In this episode, we speak with Joanna Brooks, author of the new book Mormonism and White Supremacy, which explores the Church’s problematic history on the issue of race. Joanna holds a Ph.D. in English from UCLA. She’s the Associate Vice President for Faculty Advancement at San Diego State University, and has written or edited ten books on race, religion, gender, social movements, and American culture.
As we all continue to grapple with issues of race not just in America but in our own faith, we thought it was important to understand how we got where we are. Joanna helps us explore the history of the Church as it relates to race — she illustrates where we could and should have done better in addition to telling the stories of heroes who stood up against racism even at great personal cost.
We’re really grateful to Joanna for coming on the podcast, and for her willingness to share what she’s learned over many years of research. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Mormonism and White Supremacy, Joanna Brooks
The Color of Money, Mehrsa Baradaran
The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nahisi Coates
Tim Chaves: Hey everyone, this is Tim Chaves from Faith Matters. In this episode, we speak with Joanna Brooks, author of the new book Mormonism and White Supremacy. Joanna holds a PhD in English from UCLA. She’s the Associate Vice President for Faculty Advancement at San Diego State University, and has written or edited 10 books on race, religion, gender, social movements and American culture. As we all continue to grapple with issues of race, not just in America, but in our own faith, we thought it was important to understand how we got where we are.
Joanna helps us explore the history of the church as it relates to race. She illustrates where we could and should have done better in addition to telling the stories of heroes who stood up against racism, even at great personal cost. We’re really grateful to Joanna for coming on the podcast, and can’t recommend strongly enough her new book, Mormonism and White Supremacy. We hope you enjoy the conversation.
Aubrey Chaves: All right, Joanna Brooks, we are so excited to have you on the Faith Matters podcast. Thank you so much for making some time to talk with us this morning.
Joanna Brooks: Of course. Thank you for reaching out.
Aubrey Chaves: So, your new book, Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and The Problem with Racial Innocence, just came out. And it was days after George Floyd’s murder that this conversation really ignited. And your book is sitting there and ready to buy and to read and figure out the part that we play as members of the church. But I wanted to ask you about the title. I devoured this book. I really could not put it down. And I took it everywhere I went.
And a couple of times, people ask me what I was reading and I realized I was really embarrassed to say Mormonism and White Supremacy. I guess I feel like it’s the words that makes you think of sheaths and skinheads. And it’s everything I want to disassociate myself with.
Joanna Brooks: I know.
Aubrey Chaves: So, maybe we can start with defining white supremacy and why that for the title?
Joanna Brooks: Yeah, great question. Thank you, Aubrey. So, it was a few years ago before I started realizing that the term white supremacy was the accurate scholarly term, right? I mean, so some of my training is in the field of ethnic studies, religious studies, American Studies. So, I had always said white privilege or racism. But scholars in my field started saying, no, white supremacy, it’s not just the people carrying tiki torches at Charlottesville. It’s not just the skinheads.
It’s a whole system. It’s a whole system of laws, beliefs, practices, policies, that eventually in an outcome of black lives, being valued less than white lives, of black people, just by virtue of being born with melanated skin, having higher rates of incarceration, earlier deaths, more health problems, less intergenerational family wealth, just by the virtue being born with a certain skin color.
And that’s a tough pill to swallow. That the systems we live that afford us white privilege, that afford us this form of immunity and even benefit unearned advantage are actually about the systematic privileging, the supering, right, of white over black. And that’s white supremacy. And so, I know it’s a jarring title. I wanted to use that term out of respect for all the scholars who come before me who have said, “No, this is what it is.”
And I also wanted to use it to really increase the stakes and add a sense of moral seriousness and to recognize that when we’re talking about white supremacy, it’s not something we can say, “Oh, those guys over there, those ignorant people over there, we’re not like that. It’s like, “I wish that were true. I wish that were true.” They’re an extreme example. And almost cartoonishly extreme example of realities we live in and if you identify as white benefit from every day.
Tim Chaves: Yeah. That makes sense. I wonder too, at the beginning, it seemed like in the first couple of chapters of the book, there were several terms that needed redefining based on how we consistently understand them. I mean, white supremacy among them, racism, race, even innocence, sin. All of these things, I think, if you take the superficial definition in the conversation, may not bear as much fruit but if you can redefine them in a particular way as you do in the book, then it really helps the process of introspection a little bit along.
The term racism especially can feel very accusatory, right?
Joanna Brooks: Right. No one want to be a racist. No one wants to be called a racist, right?
Tim Chaves: Exactly, exactly. And so, I would love to, I think, go through some of those terms and use it and talk about your definitions. But in general, the question is too, how do we foster a language given that our goal is to increase, I guess we have many goals here, but obviously, black lives and taking care of them is top of the list. But we also want to increase engagement, we want to increase empathy. And how can we foster language that that does that? Is it using these terms that are quite loaded for a lot of people?
Joanna Brooks: It’s a tough question because I’m writing in terms that scholars use. And I’m honoring the specific disciplinary language in my field out of respect on how you do that in everyday life. Sometimes, translation matters, and empathy matters. But let’s get back to the core of your question. So, I think actually redefining the terms in the way scholars use it can help people feel less accused. So, for example, racism. I’ve said it over and over again to my kids.
Actually, my kids, my daughter Rosa said it to me the other night and a student of mine said, “Oh, yes,” he said, “Racism is not a character flaw. It’s a system.” It’s not a character flaw. It’s not you’re a bad person because you harbor some deep dark secret. You are part of something much bigger than you unknowingly, maybe sometimes knowingly, that benefits you because of your race. We live in racist systems. They precede us.
There are hundreds of years in the making. We’re born into them. We’re raised up in them by good loving people. And it takes intentional choice to start opting out of them. Right? And those are everyday choices we make. So, I think in that way, telling, as you’re helping do this podcast, popularizing the understanding that racism isn’t a character flaw. It’s a system that allocates life chances based on your race. And the idea that race is not a real thing.
This is something that scholars in ethnic studies and in social sciences in the academy have been talking about for decades. Whiteness is a fake idea. These categories of racial identification understanding came into being. We can pinpoint the moments in history when they come into being, when these words start being used in the way they’re being used now. They haven’t existed from the dawn of time this way, right?
They became a shorthand in the 17th and 18th centuries where people could go into a really complicated reality and sort it out, right? Imagine you’re in Virginia in 1720 and you have people from everywhere flooding into this place, and race became the shorthand through which people could say, “You play this role. You play this role. I dominate you, you dominate them,” right? So, it was color coding almost to sort out complicated social realities.
So, but if you look at it, there’s no gene for race. Different people have counted as white over time, right? There was a time in history, in US history, when Irish people were not considered white. Southern Europeans were not considered white until they demonstrated through their actions by opting in and supporting the white majority and discriminated against or differentiating from black people that they belonged, right? So, that’s a helpful term as well.
And I think one of the gifts of Mormonism is we know our genealogies. A lot of white people don’t. So, I know my grandfather in my mother’s side was Basque. My grandmother on my mother’s side was English and her family cross the planes. I know who I am. A lot of white people have no clue. They have no clue. And so, we can see and we know that we’re different, right, as Mormon people, so we have a point of differentiation against the mainstream, like dare to be different.
But many white people don’t have that space outside of the mainstream where they can say, “Who am I really? What really matters to me? What should I really do?” They’re going with the flow of a massive structure, a cultural structure that washes out senses of belonging and responsibility. And so, I think, just to return your original question, Tim, how do we have these conversations, how do we translate them?
For me, the spirit of it that is most that makes sense for me is in a spirit of shared responsibility. These are not conversations about who’s on the Lord side who. This is not you’re in and you’re out. It’s like we have work to do. I feel we have work to do. My understanding has been changed. It’s about doing through your actions. It’s about showing up where it matters with your money and your body. Right? And others will notice and follow. We know that, right?
And so, you don’t have to go home and have the hard conversation on Sunday at the family after church gathering if that’s not the right place, right? You don’t have to throw the book down on the table, “I’ve got something to talk about.” There’s a quiet, powerful example and a lot of inner work a lot of all of us can do. And the more we do that, it will change the community.
Aubrey Chaves: I love that. I feel like that was such an important takeaway that I got from the book, just that this is not about me defending the idea that I’m not a racist. And I feel like a lot of the conversation on social media has been around just this defensiveness, proving that I really don’t have these racist feelings inside myself so I can excuse myself from this conversation because you’re not talking to me. And I feel like that was such an important message that this is a system I didn’t opt into and that I totally have responsibility for.
Joanna Brooks: That’s it. And you think about our defensiveness too as LDS people, right? Because anytime, we both, we all know, the history of the church on race has been used to humiliate and shame Mormon people. It’s also been used to coddle and cultivate us. I mean, somehow it was okay. We were singing at inauguration even though we were segregated. Anyway, LBS people are super protective of our faith and super protective of defending against the idea that we were wrong. And I think the major corner we all have to turn is that it’s okay to be wrong.
I mean, you look at the scriptures, the history of God’s people is we were wrong. And then, we were wrong again. Look at the Old Testament. Guys, we were always wrong. And how they got to know God was God was like jumped in the middle. So, guys, guys, you messed up again. They’re like, “Oh, yeah.” And then, they did it wrong again. But I mean, when did it become okay? When did we stop feeling we could be wrong?
Aubrey Chaves: Right. Oh sorry, Tim. This brings us to racial innocence, this bring up racial innocence. Would you talk about that and just this redefinition of what sin is?
Joanna Brooks: Right. Right. So, let’s start with sin. So, in the book, I talked about early Christian theology. And when I say early, I mean through the 1800s. Calvinism, a lot of the theological wellsprings from which Joseph Smith threw. It had a notion of sin that was much more rich and complicated than the one we teach in primary. And we get a sense of it in some of the higher teachings in Mormonism and some of the language about being free from the sins of your generation, right? So, we get a sense of it there.
But sin was understood by early Protestant theologians, as early Christian theologians, it’s just something we’re born into as humans. It’s a condition, right? I mean, it’s the natural man that’s an enemy to God, right? So, as created beings, we operate in a material sphere that is flawed, that is not yet exalted, that where there are just mistakes, there are accidents, people are hurt badly, people can lose their lives, laws are broken.
And that’s the sphere we move in. So, sin is the condition that defines us all. And achieving redemption from sin in early theology was about covenant with a community, to look out for the community and do your best to hold each other accountable and you transact through the redemption of Jesus Christ, right? So, it was a collective understanding. In the 19th century, that gets really rationalized, as what I call it is individualized and emptied out.
So, we move to an idea of sin that’s less about belonging to a community that struggles than it is about you individually did something wrong. You put your hand in the cookie, you stole a cookie from the cookie jar, right? You didn’t pay your tithing. You killed someone, you coveted your neighbor’s spouse. That individualized notion of sin. And then, churches offered a notion of redemption. That was if you come to church in a transactional way, you’ll be forgiven of that, right?
You show up. You pay your tithing or give your offerings every week and be a good citizen and don’t say bad words and you’re safe. You’re check. But the downside of that is that sin evacuates us of have a much deeper sense of moral responsibility and culpability. It makes it impossible for us to conceive of, everybody’s caught up in something wrong. We’re all caught up in something wrong, right? And that is the scale of moral imagination we need to understand the extent of racism, right?
So, sin is the structure and condition of humankind. Racism is the structuring condition of human life in the US in the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s just the way it is. And it was made that way. It came into being through a set of deliberate choices, millions of them to privilege white over black. But it’s a system. It’s a condition. And the only way out is through choosing out and choosing out in community.
Choosing out together and trying to establish paces that are never going to be free from sin, but at least we can be in dialogue and in responsible conversation about what these places need to do to do better. So, there’s that. Now, racial innocence is actually a term that comes from legal scholarship. That basically this notion of sin and innocence, the simple version that started materializing in the 19th century, is transported into legal reasoning.
The idea that a white person is not responsible and shouldn’t be “harmed” in any way by legislative or judicial actions and segregation and structural inequality, right? So, we see it in the 1950s and the 1980s, around US Supreme Court decisions, around desegregation of schools, around affirmative action, where they say, “Oh, no, we can’t apply this remedy because it would hurt this white person.” And they’re innocent. They didn’t hurt anyone.
So, it’s what we hear. For example, my family didn’t own slaves. I never did anything wrong. Correct. Your ancestors individually may not have committed overt racist acts to your knowledge. But does that mean we shouldn’t be responsible for these vast systems that have given us unearned advantages? And racial innocence is that individually plea like, “But I’m not racist,” like you said, Aubrey.
Tim Chaves: So, the way I sometimes see this individualized notion of sin is that once you have sinned, you go through this process of feeling guilty and then making some recompense. And I think a lot of people maybe, if you then broaden the idea of sin to make it more collective, they’d be more okay with the idea of making some recompense? Maybe. I don’t want to necessarily project here but I think there’s a hang up though. I don’t want to feel guilty about this because again, it’s just like that imbedded notion of individuality.
And so, is guilt a part of the process when you’re talking about collective sin and redemption?
Joanna Brooks: Well, so let’s just make it real. Let’s just bring that conversation right here. So, how did you feel when you read the book? And because I’m pretty direct about a lot of the mistakes Mormon people have made, did it hurt?
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah.
Tim Chaves: Yes.
Joanna Brooks: It hurt me to write it. It was painful. It wasn’t like, “Yay!” It wasn’t joyful. I found another instance, it was like, “Oh, crud.” Like, “Ah.” Like, “Really? We quoted from Confederate history and BH Roberts course on the ’70s, that was our footnote? What the.” It was gut punch. Not fun. Now, that’s sorrow. That’s the humbling that we have to do, right? And so, is that what guilt is? Maybe. But there’s no way through this without a humbling. Dr. Cornel West said years ago that if white people could taste just a tiny bit of the sorrow black people carry, it would be astonishing.
And so, how do we be in a community if we’re not willing to sit with sorrow, and sit with discomfort, and sit with things that make us sick enough to say, “I can’t. I can’t. Not one more day of this, I can’t.”? I will not raise my children in a world where black men are killed on the street under the boot heels of police officers. That’s no longer acceptable. I’m sick about it. Right? That’s the sorrow that leads to good things, I believe.
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. Correct me if I’m wrong, I think it was the James Baldwin quote, it was about being trapped in history. Something like you’re trapped in history you don’t understand and until you understand it, you can’t be released from it. I love that because that’s where I felt called. I felt like I need to understand where I fit into this story, especially as a Mormon woman. I know that race is complicated. I think most members, they like to champion this idea that Joseph Smith ordained Elijah Abel and we all know that.
And then, it gets really fuzzy after that. And then Neal scratched Laurent? Oh my gosh. Yeah. And I love the history of our church. I feel like I’ve got a fairly acceptable foundation. And I had never heard these stories. It’s just every chapter blew my mind. Abraham Smoot and Seventy culture and like what. I had no idea how we got from Joseph to Brigham. I didn’t understand that week. So, I feel like you’ve got to tell that story. Would you just talk about those two men?
Joanna Brooks: Oh, for sure. But we both need to give credit. So, I didn’t know these stories either. But there were people who knew these stories before our time, right? Black LDS people have known these stories. And they’ve just been too polite to tell us or we’ve been too obnoxious and not listened and not really thought and not really been in a place to hear. I mean, why should they spend all their effort? They’re just trying to go to Sunday and get a moment’s rest. Why should they spend Sunday educating us?
Some of this stuff has been in Dialogue. It’s been in books by people like Paul Reeve, by Newell Bringhurst and Matt Harris, so it’s there. I think it’s just what offered is as synthesis from end to end. So, yes, Joseph Smith ordained black people. Was he a firmly committed soldier for black freedom? No. He was all over the place because that’s who Joseph Smith was. He was just a big personality. And then, Brigham, torch is passed to Brigham and he comes West.
And his goal is to establish a territorial theocracy. He wants to establish an empire and he’s pretty clear that religion and territory can join in government and priesthood government. And that is a government in which, in his words, white men will rule over all others and over black men, right? And he establishes through the legislature, territory legislature, pro-slavery policies, anti-black voting, anti-black holding elected office policies, not to get a big captive labor force in Utah but to keep black people out of Utah.
Black people were coming West at that time. They were going to California in large numbers from the gold rush on. And Utah’s population stayed very low because it was a slave state. It was a slave state. We were a slave state. So, after that point, after Brigham’s death, some of the people who are the guardians of this territorial theocracy made really conscious choices to maintain the story that Elijah Abel’s ordination was illegitimate and should not be honored, that it was a mistake or a one off or a concession.
And so, this is the story I tell in the book of Abraham Smoot, who had been born and raised in Kentucky, had gone on a mission Alabama, was a southerner and came west but told Brigham pretty much he wanted to maintain his slaves when he came. And it was the influence of people like Smoot who helped motivate young to make sure the territory was a pro-slavery space. So, Smoot gets here. He moves down to Provo. He becomes like state president and mayor and first trustee of Brigham Young University.
He’s a really successful businessman. In 1879, after State Conference one day, John Taylor comes down to visit a conference and afterwards goes back to one of the Smoot’s four houses in Provo, and asked Smoot to recollect for him the story of the ordination of Elijah Abel because Abraham Smoot had been ordained at the same time on the same day in the same place as Elijah Abel. And the man who are named him and Elijah Abel was a man named Zebedee Contrin, who by that point was a poor farmer, barely scraping by on the outskirts of Spanish fork.
And Smoot, in fact, owned the land that Coltrin lived on via the united order, right? No pressure on Coltrin, right? So, Abraham raised Coltrin and Coltrin says, “Yeah, I ordained him, but it really wasn’t supposed to be that way.” And Joseph Smooot himself said that it shouldn’t be. And then, Abraham Smoot said, “Yup, what he said and I say the same thing and ordination of black people should not happen.” And they lied. They lied together. They had both been there.
They had both seen hands placed on Elijah Abel’s head and the priesthood conveyed upon him. Coltrin had done it himself. And yet, they arrayed their testimonies against him and they knew what that meant. Elijah Abel had documents of his ordination. He would carry around to try and show people. And it was always being debated. And this very powerful figure cast us lots decisively against black testimony, against black authority. And against black lives.
He held black people in slavery in Provo. But he’s a human, right? I mean, but he’s a human. And we’re not going to hate on Abraham Smoot. It’s just like, but we need to be big caution. The way you came to power in this territorial theocracy, the way we carved out the space we have, the fact that it is a resolutely whitespace still, that’s not an accident. If we want that to change, we have to know how we got here.
Tim Chaves: And just so we’re totally clear on the historical facts. You’re saying this Zebedee Coltrin is the one who actually did the ordination of Elijah Abel?
Joanna Brooks: That’s my last my recollection. I can call out my manuscript. Sometimes, the footnotes get fuzzy but yeah, there’s a master’s thesis at BYU done on the life of Zebedee Contrin. There’s a footnote in there. And it’s on the link for the day I talked about one of the Smoot statues on my Facebook. So, I’m happy to share that with you.
Tim Chaves: Yeah, yeah, that’d be great.
Joanna Brooks: If you get the master’s thesis from BYU about Zebedee Contrin, it’s in there.
Tim Chaves: Cool. And then, so we’re talking then 50 years later. Is it 50,40 years later, something like that that he and Zebedee Contrin and Abraham Smoot say that the reason was invalid is that Joseph-
Joanna Brooks: Forty.
Tim Chaves: Forty years. And it sounded in the book maybe Joseph Smith hadn’t realized that Elijah Abel was black, and they had, at some point, recanted. It sounds like there’s no evidence that that actually ever occurred that Joseph Smith had any desire of revoking that ordination.
Joanna Brooks: So, look, everything about Joseph, everything about early Mormon history, there’s multiple accounts. Right? And there’s very little by way of an authoritative account of that ordination. And what Joseph Smith may have known, thought or felt. What we do know we can say for sure is that in the early church, there were black people ordained. Elijah Abel is not the only one. Walker Lewis was ordained. There were a handful of folks that they didn’t necessarily have an easy go of it.
And that at some point after the migration, the church and the territory became firmly arrayed against black citizenship, black freedom, and black ordination. So, if we read the contours of that history, I can’t speculate on what Joseph knew and when he knew it. Imagine if someone came to your ward on Sunday, and said, “I was ordained in Brazil in the 1980s, and I’m here,” and you need someone to bless the sacrament, are you going to say, “Show me your papers?”
That’s what happened to Elijah Abel all the time. “Show me your papers.” And then, someone else saying, “Oh, no, I in fact, know that all the ordinations in Brazil, they weren’t legit.” I mean, imagine that scene in current day life. Since when do we check people’s papers on ordination? What was that about? What was that about? That was about a select network of powerful men who had a very particular view of what Utah should be.
Tim Chaves: Yeah. And at some point, this gets into the concept in the book that you called originalism, right? Which is that at some point, this transitions into there was never any valid ordination of black people whatsoever. And that this has always been God’s law. And there’s nothing we can do about. We can’t tell God what to do. And that view seem to persist officially for quite some time. And unofficially, potentially for even much longer up until today.
Joanna Brooks: Today. Right. Right. And so, this we see consolidating in the first decade of the 20th century under the leadership of President Joseph F. Smith. And Joseph F. Smith had been in these circles forever. And he had on many occasions born testimony to the ordination of Elijah Abel. He said, “Oh, no. It was legit. I was there.” Not he was there but it was legit. “He’s been in our circles forever. He’s one of us,” right? “He’s one of us, draw him in.”
He’s also close friends with Jane Manning James. Jane Manning. James dies in the spring of, I’m trying to remember, it’s 1907 or 1908. Joseph Smith speaks at a funeral. And just a few months later is when Joseph Smith changes his story. And in his role as LDS church President, recants on the validity of Elijah Abel’s ordination and says, “Oh, no. No, it wasn’t valid. Never was meant to be.” Despite his own witness. Why did he change his story?
One of the last black pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley who’d seen it herself was gone. Who was there to hold him accountable? What was all the pressure around him? The church had almost been bankrupted due to polygamy. It was trying to reconstruct itself in a way that it could survive and gain respectability. He made choices to make the priesthood for white people, because how else would you convince early priests to correlation?
How else would you structure those quorums and attract young white men in, in his mind, if you made them integrated spaces? There were not enough black people to stand and demand it. And there were not enough white people who cared to create the space for black people. And so, it just tilted that way. And between 1907, 08 and 1949, it was 1949 when the First Presidency finally put out a proclamation that said, “Of course, this is the policy of the church and it has been forever.” That was under George Albert Smith.
So, during those three or four decades, it just gained steam and starts institutionalizing. But people are surprised. There are people on the record, I highlight these letters between a sociology professor who is LDS named Lowry Nelson. And the brethren in the First Presidency in the 1940, saying, “Wait a minute, since when is this our policy? This is not cool. What are you doing? Whiteness is not real. Scientists know whiteness is a fake thing. And this is very disappointing.” And they said, “Nope, this is the way it’s always been.”
Aubrey Chaves: Can we back up a little bit and talk about how we established this consensus around prophetic infallibility around the country? Let’s dig into that because I feel like that is the snag, still.
Joanna Brooks: Oh, yeah. It is, isn’t it? So, when do we start believing that prophets always get it right? Once upon a time, Mormonism was a pretty small community. And the prophet, he could be a jerk. You knew it. And sometimes, he made mistakes and there was just a lot of back and forth in humanity. People were on a first name basis. What we find as the church grows, and especially at the turn of the century as it seeks to institutionalize, that the notion of the prophet as infallible comes into being.
And we see it really in 1890, in a moment of the manifesto on polygamy. That’s when the church has fought itself to exhaustion against the federal government, its finances are in ruin. And it knows it can no longer survive if it pursues polygamy publicly. And that’s when the manifesto comes, right? And the practices eradicated although the doctrine remains, right? And to hold together that impossible contradiction, that impossible turn of the corner, this is when we get the language around the Lord will never let the prophet lead the people astray.
Because this is an impossible contradiction to manage. And that’s when church leaders feel they absolutely have to have the trust and the faith of the people. Follow the prophet. Please. “I know it doesn’t make sense, just stay with me. This is how it’s got to be,” wink, wink, nudge. And so, the same thing when we start backing ourselves into a corner on the ordination of black people, despite our own history, despite living witnesses, just despite so much evidence, despite our own best theology, that’s when we see this appeal to infallibility.
So, when Lowry Nelson is challenging in this series of letters George Albert Smith, George Albert Smith finally doubles down and says, “You know what, this is how it’s always been. This is how it will always be. Stop arguing with me. I’m the prophet, and we’ll look at your membership if you don’t quit.” So, that’s where infallibility comes into play. It’s like how does modern Mormonism manage its contradictions? And it’s through this notion of infallibility or the prophet will never get it wrong.
Or even in a more daily form, “Oh, there’s got to be a good reason for that.” Right?
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah. And I think that’s still what’s so complicated is I think that members of the church now want to start with this, obviously, God’s not racist. But for so long, we’ve been trained to believe that the prophet speaks for God. And so then, we get all of these ideas about, well then, why the priesthood ban? Even though that we’ve heard statements over and over in the last couple of decades that none of these theories about why there was ever a ban or have ever been legitimized and I feel like they’re really trying to shut those ideas down.
Joanna Brooks: Yeah. I agree.
Aubrey Chaves: It’s like we still feel some resistance to just saying it was wrong. It was just wrong. We still hold on to this idea that like, “Well, it was right with time,” or-
Joanna Brooks: We had to do it or else the church wouldn’t survive, right?
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, yeah.
Joanna Brooks: Well, and so that’s what I call in the book, the possessive investment and rightness. And it’s a take on a term from a scholar named George Lipset who talks about the possessive investment in whiteness. So, the identity whiteness is all about forgetting where you actually come from. You’re not German, you’re not Italian, you’re white, and you should do white things and you should vote for white candidates and you should live in white neighborhoods and avoid black neighborhoods and not vote for black candidates, right?
And that has value, Lipset says, that has actual cash value like we see it. There’s a tenfold difference in the average black and the average white person about intergenerational family wealth, right? A tenfold difference in family wealth, not income. Income equality, maybe closer and wealth is huge gap due to centuries of policies about Black Economic Development and excluding black people from being able to get mortgages because they live in a certain neighborhood the whole thing, right?
So, by identifying with whiteness, you actually get something. You get help and immunity and resources. And so, people want to keep it. That’s possessive investment. Same thing for Mormons. Our rightness is really important to us. It’s really important to us. And again, the reason for that comes out of our fragility. It comes out of our historic sense of persecution. It comes out of our isolation. You can say anything you want to about Cain and Ham and Egyptus and it sounds just fine as long as everyone in the room is white.
When you got to start saying that to African-American people, your tongue melts, right? You’re just like, “Oh, never mind. Jesus.” Like, “Ignore that. Just look at the Jesus part.” Right? But we feel so obliged to protect our past because we have a lot of shame. We’ve been made to feel ashamed for being Mormons. And it’s not worth the price though. We’re ready, we’re safe, right? Are we safe enough to turn the corner and say, “We can still be beloved and be wrong?” I think we are.
Tim Chaves: It takes a lot of courage, though. And I would say less so today potentially. But in the 40s, I mean, and Lowry Nelson is such an amazing example. I would love for you to share because you have this idea that it didn’t have to be this way. You bring up several heroes in the story who were remarkably just lucid for their time and same thing like outside of chronology almost.
Aubrey Chaves: And they were willing to wrestle. They were willing to just be so uncomfortable and wrestle with it and not accept that the prophet did the wrestling. And so, they just need to trust and they have no responsibility.
Joanna Brooks: Yeah, exactly.
Tim Chaves: One of the most powerful metaphors in the book is this the edge of the herd metaphor. I don’t know if you’d mind sharing, and maybe just a couple quick stories about who these people were.
Joanna Brooks: Sure. Well, so there’s a whole generation of really fabulous, interesting white Mormon people in the early decades of the 20th century. And it’s not a lot of LDS people started out migrating. And some folks like my grandma’s family out migrated because of economic needs and reasons. And others went outside of the Utah, Idaho corridor for education. And we have this generation in the 30s and 40s, where going and getting their PhDs and they’re seeking knowledge and they’re doing all the good stuff and they become professors.
And there’s this whole network of historians and professors and sociologists who are LDS who are faithful, but who have a scholarly or academic view of the world. And just like so many people of faith, wrestling to reconcile those, and finding lots of reasons to hold the church to core ethical values that we would associate with the essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, one of those people is Lowry Nelson. And he was a professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.
He had studied in Cuba. He’d written a book about Cuba. He was in agricultural. He did sociology of agricultural villages, right? That was the thing and he studied Cuba. And so, in 1947, the president of the church of southern states mission who knew him from growing up back in Farron, Utah, writes him and says, “Hey, Lowry, you’re an expert. So, tell me, are there any pure white people in Cuba? Because we were thinking about starting a mission in Cuba so are there any pure white people there?”
And Lowry’s like, “Ah, hold up. What the. What do you mean are there any pure white people? So, first of all, why would that matter? Second of all, there is no such thing as whiteness. It’s a construct. And there’s no way to determine pure anything. What are you talking about? The Gospel would be amazing for the people of Cuba. Please do not tell me that this is a policy that you’re not going to go in unless you can find pure white people to hold the priesthood.”
And he has a back and forth with the southern states mission president. And then, escalates it to George Albert Smith in the First Presidency. And it has a really amazing exchange and I posted it. It’s on the web if you want to find it. It’s also in my book, between Nelson and the First Presidency in which he really says to the First Presidency, “Please tell me this is not going to become a policy, an official policy. This is very damaging.”
And they write back very sharply and he just doesn’t give up because he is an old timer. He’s like, “What am I going to do? I’m from small town, Utah. I know all of them. I’ve known them forever. I’m not afraid of them. I don’t need to fall in line and I won’t forsake what I know is true to help make everyone comfortable around a racist policy. I will fight for what I love.” And so, the idea of being on the edge of the herd, right, that comes from on the life of Juanita Brooks.
Mind you, these letters, I mean, these are typewritten. People make copies of them somehow and they’re circulating around the American West, right? They’re reading them in libraries in Cedar City late at night like the little grassroots warm intellectuals in that hood. They’re making their way to Stanford University, there’s letters on file at the BYU from professors at BYU who are writing to Lowry Nelson saying, “We’re circulating your letter. We love it. Thank you so much.”
There’s this whole underground, right? The people who would subscribe to dialogue for example, those people are reading letters and it’s clinging to them. And Juanita Brooks was one of those people. And she, of course, was an amazing grassroots Mormon historian who was not afraid of looking at the hard parts of being Mormon, not afraid of looking at the dark side of our empire building experiment, looking at Mountain Meadows massacre.
And her father had said to her, “I know you’re one of this new generation of people who’s getting an education who’s taking a hard look at things. You want to be the cowboy who doesn’t ride in the middle of the herd. You don’t want to leave the herd. What you want to do is you want to ride the edge of the herd. You want to ride the edge of the herd. And you can help shape the herd. You can help shape the boundaries of what it means to be telling the truth or not telling truth, to be in, to be out, by speaking your truth at the edge of the herd.”
“To be respectful, to care about your people. But to be a little bit on that edge and be in a place of discomfort.” And so, that’s the example of Arinosa, it’s the example of George Romney, Michigan governor George Romney. His father was very active in supporting black civil rights when he was governor Michigan. He became Nixon’s secretary for housing and urban development. He almost lost his job. Well, he did. He lost his job eventually, in part, because he had upset Nixon by advocating for desegregation in federal housing projects.
We know this. There have been Mormons all the way along who have thought otherwise and who have done brave things. And Apostle Delbert Stapley wrote to Romney and chastised him for marching with black people in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. And Romney was just like, “Thank you,” and put it aside and kept doing what he knew he had to do. And that’s why I wasn’t surprised when it showed up at the Black Lives Matters.
Tim Chaves: Pretty cool.
Joanna Brooks: I was like, “Absolutely. He knows who his father was. I’ve been waiting for this mitt. Very glad to see he’s finally found his inner mitt because that’s the mitt I am totally rooting for.” Right?
Aubrey Chaves: Yeah, yeah. So, I feel like that brings us to this giant question, which is how do we dismantle systemic racism? Where do we start? Literally, what do we do now? Is this about getting Abraham Smoot’s name off of BYU’s administration building? Is it about writing Facebook posts? Literally, what can we do?
Joanna Brooks: So, all of us want a list, right? Because we’re Mormons and we know how to do and do, do, do, do down the list, and we want a manual. We want a schedule and we’re going to show up. And that’s one of the things I really love about Mormon people is because when we put our minds to something, we are all in, we’re going to show up.
So, one thing I want to share is that I’ve been thinking about and wrestling with this since I was about 18 or 19 years old, and I’ve made it a focus of my life’s work. I’ve been studying race and religion for 25 years. So, first of all, get ready to settle in for the long haul. Make a promise to yourself that you’re not going to let this moment pass without being a part of it in a good way. And it has to start with deep personal understanding.
But it’s not hard to come by. Because there are so many people who have written essential books, and not just about Mormonism, about the way the US works, that will help you understand. So, Mehrsa Baradaran is LDS. She was a Law professor at BYU. Now, she’s at UCI. She’s written an amazing book called The Color of Money that everyone should read. Published by Harvard University Press about inequality in banking, and finance.
Joanna Brooks: Everybody should read this book. Everyone should read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which is now a classic. Again, nothing to do with Mormonism but talks about the mass incarceration of black people in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s. We have 5% of the world’s population, and about 25% of its prison population here in the US. So, that book, read that book. Watch 13th on Netflix. We’re so lucky to live in an era where we have documentaries in our houses.
They would have never come to the theater in LA, let alone Utah. But you can go right tonight with your spouse, put your kids, better if they’re over 12. Make them watch it with you because black children are protected from the story. Black children are protected from the fact that this world is going to kill them. Right? Why should our kids be protected from the fact that the world we benefit from kills black people, black children like Tamir Rice, right?
So, you can watch 13th. You can watch when they see us. There’s so much to just commit yourself. Commit yourself to reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, reading, reading for a year, maybe for a year, everything you get your hands on, whatever Amazon suggests. Once you buy The New Jim Crow, get the next one. And just be a voracious learner. And find that humility and understanding in yourself. And you don’t have to go carrying a banner into your Sunday meetings.
We all need to study and understand the extent of this. And then, when you’re ready, look around where you are. Where is the struggle where you are? You don’t have to make it a struggle at church. You just have to show up for the struggle as a Mormon person. Follow black leadership. So, there’s a Black Lives Matter chapter in Salt Lake City. They probably have things they want help getting done. Do you know the stats on police brutality in Orem?
Do you know the stats on police brutality in Salt Lake City? Is the chokehold allowed in Utah? Where is it allowed? There are eight essential reforms that a group called Campaign Zero, founded by one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter, DeRay Mckesson, is calling for. Are those eight essential reforms going to happen in Utah? Right? So, they are people who are extremely knowledgeable at policy and have extraordinarily well-formulated asks for action.
So, be a good citizen, right? So read, read, read, read, read. And then, listen to black people and do what they say. And show up with your body. And show up with your money. It doesn’t hurt. Can you toss some money to the bail fund? Can you toss some money to good charities in Utah that advanced the well-being of children of color? And again, you don’t have to fight on Sunday in church, to show up for the fight as a Mormon person, and you’ll help move yourself and our whole community to a different place.
Tim Chaves: Yeah. I love that. I think there’s that individual side of it. But if we go back to the beginning, there’s also a very collective side of it. And I wonder if you can paint a vision for what the church itself, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an anti-racist institution. What could that look like? What impact could the church itself have?
Joanna Brooks: Oh, well, so I’m not in the position to tell the church anything, clearly. I will say that I think the church is extraordinarily well-positioned to affect enormous change for the good. I mean, so many good people have given their lives to build the kingdom. And the kingdom, we are well-established and we are safe. And if we choose to turn even part of our substantial resources and attention to ensuring that black people are not killed in the United States by police officers or by the state.
Or that black children don’t go hungry or that black women don’t die at extraordinarily disproportionate numbers in childbirth, which is a fact, regardless of education, and economic status, if we’ve turned a corner of our attention to it, there would be a huge impact. So, I will say too, though, that in terms of the deeper work of repentance and thinking about it, what we need to do, there are very committed black LDS people who’ve been asking things of us for a long time.
So, it’d be good to start listening. So, there’s a young woman named Melody Jackson who went to BYU. And she was just covered in an article. I just posted it to one of my threads this morning. But she is among the black LDS leaders who are calling for the church to institute for the anti-racist curriculum in some of its manuals. They have asked. So, dial into what they’re asking and they’re leading because we have some amazing black LDS people who have stuck with us for a long time beyond all reason.
And they know what needs to be done and we need to follow them.
Tim Chaves: Awesome.
Aubrey Chaves: Thank you so much.
Tim Chaves: Yes. Thank you so much, Joanna. I know in the book, Mormonism and White Supremacy, is there any other work you’d like to point listeners to social media that you do anything?
Joanna Brooks: Go read a lot of books by black people. Oh, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.
Aubrey Chaves: Oh, yeah.
Joanna Brooks: That one is beautiful. And it’s written to his son. And one of the things I love about Mormonism is we take our children and the rearing of our children very, very seriously. Imagine what it would be like to be raising a black child as a black man and not be able to say to them, “You’re safe,” and have to tell them all the time, “You need to act this way so that you’re not killed.” And to begin to understand that, that is a wonderful place to start. So, I don’t want to point to my own stuff. Thank you. You pointed to it. Go read books by black people.
Aubrey Chaves: Okay. All right. Thank you so much.
Joanna Brooks: All right. Thank you guys for the time.
Aubrey Chaves: Appreciate you.
Joanna Brooks: Thank you for your openness of heart, really, and for this opportunity and just may our words bear good fruit. This is an important time. Don’t let it go. Please don’t let it go.
Tim Chaves: Thanks, everyone, for listening. And we hope that you got as much out of this conversation as we did. A huge thanks to Joanna for the work she’s done on this book, and for coming on to discuss it. Please check out the description for links to the books and other resources that Joanna recommended. Thanks for listening. And as always, you can check out more at faithmatters.org.