There’s been a lot of conservative uproar against the idea of teaching “critical race theory” in public schools, although there is little agreement over just what CRT is, and it is literally not being “taught in schools.” Critical race theory is a legal theory that, among other things, seeks to put legal cases related to race in the context of other legal cases related to race rather than treating each case tabula rasa, as if the underlying causes and factors don’t exist. The theory explains that there are systemic and historical racism in our society that contribute to the way racism manifests. The only thing that legal theory has in common with the concept of how we teach history in schools is that traditionally, curricula have had a tendency to gloss over the racist roots of our culture rather than providing an accurate depiction of events and impacts to people of color.

Conservatives are misapplying the term from the legal theory to the practice of updating history curricula to be a more accurate, complete picture, one in which America is not always the hero or the shining beacon, one in which we acknowledge the racist systems that have always existed, and the contributions of non-white races, including enslaved people and natives, to the creation of our American melting pot. This is another one of those shadow stories mentioned in one of my recent posts. It’s hiding in plain sight that the US is built on equality* and meritocracy, but also on systemic, intentional inequality and exclusion.

Conservatives assert that teaching what they are calling “critical race theory” would:

“characterize the United States as irredeemably racist or founded on principles of racism (as opposed to principles of equality) or that purport to ascribe character traits, values, privileges, status, or beliefs, or that assign fault, blame, or bias, to a particular race or to an individual because of his or her race.”

“Congress made clear that the purpose of the programs is to advance a traditional understanding of American history, civics, and government. The proposed priorities would do little to advance that goal and, based on the proposal’s support for the ‘1619 Project,’ would endorse teaching factually deficient history. Moreover, the implementation of these priorities will, in practice, lead to racial and ethnic division and indeed more discrimination.”

To whit, their assertion is that we should not revise our curriculum to teach history in a way that is recognizable to BIPOC or that explains the current infrastructural barriers and systemic racism which they deny exists.

The attorneys general from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and West Virginia also signed the letter.

Here are some of the claims conservatives who want it out of the curriculum are making:

  • It is divisive, pitting races against each other.
  • It is anti-patriotic, creating shame for things the US has done in the past.
  • It will hold BIPOC students back by encouraging them to act or think like victims rather than pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.
  • It will encourage “reverse” racism (against white people, god forbid).

The alternative to teaching critical race theory is to teach a simplistic, white-washed, nationalist narrative that amounts to propoganda, and to a large extent, that is what we have been taught: George Washington chopped down the cherry tree and couldn’t tell a lie, Abraham Lincoln believed deeply in freedom for enslaved people, Christopher Columbus was a bold adventurer, nevermind the genocide, pillaging, and so forth, the white settlers brought a more significant, important culture to this land than had been here before. Worse, specifically banning critical race theory will put teachers in the cross-hairs for students and/or parents who complain about things like being taught about the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, redlining, Jim Crow, and even writings by African Americans as most of these address the problems of racism and slavery directly.

What’s really at heart of this debate are two different understandings of racism: one in which a few “bad apples” (individuals) are racist and should be corrected, and another in which multi-generational systems and infrastructure have been created from a racist perspective that privileges people economically and socially based on the lightness of skin color. Per critical race theory, the roots of racism founded this country in 1619 and those racist structures have remained, never having been fully addressed or acknowledged which is why we are still seeing black people killed by the police as a routine matter and still seeing black people treated differently by health care providers and higher levels of poverty among BIPOC.

Conservatives don’t want to have these conversations because it’s too painful, there’s too much work to do, and it’s much easier to blame “a few bad apples” than to admit the entire orchard is based on a lie. They may have believed the narrative we were taught in school (or at least that I was taught, north of the Mason-Dixon line, in an area with underground railroad sites): that racism was mostly a southern states problem because they relied on slave labor for agriculture unlike the industrious, technology-minded northern states, and once the slaves were freed, everyone had a chance to succeed equally, side by side in public schools and the workforce, thriving according to their merit and effort. Maybe northerners were a little complicit for drinking sugar in their tea, but they were certainly less terrible than the southerners who were on the frontlines of racial oppression. Once the slaves were freed, a few bad apples maybe held people back, but those were bad actors, selfish racists; they were wrong. But black people just need to work in the system, not be lazy, not be a victim, and just overcome the multi-generational oppression through effort and ambition. We were taught to be race-blind, to treat everyone equally, but not to counteract the racial impediments that have always existed. Another way of putting this is that we have to preserve white innocence by whatever means necessary, the innocence to believe in our goodness and hard work and that we deserve the good things we’ve gotten because we achieved them without any extraordinary help; if you didn’t achieve the same, you were the problem. Manifest destiny was manifestly good. White colonists were the good guys, hard-workers fleeing religious oppression, not racist oppressors importing human chattel as free labor. Their colonization efforts transformed a backwater unpromising native people into more adventurous European wannabes.

If you wonder what these ideas have to do with Mormonism, note that the Utah AG signed on to bar updated curriculum, and that the recently reviled Tad Callister article that the Church newsroom published was classicly racist in excluding people of color from the races he listed as having created this country (and understanding the value of families).[1]

Let’s shift to the Book of Mormon. There’s a reason Mormons have a terrible reputation on race issues, even beyond the priesthood and temple ban, and it is all over the Book of Mormon which is a book about a racist pre-Columbian society in the Americas. Whenever people are favored of God in the Book of Mormon, their skin miraculously turns whiter. Dark skin is a moral failing.[2] Those with dark skin are described as filthy, loathesome, blood-thirsty and cursed. The curse isn’t always their direct fault, because the “sins of their fathers” caused the change in skin tone and caused the multi-generational proliferation of bad values and wrong ideas that created bad outcomes for these darker-skinned cultures. That’s the direct interpretation of the text. White people, at least at the beginning, were the good guys. Once Nephi’s brothers separated away from his followers, their skin color got darker, just like he saw their dark, dark souls. The outside matched the inside he imagined them to have for rejecting his authority. Over the Book of Mormon narrative, people who turn to God develop magically lighter skin.

This preference for lighter skin could be related to exposure to the sun. Many racist explanations for skin tone have been based on the idea that cultures with more skin exposure develop more melanin. More skin exposure could be due to a more agrarian existence, wearing less clothing, or the types of dwellings used. The Book of Mormon specifically links these to a cultural moral failure. Either the Book of Mormon is a book about a racist culture, written by racist narrators, or it is a book built on the assumptions of American exeptionalism that have been a staple of American public education for a very long time.

That narrative sounds something like this. White settlers were led by God (after Columbus was also led by God) to a land that was inhabited by unpromising natives who benefited from the benevolence of these white settlers, who brought them Christianity, and who built a much better society on that land than was there before. Anciently, there had been another virtuous white-skinned society that unfortunately died out through civil wars and sin, unfortunately leaving the darker-skinned, more savage remnant to continue on without the providence of moral rectitude that the white settlers would bring them later. These savages were also portrayed as lazy thieves with low morals due to their incorrect beliefs, unlike the correct beliefs of the colonizers. White settlers could help these unpromising savages through colonization and by changing their culture to the white culture they brought from Europe. That’s what American exceptionalism and manifest destiny were all about, and the Book of Mormon defends these actions as morally imperative.

Another myth that is used to denigrate native people is the myth of the lost city. We’ve all doubtless heard about the lost city of El Dorado, an ancient prosperous city of gold. These myths emerged among white settlers to explain the seemingly advanced extensive ruins found in what they had claimed or been taught was peopled by unpromising migrant savages. Or in other words:

Ancient Aliens heads to Italy for proof of extraterrestrials |

Per this line of thinking, it is simply unfathomable that anything of worth could have been created or sustained by the predecessors of the people white settlers conquered and whose lands were colonized. The only explanation for finding these advanced, impressive cities, is that they were built by someone else, anyone else: ancient aliens or adventurous white-skinned Israelites who were promised the land by God.

There are some books out there that discuss the racist ideas of the Book of Mormon and the Church far more completely than I can approach in a short blog post. I recommend two: Joanna Brooks’ Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence, and The Book of Mormon for the Least of These by Fatimah Salleh and Margaret Olsen Hemming.

The Book of Mormon can be read as an indictment of racism or it can be read as a metaphor for the foundation of white supremacy that Joseph Smith was swimming in that still infects our American identity. If the Book of Mormon is historical, it represents a mostly uncontested history about an otherwise unknown people. If it is a work of fiction, it reveals a lot about the mindset of American settlers who dispossessed natives and enslaved Africans and other BIPOC. That doesn’t fill me with self-loathing for being white; it arms me with a sense of purpose about addressing these bad cultural assumptions and the systems that were founded on them. These ideas don’t die without examination and thought. They flourish in the dark. By refusing to acknowledge systemic racism, we create fertile ground for more racists, seeking to understand (through victim blaming and gaslighting) why some people don’t flourish and others do.

  • Do you think we should be teaching students about systemic racism like Jim Crow, redlining, etc.?
  • How would you teach from the Book of Mormon without furthering white supremacist ideas?
  • Have you ever addressed the racism in the BOM in a lesson or talk? Were other members willing to address it? Why or why not?
  • Can the Church overcome its white supremacy problem or is this just a pipe dream?


[1] He presents a white-washed list of “colonists” from Arthur Schlesinger:

The colonists understood this. Arthur Schlesinger wrote, “Although colonial life was woven of many strands — English, Scotch-Irish, Dutch, French, German and so on — all the new groups, whatever their ethnic differences, shared the common belief that the family was, in Franklin’s phrase, the ’sacred cement of all societies.’”

[2] No mention of what orange skin means, though.