As Dave B discussed earlier, President Nelson (and, [possibly?] by extension, the LDS church) released a statement on racism (sort of). Honestly, Dave B wrote a lot of what I wanted to say so I should end this post now 😉
Three years ago, I wrote about what seems to be the LDS church’s modus operandi of releasing statements with intentional ambiguity, especially with respect to its racism, but which also extends even to less pressing questions such as: does the Word of Wisdom ban caffeine? But, to summarize the thinking from my earlier post on race (which seems completely relevant today): it feels like the church crafts ambiguous statements to allow members with diametrically opposed viewpoints to read their own views as being supported by the church, while thinking that the other side is unambiguously being denounced by the church.
So, if this hypothesis works, then we might expect that even if the church writes a statement condemning racism, then the statement should be ambiguous enough to allow some people to interpret the statement as condemning racism against minorities while allowing other people to interpret the statement as condemning “reverse racist” actions and sentiments against white folks. And each side would think the alternative interpretation unthinkable.
For example, from 2017:
To be fair, I am aware that there were further clarifications. My understanding is that Wife with a Purpose is no longer a member of the LDS church. And yet…
With this in mind, let’s take a few lines from President Nelson’s most recent statement.
We join with many throughout this nation and around the world who are deeply saddened at recent evidences of racism and a blatant disregard for human life. We abhor the reality that some would deny others respect and the most basic of freedoms because of the color of his or her skin.
We are also saddened when these assaults on human dignity lead to escalating violence and unrest.
The Creator of us all calls on each of us to abandon attitudes of prejudice against any group of God’s children. Any of us who has prejudice toward another race needs to repent!Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Russell M. Nelson, Facebook ( https://www.facebook.com/russell.m.nelson/posts/3015443371856412 )
Ask yourself a few questions. No peeking at your neighbor’s answers!
- What are the recent evidences of racism?
- What is the blatant disregard for human life?
- What is respect? What are the most basic of freedoms being denied because of the color of one’s skin?
- What was the assault on human dignity?
- Who has escalated violence and unrest?
I have tried not to wade too far in social media because for me, these issues are personal, but voices on each side are ever present, and I certainly have seen people express very different answers to these sorts of questions.
Some of these questions allow more leeway. When the “evidences of racism” are not specified and are generalized as “respect” or “basic freedoms” being deprived, it is unclear what this means. If someone is murdered, would describing that as their respect being denied be a helpful euphemism?
In contrast, let’s look at a later part of President Nelson’s statements:
Illegal acts such as looting, defacing, or destroying public or private property cannot be tolerated. Never has one wrong been corrected by a second wrong. Evil has never been resolved by more evil.Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints President Russell M. Nelson, Facebook ( https://www.facebook.com/russell.m.nelson/posts/3015443371856412 )
These statements seem more concrete. Before we had “respect denied,” “evidences of racism,” “disregard for human life.” Here we have looting, defacing, destruction of public or private property.
Charitably, I can recognize it as an attempt at balance (and I can withhold my thoughts about whether balance makes sense or even if I think it achieves such balance.) Yet, where the scales fall will ultimately depend on how individuals read this Rorschach test.
Why might the church be responding like this?
In my previous articles about “Rorschach Revelations”, “Intentional Ambiguity,” and “Plausible Deniability”, I suspected the church wanted time and flexibility. Time to make change without fallout. Flexibility to appeal to members across a wide spectrum of views. Bold, unambiguous statements will certainly alienate, whereas a carefully crafted ambiguity might leave both sides happy and unaware.
On Twitter, someone said they appreciated that although the church leans conservative, this statement was “wonderfully apolitical” and that its “centrism” would naturally “garner disappointment from both sides of the aisle.” The tweeter read the statement as addressing, among others, police brutality and looting.
So I asked them: but where does the statement ever say “police brutality”?
I imagine many people read this into the statement as well. But I also imagine many others wouldn’t. I do not think this was an accident.
Thanks for this post. As a police officer here in Australia, I have a keen interest in this issue.
I watched the Floyd incident in it’s entirety and felt sick. I am so so sorry this occurred.
In relation to Pres Nelson’s statement, I felt equal amounts of embarrassment and anger. Embarrassment at a complete lack of acknowledgement of the church’s role in racist teachings and promulgation of violence against native peoples. I felt anger at the church requiring so much of others relating to repenting where the church itself has done none of that itself. No formal apology or genuine organisational attempts at dealing with that part of its history.
The church’s doctrines and behaviours have and still do contribute to racism in the USA and across the world.
The statement is classic both-sides-ism, which is pretty weak, particularly given the Church’s history and present on race. If we had anywhere near a representative number of black Church members in our congregations, that would be one thing. If the gospel is for all, where are they? We all know the answer to this question. This isn’t just about individuals who are racist, but about systemic racism and thinly veiled white supremacy in our doctrines. Thus statement creates a false equivalence between property damage and the murder of unarmed black people by police, but seeks to do so while protecting the feelings of the oppressors and allowing those who already fear black people to blame them for property damage (much of which has been done by others, opportunists and extremists).
I don’t live in the same country as the author of this statement, whoever that person may be. It is pretty evident that the committee who wrote it did not include racial diversity.
Very sharp analysis Andrew, thank you. Will think about how to incorporate this in discussing the statement elsewhere.
Carrying over from the related conversation on Dave’s post, I agree with Ziff that it’s important to name George Floyd, and I’m adding Breonna Taylor, whose murderers are still at large and still employed as cops.
Whereas the statement is inadequate, I’m interested in us not only identifying that it’s inadequate, but also doing better ourselves. Let’s continue forward to the action planning stage: what will we do? Here’s my contribution to start listing opportunities: figure out whether your city has done any of these recommended reforms and work from there to advocate locally for more. https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1180655701271732224.html?fbclid=IwAR35X1-qlEu4kN-QilOzN2qExBuQN3EINE71dI922lBBhKCD-9xTHLohmK0
Also, obviously march to support the protests… Suggestions here that I loved for if you can’t go in person, such as for pandemic risk group reasons.
Take care everybody.
You need to add a ‘d’ to the ‘and’ in the title of your article.
*fixed*. I originally had an ampersand, but that was coming out weird, but I didn’t get the replacement right.
“What are the recent evidences of racism?”
I too wish they would be more specific about the incidents they are referring to. I suspect that most people have in mind the Ahmaud Arbery, central park “Karen”, and George Floyd incidents, but only the central park case is clearly a racially motivated injustice. I have yet to see evidence that the cop’s improper handling of Floyd was due to racism. Perhaps President Nelson’s statement is ambiguous because he (or the PR team that wrote the statement) is wary of accusing a man of racism without evidence of racial malice.
Bryan, we don’t have to explicitly document that Officer Chauvin was a racist and intended to kill George Floyd because he was black. It is enough to document the racism inherent in the system of policing and criminal justice. And that inherent racism is well documented by writers and reporters like Radley Balko. Spend some time with this Washington Post article and the numerous studies Balko cites in support of his thesis that the system is biased against African Americans from the get go.
Because the system inculcates a certain predisposition among many officers and because that predisposition denies so many black men and women their basic humanity–humanity, BTW, that is rarely denied white suspects (Dylan Roof’s excursion to a fast food restaurant with the police AFTER gunning down 9 African American worshipers at church being only the most egregious example)–over trivial concerns like the $20 forged check George Floyd was accused of trying to cash. Floyd was not armed, was not resisting arrest and did not have a lengthy or violent history. So why did he deserve to be treated like an animal and pinned to the ground by the neck for more than 8 minutes? Bystanders could see that he was suffering, but Chauvin would not. Why do you think he refused to?
Similarly, Ahmaud Arbery was only given equal consideration after two prosecutors either declined to arrest and charge the father/son duo who pursued him or recused. The prosecutor who declined to pursue charges did so under Georgia’s “no duty to retreat” and “stand your ground” laws, and also by alleging that the father and son had solid probable cause without deeming it necessary to detail the cause. By saying the armed father and son had certain rights under Georgia law, the prosecutor denied Arbery those same rights, essentially declining to see him as equal under the law. Why did Arbery not have the right to defend himself against gun-wielding strangers on a street in broad daylight? Why did Georgia law not apply equally to him? Probably not because there was a bias against joggers in this community.
It does make it easier when Karen is recorded saying openly vile and racist things in Central Park, but most cases aren’t that clear cut. Absent a cell-phone video, Karen probably would have gotten away with it. The problem with our approach to racism in the 21st century is many still expect it to present itself accompanied by pointy white hats and burning crosses. It’s far more insidious and pernicious than that. We have our work cut out for us, and I wish the Mormons would help by saying something a bit more definitive that the content of President Nelson’s statement.
Bryan – No evidence of racism? Seriously? Does he need to wear a swastika or have a white power tattoo to satisfy you? How many times did that cop kneel on a white suspect’s neck?
jaredsbrother – Thank you for sharing that resource. I skimmed it, reading a few of the summaries in each section. Some don’t seem to substantiate what the author intends (such as the lack of non-white prosecutors in Idaho and other states with an overwhelmingly white population), but others piqued my interest. The main problem I have with it is its conflation of equality and propriety.
“why did he deserve to be treated like an animal and pinned to the ground by the neck for more than 8 minutes? ”
He didn’t deserve it, which is why I characterized it as improper.
Bryce Cook – I agree that people don’t announce their sinister motives like action movie villains, but I’m very uneasy about attributing to racism an injustice for which there’s no evidence of racism.
Bryan, farting at dinner with your in-laws is improper. What happened to George Floyd is another level entirely.
Here’s a pretty stark look at the systemic racism behind the use of excessive force on black people in Minnesota: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/03/us/minneapolis-police-use-of-force.html
Former Officer Chauvin had 18 prior complaints against him, including dragging a woman out of her car at a routine traffic stop. Only two of these complaints resulted in discipline (he had a letter added to his file after the car incident). Another officer who watched him murder Floyd had 6 prior complaints against him. Officer Chauvin was a rage machine and he was also ex-military. Three cops stood by while he murdered George Floyd over a possible crime so petty (fake $20 bill) that the store owners said that their staff was wrong to even call it in, and that as people of color living in MN, they would never have called it in because they know the police are not to be trusted. Had they been in the store at the time, they would have prevented staff from calling the cops for this very reason.
“Racism is not getting worse; it’s getting filmed.” Will Smith
Interestingly, a lot of cops are turning off their body cams when they go to commit violence. The body cams were specifically added so that cops could prove the use of force was necessary in a situation. Apparently, if you want to murder people, joining the police force which has a code to protect its own is a good place to start.
This was a good addition to Dave B’s prior post. I hadn’t noticed how the statements could be interpreted either way, but you’re right.
Definitely carefully worded statement that probably went through a number of editors before release that allows President Nelson to maneuver to morally superior ground however the course of public opinion inside and outside the church goes. Pressure was mounting for him to say something. And now he can say that he said something. Could have been less vague and more forthright in its condemnation of police brutality and the murder of George Floyd. But the leadership knows that there are fault lines among the membership and try hard not to trigger those. They work hard to deliver words that can be interpreted in a variety of ways.
Bryan may actually being unfairly treated here. He is willing to acknowledge that Central Park Karen was racially motivated and that Derek Chauvin improperly handled George Floyd’s arrest. Derek Chauvin should be tried for murder, yet could he be tried for a hate crime along with the murder? Minnesota law doesn’t have a hate crime statute, but hypothetically according to other states’ legal statutes that define hate crimes, there may not be enough evidence to get him on a hate crime.
Where I have issue with Bryan’s comment is when he writes, “wary of accusing a man of racism without evidence of racial malice.” There almost seems to be a bit of white fragility built into that. As if wrongfully accusing someone of racism is this horrific thing. Racism, let alone subconscious racism, isn’t a violation of criminal codes. We’re allowed to say racist things and subconsciously, and in many cases consciously, discriminate against people on the basis of their skin color. And since racism isn’t a violation of law, that means that I am not beholden to a standard of evidence that court rooms demand for violations of law (which carry a sentence, which can have drastic impact on an individual’s life, hence the high standard for evidence). That being the case, of course Derek Chauvin was racially motivated. I have every reason to believe that if George Floyd looked more like Derek Chauvin, similar skin tone, similar facial features, that Chauvin wouldn’t have kneeled on his neck, or at least not kneeled on it three minutes after Floyd stopped moving.
I actually appreciate Bryan’s comment because I know there are lots of people who won’t see racism in any given scenario. No matter how many events keep happening, there will always be someone to justify why it happened, what they think the context really was, etc., Benefit of the doubt can *always* be found when there’s a dead black person. Some people would probably land differently on particular cases than Bryan has. The particulars don’t matter.
And I’m not really trying to change anyone’s mind. I’m not really trying to shame anyone for it, because I don’t know if any of that is effective and I’m not called to do it. It is just a useful reminder that we live in different worlds and so it makes some sense that LDS church leaders would like to maintain a position in each of those worlds to their ability to do so.
Angela, my apologies if this was not your intent, but you referenced Chauvin’s military service in a way that suggested it was (at least in part) a trigger for his despicable criminal behavior. The myth of the violent vet refuses to die, and it’s ridiculous to chalk up to PTSD (if he in fact suffers from it and I have seen nothing to suggest he does) kneeling on a the neck of a helpless man until he dies. Doing so unjustly shifts blame away from Chauvin where it belongs and also besmirches people who heroically battle PTSD every day and yet would never think to do such an evil act.
Not a Cougar: I take your point. Yes, in my mind his military training was linked to his willingness to apply greater force than warranted because the military is trained to dominate enemies on a battleground, and the police are trained to uphold the law but with restraint (or that is a distinction that I have imagined that to me feels meaningful). Current POTUS implies both groups are in place to do the same thing, and I am beginning to wonder if he is correct. I didn’t have PTSD in mind when I commented, just the differences in these two groups’ training and mandate. Perhaps the police force is essentially a domestic military with citizens as the potential enemies to be subdued.
to the contrary, I’ve read more than one article/comment from military friends suggesting that military folks receive a lot more training than police do in de-escalations, and that military rules of engagement usually are more restrictive for military operations other than war. Like, it would be a mistake for someone in the military to assume that every scenario is a battleground.
Andrew: This is interesting to me, and pivotal to understanding how to address this problem. I admit that I really don’t have much background in either military or police, but the fact that the current POTUS is invoking the phrase “law and order” and quick to call protests “battlegrounds” and attempting to shame Governors for not “dominating” the populace makes me think we need to understand the role of police and the role of the military. Are they essentially the same thing? I sure didn’t think they were, but it appears that many conservative Americans do see them as more or less the same thing.
I was listening to a podcast yesterday about police unions, and there was apparently a push under Obama to train police officers in de-escalation and restraint, and to require more steps to avoid violent confrontations and use of force. The police unions were strongly opposed to these types of constraints, claiming they were costing the lives of police officers. That response makes me think that the police do in fact see themselves in a war. My kids (adults) keep saying the solution is to dismantle the police departments completely, something that has sounded radical and out of the question to me, and yet, I can say that knowing I’m not likely to ever be a target of the war they wage on citizens. I’m starting to come around on this idea.
Thank you for the analysis in this post. I have already seen the phrase condemning looting posted in social media, out of context, by those who refuse to acknowledge the reality of racism.
Angela, In America, where the military donate equipment to police, and where,training is haphazard, you seem to have a more militarized police force. I understand you have small police forces.q
In Britain many of the police do not carry guns.
If you watch British cop shows they talk to suspects. American cop shows they rush in with guns drawn, and maybe talk later.
I notice the protesters are much more peaceful when they are not confronted/controlled by agressive police. Trump wants police to dominate the protesters, which will create more violence. I do not understand how this serves his purposes, but I suppose the protesters are not likely to vote for him, so must be attacked?
Pleased to see some of the military leaders, even previous Trump ministers coming out to criticize him.
Geoff-Aus, a good friend of mine used to be a bobbie. He said all they had was a night stick (baton) to use to break up fights and things, which he said he often felt was inadequate, particularly given the state of drunken brawling in his area. He used to joke that he’d have some bloke coming at him with a broken beer bottle and all he could do was bop him on the head with his little night stick.
Honestly, there have been horrible videos posted all over Twitter this week of riot cops approaching unarmed and compliant protesters…and bystanders!…and beating them with these batons. One I saw yesterday was a riot cop in Indianapolis who was caught on film grabbing a female protester’s breasts from behind, and when she twisted away from him to avoid further groping, a different riot cop came up from near where the phone camera holder was capturing this and beat her severely with his baton until she was lying face down on the ground to be cuffed. Another woman was watching in horror screaming, “Why are you doing this to her?” so a huge cop came over and pushed her to the ground where she was laying hurt and couldn’t get up by herself. Several more cops came over, I thought to help her, but no, they started to cuff her. Just for asking why this other woman was being targeted and felt up!
Somehow I just found out yesterday that there was an unarmed black man (Dion Johnson) shot just a few miles from my cozy Scottsdale neighborhood on May 25th. His offense was sleeping in his car while pulled off the freeway (but in an area you shouldn’t park). This is the 23rd police killing this year in AZ, which reminded me that when I visited my parents in Florida several years ago in May, there had been 23 shark attacks so far that year, a number I found astonishingly high. (There were fewer shark attacks in the 70s–once Jaws came out, the sharks figured it was open season).
The police are supposed to be peace keepers. They are there for OUR safety. They should never be the agressor. I really think some cops in the US did not get that memo.
I got much of the same vibe when reading the statement from President Nelson. I have no doubt that he believes that racism is bad, and is something that should be repented of. But the broad stroke language in the first half vs. the clear and direct language in the second half did leave me with the feeling that without the looting no statement would have been made. Police brutality is a “political” issue and therefore the church should not get involved. But looting? A statement must be made.
I am glad a statement was made instead turning off the lights and hiding in a bunker, but it still came off as tone deaf.
If the church wanted to do something to discourage racism amongst its members, it could say that romanticising the Confederacy is wrong. And anyone who is a member of the Daughters of Confederate Soldiers or similar groups, cannot pass the recommend question about belonging to groups that teach against church doctrines.