where you would imagine they are being challenged to think critically about human differences.

I presume the young people interviewed in the clip are very nice people, and they likely have no idea the harm they’re doing and just how offensive and embarrassing their remarks are to themselves, BYU and the LDS faith. Yet, their comments in the video demonstrate how enduring racism is from generation to generation.

What is equally disturbing is Ackerman’s use of the black face character. Although he is tempting to show just how little interaction whites on this campus have with blacks by failing to even recognize that he himself is not black, he does so by bringing in the sordid history of the black face. Mr. Ackerman is attempting to raise the level of consciousness about race to unsuspecting BYU students. However, I am not sure if he understands and is sensitive of the highly offensive history of black face, otherwise known as minsterely.


Minstrel shows are pure Americana, a racialized form of entertainment consisting of comic spoofs performed by white people in black face make-up, especially popular after the Civil War. White actors would use minstrel shows to satirize black Americans and grossly distort the black image as particularly, lazy, shiftless, uncouth and overly sexed, for example, and these caricatures were extraordinarily popular. Minstrel shows were a controlling discourse, a way to dehumanize (or make less human) black Americans in order to justify brutal white racial oppression.

Since then, racist ideas about black Americans have withstood the test of time, evolving into what we now know and recognize as modern forms of racial stereotyping that take on a life of there own such as the famous notion that intimates black Americans prefer welfare compared to white Americans as highlighted in recent GOP utterances by Rick Santorum that he does not “want to make black people lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”  In his attempt to bring about a socially conscious video, Ackerman in turn undermines his very goal by the lack of awareness in the use of the black face. Ackerman’s video, although well-intentioned, stifles its own progress because he is not well-versed on the history of racism in America.

In fact, I can’t help but wonder just how many white students recognized him as a white man dressing in black face and found it funny as an acceptable form of comedy.

Outsiders often look at the Mormon faith as a faith drowning in racial demagogy. For example, presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s recent gaffe that he isn’t “concerned about the very poor” since he feels we “have a safety net there”. Of course, his alma mater is none other than BYU, the site of this video. But the reality is these statements made by members of the LDS church are reflective of it being a predominately white faith rather than its Mormon beliefs.

We must recognize that this could easily be any major university in the U.S., as the majority of them are predominately white institutions. Equally important to the low representation on campus is the lack of education on our history and the people of this nation. Just how do we expect to educate our youth when the majority of these schools a have a weak or absent commitment to ethnic studies programs? This video demonstrates how persistent racism is and how it continues throughout each generation of White Americans. How can we combat these stereotypes and negative images when they are being handed to the next (previously innocent) generation, and all the while, continuing to create self-doubt amongst people of color?

~ Darron T. Smith is assistant professor at Wichita State University and co-author White Parents, Black Children Experiencing Transracial Adoption and Black and Mormon. Contact: www.darronsmith.com

Targeting Black Athletes: The BYU Case

Over the past several days, my colleague and I posted a story about honor code violations and patterns of racial disparities among former and current Brigham Young University athletes entitled “The Truth About Race, Religion, and the Honor Code at BYU” on Deadspin. The idea came about after Brandon Davies, an African American basketball player, violated the honor code by reportedly having sex with his girlfriend. The honor code office has institutionalized a set a standards for all students that prohibits alcohol and fornication among other things. However, the honor code violations that come to light almost always involve athletes of color.

Because Davies represents so few African Americans (<0.6% of the student body; 176 out of 32,947 enrolled in 2010 were black) on BYU’s campus, his high profile status and subsequent suspension from the basketball team came as a big surprise to many who follow collegiate sports especially during the NCAA basketball tournament where every starter is crucial in the world of high-stakes college athletics. In the wake of the Davies incident, BYU was heralded as a symbol of all that is decent in college sports for unapologetically holding to its standards. But the question arises: If this were James Anderson or Jimmer Fredette, would the outcome have been similar? Upon closer examination of the honor code system, we found discrepancies in how the honor code is applied for athletes of color, especially African Americans. Since 1993, according to our research, at least 70 athletes have been suspended, dismissed, put on probation, or forced to withdraw from their respective teams or the school for various honor code violations. Fifty-four of these athletes, nearly 80 percent, are people of color. Forty-one, or almost 60 percent, are black men. These are conservative numbers compiled largely from media reports and interviews. From what we gathered, a clear pattern of conduct has been established for athletes of color who only make up a mere 23 percent of all athletes according to the university. There has been much stimulating discussion nationally about what these numbers suggest. The Brandon Davies suspension was not a random act as much as it was a normal pattern of racial profiling on the part of school officials that selectively apply the honor code for Mormon versus Non-Mormon and Black versus White. By publicly casting out a disproportionate number of African American men, the honor code office creates the illusion that only black men “sin” and are in need of harsher discipline. Such has been the history for African American men in U.S. society since slavery times in which they have been repeatedly blamed for their own circumstances without regard for the historical conditions of institutional racism and racial mistreatment that continually blight their life chances. Therefore, it is troubling to consider that BYU would wantonly engage in behavior that could be construed as modern racism particularly given its history of priesthood denial to black men which led to the racial protests by numerous schools in the Western United States in the late sixties. During that period several universities (UTEP, The University of Wyoming, The University of Washington) protested against BYU given the mainline LDS Church’s position that blacks were inherently inferior as evidenced by their “curse” of black skin. ¬ If BYU plans to maintain an active roster of African Americans recruits, it has a responsibility to uphold and it starts with full disclosure of the particulars of its honor code as well as the reality of its consequences if rules were to be broken. In addition, BYU must re-evaluate its current honor code policy to ensure fairness and equanimity across the board and further avoid even the hint of bias. Further, if they do continue to recruit athletes of color, they have the responsibility to provide these students with mentors not just on the grid-iron and court, but in the classroom and administration by hiring and maintaining faculty and staff of color. A mentoring program should be established that will ensure the collegiate success of these student-athletes after the completion of their eligibility. Finally, as a show of good will, the university should allow any desirous former athlete the chance to complete their college degree to make a better life for themselves and their families. After all, isn’t forgiveness of sin the hallmark of any Christian religion? Darron T. Smith is assistant professor at Wichita State University and a frequent commentator on various issues of race, including a New York Times post on transracial adoption on Haitian children. He is the co-author White Parents, Black Children Experiencing Transracial Adoption and Black and Mormon.