Black BYU professor urges Latter-day Saints to end ‘sin of racism’

Ryan Gabriel’s devotional speech was the first from a Black faculty member in 14 years.

(Screenshot) Ryan Gabriel, an assistant professor at Brigham Young University, gives a devotional address online on Tuesday, April 6, 2021.

For the first time in more than a decade, a Black faculty member addressed students Tuesday at Brigham Young University during one of the religious school’s devotional talks, and he pointedly spoke about the “sin of racism” that Latter-day Saints must reconcile.

“Our church has made clear that racism does not fit a disciple of Christ,” said Ryan Gabriel, an assistant professor of sociology. But even still, he suggested, there exists nationwide “hatred toward one’s brothers and sisters, which is ultimately hatred toward God.”

More needs to be done, Gabriel said, so that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and those of other faiths, too — adhere to the commandment to love their neighbors, no matter their race or ethnicity.

“There is no need for us to look like anyone else to be worthy of love and respect,” he added. “Our skin tones are as they should be, as God made them. And they are beautiful.”

Gabriel urged those who consider themselves to be devout Latter-day Saints to recognize the hurt caused by racism and to work toward addressing it and apologizing for it.

Even if a person isn’t personally responsible for past racist actions, he added, they have an obligation now to confront the problems because they know about them and they know people are still suffering. It is a sin to be racist, Gabriel added, but it also a shortcoming to not try to address it and uproot it.

“To pretend that race is unimportant by saying, ‘I don’t see race’ — or to falsely diminish the impacts of racism on the lives of Heavenly Father’s children — does nothing to stop racism,” the professor said. “Christ does not ask us to ignore or wish away another’s pain but to know it and touch it.”

Gabriel’s talk comes shortly after a report was released by BYU, the church’s flagship school, showing deep issues with discrimination that led students of color to feel “isolated and unsafe” on the overwhelmingly white campus. It offered a comprehensive look at how some students there say the dress code is unevenly enforced with minorities, how often they are called racist slurs, and how many are transferring out.

The devotional also comes six months after Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the Utah-based faith’s governing First Presidency, urged members that racism must be “rooted out” during the church’s twice-yearly General Conference in October. Oaks followed that with a devotional the same month at BYU calling called “Black lives matter” an “eternal truth all reasonable people should support.”

Those were landmark discussions, and Latter-day Saint leaders’ recent focus followed nationwide protests against racism in response to the death of a Black Minneapolis man who was killed when a white police officer kneeled on his neck.

But Gabriel’s virtual address from the Marriott Center to BYU students Tuesday was the first on the topic since then to come from a Black member of the faculty and the faith.

It also was the first time since February 2007 that a Black professor at BYU gave the devotional. That last address 14 years ago came from Peter Johnson, now a general authority Seventy in the faith’s leadership, confirmed BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins. (Johnson is, likewise, the first African American to hold such a high position in the church and was the first Black man born in the United States to deliver a General Conference speech back in October 2019).

That lack of representation is part of the problem, Gabriel told The Salt Lake Tribune, but it’s also “a demographic issue.”

There have been 438 devotionals — weekly religious talks by Latter-day Saints at BYU — since Johnson spoke, according to a Tribune analysis of the school’s online records. Eight of those have been from individuals of color: three Asian members, three Latinos, one Native American and one Black (Gabriel).

Combined, that means fewer than 2% of the devotionals have come from racial or ethnic minorities. Michalyn Steele, who teaches law at BYU and is Native American, was the most recent individual of color before Gabriel to give a devotional at the school. That was in June 2019.

Gabriel, who is a demographer and studies racism in neighborhoods, said there are few Black members of the faith in Utah. And at BYU, he noted, the faculty has six Black members out of more than 1,400, meaning the pool to pick diverse speakers from is small.

That number comes from the report that Gabriel helped compile about issues with racism at BYU as a member of the Committee on Race, Equity and Belonging. The ratios weren’t much better for students of color there. And it has created an atmosphere, the findings show, in which those individuals frequently encounter racism or ignorance from other students and have no where to report it.

Gabriel said with those problems — and “the past issues in the church,” including the former ban on Black members holding the priesthood and entering temples — he felt it was important to talk about racism. With his devotional speech, he said, he wanted to address the larger issues of prejudice that exist across the nation and how to resolve those through the example of Jesus Christ.

“He took upon himself sins for which he was not responsible,” Gabriel said during his talk. Likewise, “we can work hard to heal the painful legacies of racism we have inherited that continue today.”

Both the opening and closing prayers for the discussion were given by BYU students of color.

The professor spoke about slavery, the civil rights movement, lynchings and abuse from the Ku Klux Klan. Each act of racial injustice, Gabriel said, is “worthy of genuine consideration” and has been used to build a hierarchy, in which whites are at the top, that persists today.

Some have also used scriptures, Gabriel said, to justify their superiority.

Latter-day Saints must act with faith, he said, to help end racism. That includes listening to leaders, members and BYU students who say it is a problem. It means accepting everyone “as God wanted them to be.”

It’s about listening, too, to someone’s suffering and pain and responding with charity rather than hatred.