Thus, some Mormon parents continue to teach their children beliefs like those proffered up by Bott. Some Sunday school teachers continue to answer questions about the priesthood denial by citing Cain, Canaan, and “fence-sitting.” And, at church meetings, some black Mormons still hear racial slurs. As African-American convert to the church Tamu Smith said in the documentary Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons, “the first time I was called a nigger was in the Salt Lake Temple.”
Just this past month, the BYU campus became embroiled in a controversy concerning racism—or, at the very least, racial insensitivity and ignorance. In a satirical celebration of black history month, comedian David Ackerman dressed in a hoodie, Utah Jazz gear, and blackface, and quizzed BYU students on their knowledge of African-American history. On the video, which went viral, BYU students failed to correctly identify February as black history month and failed to name important black American figures beyond Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. (The rapper 50 Cent was also named as a hero of black history.) And Ackerman succeeded in getting his painfully naive interviewees to imitate what they believed to be typical black behavior, with finger snapping, the “gangsta limp,” and jive talk all making appearances.
According to Darron Smith—an African-American convert to Mormonism and a BYU alum who, from 1996 to 2006, taught a course there called “The African American Experience”—Ackerman’s video reveals that problematic attitudes about race are not limited to “older generations” of Mormons. Ackerman “provided a microphone for today’s BYU students (even the few black BYU students) to voice their ignorance about the black experience in America.” And while you might very well see something similar at other “isolated, conservative” college campuses around the country, in Smith’s view, the deference of BYU students to church authority makes church leaders responsible for such ignorance—a point now driven home by Bott’s remarks. Smith places the lion’s share of the blame on BYU’s administration. (Smith’s own contract at BYU was not renewed in 2006.)
That same administration has in the past celebrated Bott as one of its most effective teachers, and has given him the charge of educating generations of Mormons—and generations of Mormon missionaries—in the fundamental theologies of their faith. Some 3,000 students will take Bott’s classes this year. (Only 11 students are signed up for the African-American experience class Darron Smith used to teach.)
Asked for comment on the Bott affair, BYU officials directed me to a very general statement from the LDS Church Public Affairs office condemning racism. But my contacts at BYU have said that faculty members were generally shocked by Bott’s statements—in part because he went around school administration and talked to the media directly about such a sensitive matter. In an email to several faculty members, Terry Ball, dean of religious education, expressed his disgust with Bott’s statements and said he would “deal with Bott professionally.” (In a 2008 Deseret News story celebrating Bott’s ranking as America’s favorite professor, this same Dean Ball lavished praise on Bott, saying he was “among the excellent of the excellent” religion professors at BYU.)
My requests to speak to a member of the LDS hierarchy—the small cadre of men who have the authority to address whether Bott’s statements reflect current or past church doctrine—have been denied. That official statement from the Church Public Affairs office calls it “unfortunate that the Church was not given a chance to respond to what others said,” and asserts that the church does not “tolerate racism in any form.”
Almost to a person, the Mormons—both black and white—whom I have spoken with since the Post story broke were hoping for a “miracle,” as one well-known black Mormon called it—i.e., a full repudiation of the church’s past racial discrimination from a church apostle rather than a press release from the public affairs office. That miracle has not arrived so far.
Yet Mormons around the country—including Bott’s own colleagues and BYU students—are working to make this moment a turning point in Mormonism’s history of race relations. Around water coolers, in classrooms, in blog posts and op-eds, a growing number of Mormons who find Bott’s beliefs in direct conflict with the main tenets of their gospel are not waiting for church leaders to speak. Darius Gray, one of the black Mormons featured in the Post article, told me that he expects Bott’s comments to force Mormons both at a grassroots level and at church headquarters to begin the process of “healing wounds not creating them.” His belief was echoed by his longtime writing partner, BYU professor Margaret Young. “This is the beginning of our Truth and Reconciliation,” she told me. “This will help us deal with the history of apartheid in our own Church.”