Sports

Why Mormons Reacted So Strongly to the Alleged Racist Incident at BYU

A visiting volleyball player heard a racist heckler. LDS history sets this story apart.

Three people walk across a pathway at Brigham Young University.
The campus of Brigham Young University. Photo by Ken Lund/Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/kenlund/30247754351/in/photostream/

If you haven’t followed Rachel Richardson’s story, which in the past week has become the most highly debated topic in college sports, here is a brief rundown. Last Friday night, at Brigham Young University’s Smith Fieldhouse, Duke and BYU women’s volleyball teams squared off as part of a multiteam tournament. During the match, Richardson said, at least one BYU fan in the students’ section yelled the N-word at her. And not just once. Every time she rotated to serve. During a break in play, Richardson, the lone Black starter on Duke’s team, told her teammates and coaches what was happening. The Duke team then told the referees. BYU officials apparently addressed the student section. A police officer was assigned to stand near Duke’s bench.

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Yet, according to Richardson, the racist taunting did not stop. The situation devolved to outright threats. After the match, which BYU won 3—1, the man whom Richardson identified as the one who yelled the N-word at her was, she said, not done. The “white male told her to watch her back going to the team bus,” Lesa Pamplin, Richardson’s godmother, posted to Twitter. BYU banned the fan Richardson identified from future BYU events. The next day, the school’s athletic director Tom Holmoe met with Richardson and her father, Marvin, to discuss her experience and to apologize. Holmoe and BYU’s women’s volleyball coach Heather Olmstead also offered public apologies.

In the past week, two distinct reactions to the attack against Richardson have emerged from the BYU community. One reaction comes from a chorus of BYU community members, especially students of color, prominent Black BYU alumni, and some faculty , who have voiced their disgust at what happened. Following the events at the volleyball game, “the Black Menaces,” a group of BYU students whose TikTok videos on racism at BYU and beyond have gone viral, called on students, staff, and faculty at BYU to participate in anti-racist training. The Black Menaces, along with Black BYU alumni, believe such work is particularly important at their institution. And not because the school is overwhelmingly white (at 80 percent of the student population, BYU is pretty white, but many institutions are whiter), but, in particular, because of the long history of anti-Black policies and practices in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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The other reaction has been to circle the wagons—to fend off what BYU apologists see as an attack on the university’s good name and the good name of the church it embodies. After some twists and turns in the story this week—the university now says it can’t find evidence that the fan first banned was the one to yell the word, and the investigation into what happened is ongoing—the entire right-wing mediasphere, eager to doubt this kind of report, has begun to question Richardson’s account. But that’s a national story, and what’s interesting here is the local reaction. At BYU, the defenses have ranged from the typical: One bad fan doesn’t spoil a whole fanbase. To the particular: People have argued that the fan accused of threatening Richardson has an autism spectrum disorder, or that he confused Richardson with a friend of his who plays for BYU (both teams wear blue-and-white uniforms). To the defensive: This whole affair, some have said, isn’t about the history of racism in America (and in the LDS church in particular). It’s another chapter in Americans’ long history of anti-Mormonism.

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These two distinct reactions to last week’s incident are both rooted in Mormonism. That’s because Mormonism is a religion that embodies two truths at once: It promotes a racially particularistic doctrine that has, at times, favored certain racial groups over others. And it promotes a universalistic doctrine that also has sought to embrace everyone, everywhere.

The embodiment of this first truth is that Mormonism has always had a white geographical, hierarchical, and cultural center. Mormonism’s racist beliefs and practices have worked to defend that white center, and to safeguard its power and racial purity. The embodiment of the second truth is that Mormonism has always had a Black periphery. And this Black periphery has continually pushed the white center toward what it views as the universalistic and inclusive teachings of the Mormon faith.

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Mormonism’s reputation as a bastion of white supremacist Christianity is (almost) as old as the church itself. BYU is named after Brigham Young. The church’s second prophet, Young led the Mormons to Utah starting in the late 1840s and displaced and killed thousands of Utah Natives to do so. Young was also an avowed racist, white supremacist, and defender of Black chattel slavery. In the 1850s, Young instituted restrictions that banned Black people from full membership in the church, restrictions that remained in place until 1978. Young forbade Black men from holding the Mormon priesthood, which Mormon boys starting at the age of 12 receive. He banned Black people from accessing the Mormon temples, where the faith’s most sacred rituals occur, including “sealings” that bind families together forever, because he believed that allowing Black Mormons to enter the temple would defile these spaces. Young was also particularly worried about “black blood” tainting the pure white bloodlines of Mormon converts.

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For the next century, every church prophet (or leader) who came after Young continued his anti-Black policies. And as Young did, these prophets, who the Mormons believe receive direct revelations from God, justified these policies by arguing that they were essential to protect white families and spaces from the taint of Blackness. The Smith Fieldhouse, where BYU and Duke played their now-infamous match last Friday, is named after George Albert Smith, the eighth president of the church. In 1947, Smith responded to a critique of the church’s ban on full Black membership by insinuating that allowing Blacks to become full members would place the church on a slippery slope toward “intermarriage of the Negro and the white races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal minded people… and is contrary to Church doctrine.”

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Yet this is not the whole story of race and the LDS church. Before Brigham Young established the racist policies of the church, Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith Jr. promoted a more universal, inclusive message. Race was not God’s design, Smith taught. It was the result of human failing. Race entered into human history when the supposed ancient forefathers of people of African descent, Cain and Ham, sinned against the human family. And for these sins God cursed these biblical villains with dark skin. Smith taught that Black people and other nonwhite people could, by converting to Mormonism, rejoin the original, “White” (as in nonraced) human family, and achieve the highest levels of heaven. Today, the assertion that spiritual redemption comes only through acquiring whiteness makes us wince. But Smith’s view that race wasn’t a fixed, immutable category was a radical departure from the racial politics and religious theologies that dominated antebellum America and that were used to justify Indian removal and chattel slavery.

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During this early period in the church’s history, a handful of Black people joined the church. The most famous was Jane Manning James. A convert from Connecticut, James briefly lived with Joseph Smith and his family in the 1840s and worked as their washerwoman. After Smith’s assassination in 1844, James followed Brigham Young and the vast majority of Mormons to Utah. In fact, in 1847, James and her family were the first free Black people to settle in Salt Lake City. (Young’s famed “vanguard” company, the first Mormons to enter the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847, included three enslaved men, Green Flake, Hark Wales, and Oscar Smith.)

James remained a faithful member of the church until her death in 1908. But she did not stay a quiet member. For the last few decades of her life, James petitioned church leaders to allow her access to the temple. There, she wanted to be “sealed” to her children, most of whom had died without being baptized into the faith. A little more than a decade before her death, Joseph F. Smith, Joseph Smith Jr.’s nephew, granted another of James’s requests: that she be sealed to Joseph Smith Jr., based on an offer that Smith and his wife Emma made to adopt her as their spiritual daughter when she lived with the family in the 1840s. Joseph F. Smith did not allow James to be sealed to the Smiths as a daughter but as their “servitor” for eternity. And to make sure James and her Blackness wouldn’t corrupt the temple, Joseph F. Smith insisted that a proxy stand in for her during the ceremony.

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Despite their very public stance, through which church leaders made clear that they believed being Mormon and being Black were mutually exclusive, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Black people kept joining the church. The project “A Century of Black Mormons” has found baptismal documentation for more than 100 black members who joined the church between the church’s founding in 1830 and 1930. The project is actively working on substantiating documentation for more than 100 other potential members. These members came from all over the United States, as well as from England and South Africa. During the civil rights era, in the mid-20th century, church leaders in Salt Lake City fought to defend their ban against an American public that viewed the Mormons as increasingly retrograde in their racial theologies. Yet missionaries sent to Africa to bring the gospel to whites on that continent, as well as missionaries sent to parts of the African diaspora in Central and South America, continued to bring home messages from Black people asking to become full church members. Or these Black people directly penned their pleas to the church leaders in Salt Lake City. It might be easy to dismiss these Black Mormons as suckers who internalized white supremacy to such a degree that they hated their own Blackness. But they weren’t dupes. They heard a truth in the “small c” church about universal and eternal human families that appealed to them, even while the racist leaders of the “big C” church failed to embody those key aspects of Mormon theologies.

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Brigham Young claimed to “speak as a prophet” and thus with the authority of God when he first publicized the ban on full Black membership in the early 1850s. Almost a century and a half later, in early June 1978, Young’s prophetic successors claimed to have received a new revelation, which allowed all people, regardless of race, to become full members of the church. The church’s vaunted membership growth rate had hit a wall, especially among white people. Ending the ban would allow new missionary fields in Africa and Africa’s diaspora, where interest in the church had long been apparent. Black Mormons like Darius Gray (who briefly attended BYU in the 1960s)—perhaps the most celebrated figure in Black Mormon history save for Jane Manning James—had been petitioning church leaders to make the change for close to a decade. Jane Manning James herself played a role in revelation. The church had purposefully forgotten her in the 70 years between her death and the lifting on the racist membership restrictions. But miraculously, in June 1978, the church “rediscovered” James and other early Black Mormons and even published lengthy profiles of them in the church’s newspaper.

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Exceptional Black athletes like Rachel Richardson, slated to compete against BYU sports teams, also played a role in dismantling the church’s racist practices. And like Richardson, they paid considerable personal costs. In October 1969, 14 Black members of the then undefeated, No. 16-ranked University of Wyoming football team asked their coach, Lloyd Eaton, if they could wear black armbands during their upcoming game against visiting BYU. The players, including eight starters, wanted to protest the church’s policy banning Black people from full membership. The coach immediately kicked the players off the team and revoked their scholarships. Though the game was overshadowed by the coach’s decision to expel the group of players, who would become known as the “Black 14,” Wyoming still won decidedly over BYU, 40—7. Without many of their core players, the team lost four out of its next five games.

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After the 1978 revelation lifting the ban on full church membership, the LDS church has tried to put its racist past in the past. The church sends missionaries to Africa and countries with large African diasporas, with some success. In fact, while the number of white Mormons has flatlined or is decreasing, church growth has surged among Africans and people of African descent, as well as among Latino, Asian, and Pacific Island populations. Today, there are likely more nonwhite Mormons than White ones. And more Mormons likely live outside of the U.S. than inside.

Yet, since the revelation, church leaders have resisted repudiating the racist positions of their predecessors. This, despite constant pleas to do so from Black Mormons and other members troubled by the church’s anti-Black policies and theologies. Such calls for a fuller repudiation came to a head most recently in 2012, during Mitt Romney’s run for the White House. Romney’s presidential ambitions led to increased (and unwanted) public attention for his faith. That spotlight helped to uncover how prevalent racist attitudes remain within Mormonism, including at BYU. Randy Bott, then a BYU professor of religion, and among the most popular of the institution’s professors, kicked up a firestorm during the campaign when he told a Washington Post reporter that it was a “blessing” for Blacks that God had restricted them from full church membership until 1978. Before then, Blacks weren’t ready for the responsibility of the priesthood, Bott said. It’s like “a young child prematurely asking for the keys to her father’s car.” As a result of Bott’s controversial statements, which led to protests at BYU and national media coverage, the church issued an official statement condemning racism in general, but not specifically Bott’s comments. As for the “origins” of the ban on full Black membership, the church said it was a mystery of faith how it came about. This, despite more than a century of its own prophets declaring as prophecy the church’s official views on the subject. The problem is that the church then, and today, cannot say that the past prophets were wrong to claim authority to speak on God’s behalf without jeopardizing the authority of today’s prophets to do so.

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The failure of the church to break from its past has real-world consequences for Black Mormons, who still report putting up with racist remarks from their white brethren about their spiritual unworthiness during weekly Sunday church services, or even while performing sacred rituals in the Temple. Tamu Smith, a Black convert, recounted in the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, “the first time I was called a n***** was in the Salt Lake Temple.” Black BYU students, who make up less than 1 percent of the school’s student body, continue to experience similar racist abuse. Last year, BYU issued the findings of its own study on “racial diversity” at the institution. The report found that “many BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) students at BYU feel isolated and unsafe as a result of their experiences with racism at BYU.” In response, the school launched an “Office of Belonging,” which BYU president Kevin J. Worthen would charge with spearheading the school’s efforts to root out racism and “prejudice of any kind.” Yet, just last month at a speech given at BYU, Clark G. Gilbert, the church’s commissioner on education, explained that the church would not be implementing the “DEI programs” which have become standard on college campuses. Instead, BYU and other church educational institutions would “find a gospel-centered approach” to confront racism.

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Such a stance is deeply troubling for Black BYU alumnus James Jones. “At BYU (a university named after a racist), just in the last three years, Black students were harassed at their own events, White supremacist orgs attempted recruiting on campus, confederate flags were seen in dorm windows,” Jones recently posted on Twitter. Gilbert’s decision to remove “anti-racism from BYU curriculum and the church itself” and not to include “race” or “diversity” in the name of its own Office of Belonging, Jones wrote, signals a lack of real commitment to looking at “BYU/Utah/Mormonism’s deep and documented history of racism.”

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The work to address racism within Mormonism falls to people not in the center but on the periphery of Mormonism. Take, for example, the work of James Jones. A life-long member of the church who served a mission in South Africa before attending BYU, Jones is currently attending Union Theological Seminary, where he’s training to become “the first theologian to study Black Liberation Theology from a Mormon perspective,” as he put in his bio for his podcast, Beyond the Block: Centering the Marginalized in Mormonism. Unlike the church leaders in Salt Lake, Jones sees the central tenets of Mormonism as being not in opposition, but directly related to anti-racism work. He recently launched an online course, LDS Anti-Racism 101, which uses “the restored gospel of Jesus Christ as our primary tool in the task of abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.” Or consider the work of “The Black Menaces,” who, with their 724,000 TikTok followers, have brought attention to racism on BYU’s campus with great wit and empathy.

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And though it should not have had to, the work also comes from Rachel Richardson, who is not a Mormon. In her statement describing her experience last Friday at the Smith Fieldhouse, Richardson made it clear that her purpose in coming forward was not “to call BYU’s athletics out but rather call them up.” She invited BYU to use the attack on her as an opportunity to engage in antiracist work, as she and her teammates have done: to study “the roots of racism and how to be an activist in not just dealing with racism, but preventing and ending it.” Richardson even paraphrased scripture (Romans 12:4-5): “God has called each of us to be members of one body, while we may have our differences, they should never divide us.”

Last Saturday Duke played its final match of the tournament against Rider at an off-campus location. Only family and staff were allowed to attend. Duke beat Rider 3—1 (24—26, 25—22, 25—16, 25—18). Richardson led her team in aces, with three. She also had five digs and one assist.

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