Joanna Brooks, Mormonism and White Supremacy: American Religion and the Problem of Racial Innocence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020) 240pp.
Mormonism and White Supremacy as an Explanation of Mormonism’s Relationship with White Supremacy
Reviewed by James C. Jones
Mormonism and White Supremacy is almost exactly what you would expect from a book with such a title. A brilliant and well-researched thesis analyzing the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to its present showing how we went from a revolutionary and even progressive faith to one that embraces the traditions and conventions of white supremacy, despite our theology condemning it.
One of the first things I look for in any work addressing any facet of white supremacy by a non-Black author is for the author to name their positionality. While it is true that white supremacy negatively affects all people, those without racial obstacles to power, access, and other means to an abundant life (i.e. white people) are not conditioned to address it, either because of ignorance or, as Dr. Brooks regularly quotes George Lipsitz, the possessive investment in whiteness. In other words, a white author needs to acknowledge that regardless of their academic credentials, they are examining white supremacy through a white lens, which makes for a less than perfect analysis. Dr. Brooks does so fairly quickly.
The second thing I was looking for was an articulation of something that myself and many other Black members have always at least suspected: that the lack of Black people in our congregations is not coincidental or accidental. The thesis of the book actually seems to be that Mormonism’s overwhelmingly white congregations and white politics is a result of a habit of choosing white comfort and power over Black humanity and solidarity, analyzing some key moments in Mormon history to demonstrate this.
Brooks also makes it clear that the whole church ought to know its racial history and why the church is in its current position with Black folks. But the reality is the church is resistant to doing that work. As I write this it has been about a month since the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd shook the U.S. In the midst of the subsequent civil unrest, the church made public statements twice where they have been able to condemn looting and property destruction, but not police brutality and white supremacy. Many members followed suit. This situation continues to show how necessary a work like this is for Latter-day Saints.
Brooks sees an opportunity and responsibility to inform Latter-day Saints of the church’s problematic history and also what that knowledge will require of them. Though the latter is not accomplished in very specific terms, it’s still more than I am conditioned to expect from LDS scholars on LDS subjects.
That said, there’s little, if anything, that is new in this work when it comes to the conversation on race in Mormonism’s history. While well timed, well researched, and probably the most efficient resource on this subject, she frequently quotes scholars and other public figures who’ve done work on the subject and the thesis is a foregone conclusion to anyone who has been having this conversation or reading from authors who’ve discussed race and the church at length.
Further, those already engaged in these conversations are seeking a way to move them forward and dismantle the white supremacy present in Mormonism, but, at most, this gets a single chapter treatment to the amount of seven pages in a 200+ page work. In those seven pages, she outlines three methods of social transformation and the model that got the highest word count of the three depends on the highest church leaders. Unless any of them are anti-racism activists I don’t quite understand why a chapter on dismantling white supremacy would give so much airtime to what those preserving it can do, considering the church’s history and considering that those in positions of power and privilege don’t just relinquish it because those on the margins ask. Another model briefly mentions Ordain Women as a possible and stronger model of direct activism which felt a bit off, given their habitual centering of white feminism. Our movement, which Brooks rightly acknowledged has not chosen such a path, is currently led primarily by Black women. That is not an accident.
As implied by the brevity of the chapter, none of these models are explored at length. Her intention was to explain Mormonism’s relationship with white supremacy rather than be an activist. Even still, she seems to make it clear that she’s on board with breaking white supremacy’s hold on the church, but to make it all the way to the final chapter without getting a specific “how” was slightly disappointing. It may not be her place to do so, but if she was capable of quoting the work of others to explain white supremacy in the church, surely she could’ve used the words of the movement’s leaders in the chapter she included on dismantling it.
I would recommend this book to anyone new to conversations on racism in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s critical to understand how we got here, come to terms with the church’s anti-Black racism, and normalize conversations about the church’s problematic past and present if we are to properly reckon with it. Fulfilling the church’s mission to “proclaim the gospel” and “perfect the saints” depends on it.
Mormonism and White Supremacy as Cultural Critique
Reviewed by Paul Reeve
In Mormonism and White Supremacy Joanna Brooks sets out to tell the Latter-day Saint racial story refracted through the lenses of white supremacy and racial innocence. As she describes it, her book “seeks to use the tools of historical research and critical analysis to identify how anti-Black racism took hold in Mormonism” (p. 13). She hopes that understanding how systems of inequality were historically built within the faith will then help twenty-first century Latter-day Saints to dismantle them. Her book is consequently more about the present than the past—an incisive cultural critique of Mormonism’s fraught racial narrative aimed at moving the faith forward. This book should thus be viewed as an effort to raise awareness and prompt change more than a rigorous history of race in Mormonism.
In a series of mostly chronological chapters, weighted more toward the twentieth than nineteenth century, Brooks deploys “critical analysis” to unpack key events that developed into Mormonism’s racial priesthood and temple restrictions and their entrenchment behind walls of prophetic infallibility. For students of Mormon history the selected events will be familiar. This retelling is not based on archival research but is principally grounded in secondary sources and published documents. It is told from the vantage point of decisions made from within the faith without grappling with race as something also ascribed from without.
The strength of Brooks’ work is as a cultural critique grounded in her willingness to make the past relevant to the present. What emerges is a series of deep dives into moments of historical contingency wherein Latter-day Saint leaders had choices and consistently chose their own whiteness over equality and social justice. Her focus is not only on Latter-day Saint leaders who dug in their heals, but also on members such as Lowery Nelson, George Romney, George P. Lee, Byron Marchant, and Stuart Udall who stood up to the hierarchy and demanded change. Leaders had choices, in other words, and they chose white supremacy.
Brooks borrows from critical race theory to explain how these decisions were grounded in a “possessive investment in whiteness” which she argues was reinforced by a corresponding “possessive investment in rightness.” What that meant in practice was that Latter-day Saint leaders sought to bolster their own whiteness at the expense of their Black brothers and sisters. They reinforced their decisions by creating a narrative over time that suggested that Mormonism’s racial priesthood and temple restrictions were in place from the beginning, God put them there, and white leaders were not involved. As Brooks keenly notes, the narrative was built on a foundation of “racial innocence” that simultaneously blamed God for the restrictions and excused the white men who actually put the constraints in place.
Brooks’ most significant chapter covers the 1880s to the 1940s, a period wherein she describes the “institutionalization of white supremacy.” Here she traces the process whereby racial justifications became enshrined in Latter-day Saint curriculum. The institution thus produced, published, and taught racism and thereby ensured that it was passed on to the next generation. It is a compelling—if not painful—story and Brooks analyzes it well.
In that same chapter she introduces prophetic infallibility as the guardian of the newly enshrined narrative. Here her analysis misses a more complicated Latter-day Saint understanding of fallibility, one that has existed in tension with notions of infallibility over time. It is one of Mormonism’s unresolved paradoxes. Even Brigham Young, for example, sometimes seen as a strict authoritarian, warned his flock against “blind self-security trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence.” Other Latter-day Saint leaders have made similar statements, including as recently as 2013 when, as Brooks notes, Dieter F. Uchtdorf admitted to past “mistakes.” Rather than engage such paradoxes and how they might have shaped and even fostered some of the dissent she chronicles in the twentieth century, Brooks describes a monolithic notion of infallibility.
Of her two methodological tools, Brooks is much better at critical analysis than historical research. In fact, Brooks sometimes relies on sources such as recent newspaper articles more than archival research and as a result occasionally makes unsupported claims or factual errors. She draws upon a 2012 Salt Lake Tribune article, for example, to suggest that Robert Dockery Covington, one LDS bishop who helped to settle the Cotton Mission in Southern Utah “recounted to fellow settlers (according to a contemporaneous record) stories of his physical and sexual abuse (including rape) of African American men, women, and children. His statue stands today in downtown Washington, Utah” (p. 49).
The “contemporaneous record” was that of George Armstrong Hicks, a fellow settler of Southern Utah whose autobiography was published in 2011. Hicks actually suggests that it was Covington’s counselor, Albert W. Collins, also a former slave driver, who had a reputation for bragging about his previous violent exploits and his rape of enslaved women, not Covington. There is no statue to Collins in Washington, Utah. Hicks did call Covington a “Rebel sympathizer” and said that he “rejoiced whenever he heard of a Southern victory” during the Civil War. Perhaps Brooks would have arrived at the same conclusion about the settlement of Southern Utah had she read Hicks’ account, but her uncritical reliance on a 2012 newspaper article over Hicks’ autobiography leads to an unnuanced assessment.
Brooks similarly relies on two twenty-first century newspaper accounts (Deseret News and New York Times) for the lynching of miner Robert Marshall in Price, Utah, in 1925. She calls Marshall “an African American miner and a fellow Mormon,” (p. 60) presumably indicating that the crowd of over 1,000 people in one of Utah’s most ethnically and religiously diverse counties (sometimes called Utah’s Ellis Island for the number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who migrated there at the turn of the twentieth century) was comprised of Latter-day Saints who gathered to witness a coreligionist hang from a tree. There was no excuse for Marshall’s lynching. It was clearly wrong no matter the religious affiliation or lack thereof of those involved. But Brooks uses the event to assert Mormon white supremacy when neither newspaper source mentions Marshall’s religious affiliation or that of the crowd, and Brooks cites no evidence to support her assertion that Marshall was Mormon.
Brooks also goes beyond what historical evidence can support in her retelling of Abraham Smoot’s and Zebedee Coltrin’s testimony at the 1879 investigation into Elijah Abel’s priesthood. She describes Smoot’s involvement in the enslavement of black people in Utah and suggests that he took Jerry, one of his enslaved men with him to Utah County when he moved there in 1868. Jerry, however, drowned in 1861. More importantly, Brooks suggests that Coltrin and Smoot “jointly agreed to arrange their recollections to support a position opposing Black ordination and temple participation” (p. 45). In Brooks’ retelling, Smoot “effectively owned Coltrin’s land, home, and life chances” (p. 46) as he presided over the United Order effort in Utah County which included Spanish Fork where Coltrin lived. Smoot thus allegedly used his control over Coltrin’s assets to secure his cooperation in lying to LDS leaders in 1879.
To be clear, Coltrin’s and Smoots’ testimonies at the 1879 investigation into Abel’s priesthood were misremembrances at best and outright lies at worst, something that historians have long noted. Even still, there are no surviving documents that support a prearranged conspiracy with United Order assets as the fulcrum. This retelling demonstrates a lack of understanding of the fluid nature of United Order involvement in the 1870s and does not include evidence from the Utah County United Order. Historians who studied the Utah County Order concluded that “There was no leveling in Spanish Fork or Pleasant Grove—no effort to take all resources into the Order and redistribute them according to need. Real estate was never deeded to the Order.” In evaluating Coltrin’s testimony, racism more than conspiracy seems to be his most powerful motivation, an assessment that would support Brooks’ overarching thesis without a need to go beyond the evidence. Because Brooks’ message is relevant and forceful, getting the history right matters so that the meaning does not get dismissed in the muddle.
Brooks’ ultimate goal is to know how to dismantle systems of inequality within Mormonism. A frank confrontation with the power of whiteness in Mormon history is one facet of Brooks’ hoped for dismantling. Her call to action is thus grounded in a rejection of racial innocence and proposes instead a racial reckoning—one that Mormonism and White Supremacy demonstrates is long overdue.
Mormonism and White Supremacy as White Mormon Scholarship
Joanna Brooks’ Mormonism and White Supremacy is certain to engage readers who have opinions about (white) Mormon theology, (white) Mormon culture, (white) Mormon people or white American, anti-black supremacy as a concept and sociohistorical practice. This is because of the unconscious ways that her use of “Mormon” is often conflated with “White” despite the growth of Mormon congregations internationally since the 1970s. This type of oversight is similarly rooted in the same unknowing “racial innocence,” the concept that holds white people immune from taking responsibility for practicing racism. Brooks associates this with the continued unconscious actions of white supremacy within the institutional Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For readers inside Mormonism and outside of whiteness, this work will read very similarly to other white Mormon scholarship. This should not be a deterrent to readers who may find themselves fatigued to read another racially innocent Mormon history review.
Before expanding on the shortcomings in Brooks’ approach in this book – I do want to state support for the obvious: Brooks is one of the first, if not the only, white woman scholars to toss her hat (or bonnet?) in the ring to discuss racism, white supremacy, and Mormonism – as a ripe opportunity, on purpose, and with intention. While the intentions may not be fully prepared to disrupt the systemic white supremacy so much as encourage more reflection on the system’s existence, the words of her work must be acknowledged for their positioning within the genre.
Its most helpful presentation of information, that simultaneously is certain to foster distress in some progressive Mormon feminist readers, is the outlining of Eliza R. Snow’s damaging words that upheld white supremacist patriarchy as a weapon against Black people. Snow is an active demonstration of internalized sexism (adopting ideas from “whatever source she trusted,” namely Joseph Smith, p. 36) and externalized racism acting to protect her white feminist position just above that of Black members of her shared faith. In her treatment, Brooks opens up a crack in the foundation of modern white Mormon feminists who revere Snow’s words and works. While certainly disheartening for a hero’s pedestal to wobble, this is an excellent point to engage, deconstruct, and begin the work of repair for all Mormon women and any person committed to the deep exercise of feminist consciousness-raising – and to do so knowingly versus innocently.
In its historical narrative, the book repeats most of the well-known information of historical white Mormon racism in previous scholarship. For readers who are new to white Mormon scholarship on white Mormon racism, they may be encouraged when Brooks states her goal in this book is to, “move the conversation yet another step by exploring how the predominantly white venues and denominations through which we have pursued the sacred and hope to pursue mercy and justice have themselves contributed—if unknowingly—to white supremacy” (p. 3). The use of the word “unknowingly” is a key that will clue the reader in to the unfortunate “more of the same” narratives of many white Mormon scholars who refuse to name the Church as a racist institution on its own. This is the concept of racial innocence in action that at once implicates and then absolves the Church from its participation in and perpetuation of white supremacy. White Mormonism, then, is as much a victim of “the times” as the Black people on the receiving end of Mormonism’s brand of white supremacy. This is a significant wound to readers—white and of color—who want to see a more critically racially conscious, and thus hopeful, lens from which to engage the Church.
Brooks’ use of “unknowing” racial innocence asserts the minoritized experience of early Latter-day Saints is an explanation that excused early Mormonism from doing what is right (choosing to betray whiteness and steadily pursue efforts to maintain itself as an inclusive, multicultural church) and letting the consequence follow (continue to be ostracized, penalized and marginalized by American whiteness). Brooks sets for herself a limit. She does not “wish to impugn the character of individuals” (p. 16), namely, the church leaders who built an international religious organization by impugning the character of Black communities. Racial innocence is what protects Mormonism in its victimizations while it is actively victimizing by seeking reprieve on the occupied lands of peoples indigenous to this country.
This limit poses some problems in the analysis and contributes to the perpetuation of the problem she is encouraging us to engage. In one passage, she notes the problem of infallibility as a condition for leadership and its followers:
Infallibility kills: it kills the bodies of those marked expendable, it kills relationships with those who dissent, and it kills the souls who suffocate on their own ignorance and privilege. It kills courage, it kills hope, it kills faith, and it kills the kind of historical memory that helps a religious community understand itself and find its next steps toward holiness. (111)
However, Brooks’ commitment not to impugn the character of Church leadership in her review of their words and their works contributes to the belief in their infallibility that must be deconstructed. This is an example of the struggle every Mormon must knowingly engage. While it is not done so by the white historians and scholars credited in Brooks’ work, it can be seen in the public writing, activism, ongoing media advocacy and education efforts of Black members, named and unnamed in her book, but who, unfortunately, are not seen as scholars of their lived Mormon experiences or their published works to date. While painful, it too, is another area for committed Mormons to knowingly engage for change.
The book primarily focuses on church leaders and on the choices they made in pursuing, versus dismantling, white supremacy, not only in their failures but also “successes.” It is important to note that the successes she directly names, the BeOne Priesthood Celebration event and the Legacy of Black Pioneers (aka Black LDS Legacy) conference that preceded it months prior and continues annually, are actually the results of grassroots efforts of Black community members. The work that went into creating both the Legacy Conference and the Priesthood restoration events were not agitations of direct action. Brooks recommends the activist behaviors of Ordain Women, the feminist direct action from the 2010s that petitioned the church to extend priesthood ordination to women, as one model for transformation. But these methods do not transfer seamlessly to Black communities. Instead, they can be regressive and damaging. The brief suggestion is evidence of the same privileges and challenges of internalized sexism, coupled with aggrieved entitlement, endemic to many efforts of white feminists who feel that Black communities’ experiences of racist oppression are similar to white women’s experiences of sexism. To suggest Ordain Women’s approach as beneficial to Black Mormons today, is shortsighted.
Finally, Brooks offers recommendations for the institutional church itself to change from the top by using suggestions from Black people at the margins. This is burdensome on marginalized people, though well-intentioned as it clearly values the suggestions given. However, the institutional church is not the only organization or group that needs to change. Brooks acknowledges that in order for liberal Mormon organizations to confront racism in the church, they have to see their investment in white-identity politics as “corrosive to the tradition.” A clear call to action requires a reckoning; White privileged and white proximal groups actively benefit from the Mormon white supremacy of “not being Black” and as such must stop comparing their present-day oppression experiences to pre-1978 priesthood and temple practices denial. It perpetuates white racial innocence and prohibits them from seeing their active racism against Black communities within the Church’s feminist and LGBTQIA+ movements. Thus, change must come from the top and especially from the middle because the middle is what works hardest to stay higher than the bottom and away from the margins.
I appreciate Brooks’ work in Mormonism and White Supremacy for the continued talking points it presents its readers to knowingly engage in critical race consciousness raising, even when it is a byproduct of the book’s shortcomings more than by design of the book. May those with eyes to see and ears to hear, who do justice and love mercy, put their shoulders to the wheel.