Racism Still Runs Through LDS Culture, Y. Researcher Says

 Deseret Morning News By Carrie A. Moore


More than 25 years after the LDS Church lifted its ban on priesthood ordination for black males, undercurrents of racism still run through American society and LDS culture, according to a local researcher.
Cardell Jacobson, a professor of sociology at Brigham Young University, has spent much of his career exploring race. He most recently turned his focus to what minorities experience within their faith traditions, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Speaking to those gathered Thursday at Utah Valley State College for the 5th annual Mormon Studies Conference, he was one of several speakers to address various facets of "Mormonism and Social Justice."
Jacobson witnessed the hatred of racism as a white boy growing up in Bluffdale, where working-class whites openly despised co-workers of color because the two-tiered employment structure keeping minorities in menial jobs at Kennecott Copper Corp. was giving way to social change.
After completing graduate work in North Carolina, where he witnessed blacks being physically removed from restaurants, Jacobson moved to Milwaukee to teach. He found that there was little refuge at church for black Latter-day Saints, particularly teenage boys who found themselves ostracized when only white boys were ordained to the priesthood.
Such experiences inform his current work, gathering stories of minority Latter-day Saints to examine how they incorporate into LDS culture.
Perception problems persist among many white church members in several areas, he said, including a belief that all blacks are athletes.
He told of how Marguerite Driessen, associate professor of law at BYU, was asked by local church leaders to take charge of the Young Women's basketball program in her ward. "She had never even played the game and wasn't interested." Rob Foster, who played football at BYU-Idaho, told of feeling tremendous pressure from fans and friends to perform because he was black, Jacobson said.
Other stereotyping situations involve interracial dating and marriage, and using race as the single marker of identity for minority members — particularly for those who live in largely white wards.
He told of a pair of LDS missionaries — one black and one white — who were horrified when police questioned them as they tracted in a California neighborhood. A woman had seen them and called police, claiming the two must be "impersonating missionaries" in order to gain entry into the homes of residents for sinister purposes.
The report was based on the woman's belief that blacks were not missionaries, he said.
Continued references to past LDS statements on race, particularly in the late Elder Bruce R. McConkie's book, "Mormon Doctrine," are also problematic, Jacobson said. He noted Elder McConkie disavowed his own writings on the subject before thousands of students at BYU in the weeks following the 1978 announcement from the church's First Presidency lifting the priesthood ban, telling them to "forget everything I have said" on the subject, and noting he wrote what he did "with limited understanding."
Yet Latter-day Saints "still quote that book and not his statement disavowing the book's characterizations," he said.
Even so, he believes church members can work to overcome remaining stereotypes by emphasizing diversity, providing local church materials and classroom teaching in various languages, providing opportunities for cultural sharing, and mentoring new members.
"Whites have to work on whites" in pointing out areas for change, he said, adding that if minority members complain, many will discount the message as simply coming from "an angry black man."
He suggested church leaders at all levels work harder on retention rather than conversion, provide shadow leadership for new minority converts, eliminate and confront false folklore, talk about race, and talk openly about the priesthood ban.