Johnny Townsend: Mormons must stop practicing racism by proxy

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) This Oct. 4, 2019, photo, shows the Salt Lake Temple at Temple Square in Salt Lake City.

In cases of Munchausen syndrome by proxy, someone deliberately sickens another person, usually their child, because they receive so much love and support for having a chronically ill loved one. Often, other family members and friends are shocked to discover the deception. “You couldn’t have asked for a more devoted mother.”

Despite extensive racist policies and doctrine throughout Mormon history, most Mormons today practice racism by proxy. “I didn’t say that. Brigham Young said it. Ezra Taft Benson said it. Spencer W. Kimball said it.” We don’t actively seek to oppress anymore. We just don’t do anything to stop the racist acts of others.

Another word for “proxy” could be “accessory.”

In an authoritarian religion with rules so strict that drinking a cup of coffee can keep us from attending our child’s wedding, we’ve been trained our entire lives to believe in the harshest punishment possible for the most meager of crimes. This religious mindset keeps us from understanding the damage that far harsher secular policing inflicts. We defend a police system whose primary function from the start was to oppress blacks, immigrants, and the poor.

Most police abuse may be the result of racism or a lack of training. But another phenomenon may also be at work. Perhaps some officers need to feel they’re “defending their community” so badly that they are pushed subconsciously to create situations that lead to the deaths of marginalized people. A kind of “Hero by Proxy.”

Research suggests that people in powerful positions often lose the ability to empathize. It’s called “Hubris Syndrome,” and differences in brain activity can be measured. It seems likely that the compulsive need for the wealthiest people in the world to accumulate still more wealth is similarly triggered, perhaps becoming a genuine addiction.

If history is written by the winners, police reports are written by the survivors.

When unarmed citizens, often people of color, are killed during encounters with the police, officers tell us “he tripped and fell” or “he was resisting” or “he had something in his hand.” What we increasingly see, though, are officers killing unarmed suspects who weren’t posing any serious threat. When we discover over and over that the cries of “Wolf!” are lies, how are we ever to know when the cry is in response to a real threat?

Officers must understand that being repeatedly caught lying isn’t building public trust. And when 57 officers resign in protest over the suspension of two fellow officers filmed attacking an unarmed man and then lying about it, those “good” officers are telling us loud and clear the “one bad apple” defense is itself another cry of “Wolf!”

Time and again, I hear my Mormon family and friends say things like, “Well, we don’t know all the details, but the guy they were trying to arrest was obviously a bad guy. He had a record. He was shoplifting. So I’m going to believe the police over that scumbag.”

There’s a reason serial killers often prey on prostitutes and runaways. If the Green River Killer had been murdering socialites, would the public have accepted the deaths of 49 young women without pressing for additional investigation? “It’s sad what happened to those women, but they really brought it on themselves.”

How much more time do we spend at church teaching our kids about the dangers of bare shoulders than about either the moral or mortal consequences of racism?

I’ve heard family and (former) friends say, “Maybe the officer was a little too aggressive, but really, we’re better off without all those criminals anyway.”

Superiority by proxy?

Honor, duty, courage, and solidarity are empty words when they’re used to defend both abuse and the many lies to cover up that abuse. We cannot allow lofty principles to be used to defend the lowest behavior possible. As Mormons, we are morally obligated to insist that city councils, governors, state legislatures, and Congress take immediate steps to stop the epidemic of police aggression destroying lives and communities across this nation.

If there’s one thing Mormons understand, it’s proxy work. But if we are to defeat racism in our churches and in our communities, it’s going to take personal, active engagement. So let’s put our shoulder to the wheel and get started.

If there’s one thing Mormons understand, it’s proxy work. But if we are to defeat racism in our churches and in our communities, it’s going to take personal, active engagement. So let’s put our shoulder to the wheel and get started.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is an author whose works include, “Breaking the Promise of the Promised Land,” “Human Compassion for Beginners,” and “Am I My Planet’s Keeper?”