Jacob S. Rugh: An open letter to the BYU Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging

(Photo courtesy of BYU Police) Pictured is the statue of sign to the Abraham O. Smoot Administration Building on campus at Brigham Young University that was painted with an "X" on June 14 or 15, 2020.

Dear Members of the Brigham Young University Committee on Race, Equity, and Belonging:

My conscience compels me to compose this letter to you. As dear friends and esteemed colleagues, I write to support your work to eradicate racism and institute racial equity at BYU.

I write out of profound respect for your agency and the struggles most of you face as Black, Indigenous, Pacific Islander and Latino people of color on this overwhelmingly white campus. I stand in solidarity with you— before, during, and after my time at BYU, on and off campus.

My letter has two aims. First, I seek to amplify the voices of Black BYU students, specifically their recent declaration of grievances and letter on remembering and monuments to church, university and NAACP leaders. Second, I connect their call to three eternal principles and three institutional reforms BYU must act on now, in 2020, including an urgent step that must be taken as soon as possible, certainly before fall semester begins.

I also write because I have listened to, learned from, and lifted up the voices of over 100 Black students, among 500 students of color that I have taught on campus, in addition to hundreds more who have responded to surveys and interviews. I reported some results in the first-ever draft racial equity inventory of BYU that my interracial research team and I delivered to deans, campus administrators and to you on April 30. I also work closely with the BYU Black Alumni Society and have read the letters of over 150 concerned students and alumni of all races.

I write because integrity means I cannot and will not ignore the struggle of Black people at BYU.

How the power of Black students’ truth changed my mind

Prior to the courageous letters written by Déborah Aléxis, Don Izekor, and other Black students, I had focused most of my citizenship efforts to two matters. One, the ongoing redesign of general education at BYU to include a new, focused diversity and inclusion requirement; and, two, a new campus center for racial equality that would (among other tasks) spur the diversification of faculty now and enrich the pipeline of future faculty. These remain my pressing concerns for 2020, and I emphasize upcoming deadlines for approving these reforms at the end of this letter.

However, after hearing the cries of Déborah, Don, and countless other Black voices, I add a third priority, a long-term process of institutional repentance but also an issue we must address, as Dr. King declared, with the “fierce urgency of now.”

The urgent matter is the ongoing racial trauma that Black students experience that stems from the way we visibly fail to reckon with our past and fall short of our potential as a university. Déborah and Don are two of the most insightful students I’ve ever taught; I want to reiterate a key point Don recently clarified in a media interview:

“[T]his isn’t about Brigham Young or Abraham Smoot. We’re not condemning them. The problem is the justifications for their racism today have become more detrimental than their actual racism. That’s where I’m hurt.” - Don Izekor

I hope this point is as crystal clear to you as it is to me. The issue is not about relitigating the past. The issue is the way racism persists and harms all Black students right now, in 2020,

Excusing past racism gives tacit permission to white students to excuse racism today.

White students internalize institutional racism and externalize interpersonal racism as a result. This is not an abstract argument or a hypothetical scenario. In February, I witnessed how three white students hijacked a panel led by Déborah and Don with racist intimidation and willfully hurtful invectives. These students were later condemned by the university and its president. Yet, after an investigation we launched together failed to uncover their identities, they were never held accountable (and they did not ever admit the hurt they caused or repent as far as we know).

More revealing, the following week, white students, even in my own class and even if out of apparently sincere ignorance, asked how what happened was racist. Grace Soelberg, another brilliant and courageous Black student of mine who has been my TA, spoke truth to some of these unaware students. Grace broke the news of this incident because she seeks to make BYU better. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, Black students sacrifice in more ways than we know to liberate our campus, not to punish it. Grace clarified that she was not offended individually, but deeply saddened that Black students were collectively subject to such awful racism at BYU.

As Don and I established a pattern of student responses that did not challenge racism, and far too often upheld or defended it, his insights based on his recent letters with Déborah emerge clearly. The culture, norms, and institutions produce the lack of accountability and perpetuate an atmosphere where racism evolves, persists, and resurges on an almost daily basis for Black students. When my class surveyed Black students across campus, 94% reported facing discrimination and offer detailed accounts that form an unmistakable pattern and practice.

Three Eternal Principles

Before I propose three action steps for BYU to take in 2020 to eradicate racism, I briefly describe how three eternal principles support the petition of Black students:

  • Agency. Black students like Déborah, Don and co-signers of their letters exhibit the power of agency. They are “anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” (Doctrine & Covenants 58:27). Without them, I may not have written to you. Social science documents how racism robs the agency of Black people and costs all of society. Yet, racism also harms White people. As Dr. King taught, “the white man’s personality is greatly distorted by segregation, and his soul is greatly scarred.” Generations of civil rights activists recognize segregation as racism, and segregation is at the core of my research, teaching, and civil rights work.

Segregation compounds a racial self-deception with spiritual consequences for all of us, of all races. In a recent Sunday School lesson, we read that Korihor preached the following falsehood: “Behold, ye cannot know of things which ye do not see” (Alma 30:7).

Kohihor’s lie is not just the essence of spiritual doubt, it is the essence of white privilege.

White people often isolate themselves from Black people—their ideas, trials, and voices—and refuse to recognize the racial truth that Black people have always known, but that White people must exercise faith to understand if they don’t see. At BYU, when most White students go through their entire undergraduate career with none or at most one token Black student in their classes, they suffer a permanent spiritual injury. They may retain the earthly social privilege of denying a problem they have not seen, heard, or experienced, but they have in fact surrendered moral agency due to the sin of racism.

  • Sacrifice. We know as people of Christian faith, and all of you share that faith across various religious traditions, that many forms of sacrifice point towards the atonement of Jesus Christ. LDS scholar and professor Patrick Mason recently wrote a compelling eulogy to George Floyd that reminded us of the ways that the injustice of his murder invites us to contemplate the unjust crucifixion of Jesus Christ and its meaning in 2020.

An unexpectedly powerful reminder of a subtle racial aspect of sacred sacrifice came on my BYU Civil Rights Seminar trip to Alabama and Georgia in March 2017. Along a stretch of road south of Selma, Alabama, in Lowndes County, one of the poorest places in Alabama and America, lies a stone monument lined by an expensive rod iron fence, one that was funded and erected nearly 30 years ago by the incredible sacrifice of Black women of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The monument remembers a White woman named Viola Liuzzo, who was a member of the NAACP in Detroit and journeyed south to help transport civil rights marchers, whom she joined in the march from Selma to Montgomery that spurred the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Liuzzo was murdered by white supremacists who were a product of a national culture that for decades excused the lynching of Black men, ostensibly to protect white women. As Déborah Aléxis explained to my class as a TA, the tragic irony is that the self-deception of racism led white men to murder a white woman while the Black passenger, Leroy Moton, survived. Words cannot describe the emotion that overpowers me when I think of the sacred sacrifice of those Black women and their community of modest means, and the way Liuzzo’s martyrdom has become consecrated and more widely recognized.

I often contemplate the sacrifices of 1,000 Black students who have entered BYU as students over the past 20 years or so. What sacrifices were they forced to make? How many were driven out by racism? How few have returned as graduate students, staff or faculty? What sacrifices have they chosen to consecrate for a higher, holier purpose? (They know racial equality is a divine objective.) How much time, suffering, and trauma have they experienced to get us to this point in 2020? Is their sacrifice invisible because of racial segregation or recognized as a sacred part of institutional racial reconciliation?

“Racism — whether implicit or overt, whether individual or institutional — is a highly destructive and complex feature of our society. Indeed, it is a sin, with consequences that detrimentally impact the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of BYU students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Rooting out racism, healing its wounds, and building bridges of understanding is the responsibility of every member of the BYU community.”

While racial forgiveness is a prerequisite of Black life at BYU, LDS membership and American citizenship, racial reconciliation is superior. To become racially righteous as a community is better than to repeat the same racial sins. Although none of us, no matter our race, is ever perfect, we must strive for mutual understanding and true respect as equal sons and daughters of God. Our collective responsibility is to atone for our past and present, and to build a brighter future.

As people of faith, we should realize that we can and will draw on the power of the atonement of Jesus Christ and the gifts of knowledge, research, and best practices. I will never forget how Bryan Stevenson sang the words to the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation.” Every single word in unity with us. He did not condemn us; he invited us to create justice. Our shaky racial foundation can be firm if we reconcile with each other and bravely face the racial truth together.

Three lasting reforms: Restore truth, GE requirement, & Center for equality

As sociologists Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer contend, racism is like the weather. Before the awful storm at the Black & Immigrant panel on February 6, it was and always has been endless rain for Black students, punctuated by storms whose timing is unpredictable but whose frequency is unmistakable — every semester there is a major racist incident. There are brief respites in the sunlight of the racial truth of the BYU FHSS Civil Rights Seminar, Black History Month Perspectives or the classrooms of some professors; yet, too few other fully funded opportunities center on the Black American and Black LDS experience on our campus.

The present day lynchings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were a trio of hurricanes for Black students at BYU. As you have taken the time to listen, to protest peacefully, and to serve on this committee, you know this is true. While others scramble to buy out of stock books on racism, Black students take stock of the racism they face and ask, like Kofi Adoo, creator of checkyourblindspot.org and a past student of mine, asks, “Am I next?”

While the racial climate of our society may not reverse its atmospheric currents in one year, I believe we can start to change the weather here on campus by next fall 2021. We can change only if we act on three reforms in 2020:

(1) Restore truth in how we mark the past, as we act and are not acted upon (2 Nephi 2:26).

(2) Reform the present GE coursework to include a focused inclusion course requirement.

(3) Establish a campus center for racial equality to diversify and enrich our faculty.

Reform 1. Recognize, reconcile, restore truth (1st step deadline: August 2020)

“Who do we honor?” Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, posed this question to the campus community at his unforgettable BYU forum address in 2018. I acknowledge Black BYU graduate, Melodie Jackson, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Maryland, who asked Stevenson about campus building names and statues that perpetuate racism. Melodie echoes the approach of Ida B. Wells before him and Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative today, by calling for a plaque added to the current Abraham O. Smoot administration building (ASB) to include a tribute to the Black people enslaved by Smoot. Upon reflection, this is an incredibly modest idea. As Stevenson argues, truth precedes reconciliation.

Because it is home to BYU’s president and vice presidents offices and is named for a man with so many direct ties to the sin of racism, as slaveholder and defender of slavery, I hereby call for BYU to immediately begin the process of renaming the ASB. I am calling for this as the first step, not the last step, to restoring truth and beginning a long-term process of racial reconciliation. Healing cannot begin until we confront what harms Black students — and what afflicts us all — by taking this first step.

So, I say, rename the ASB to Administration and Services Building. Now. In August 2020.

This should be an easy call: The ASB was named after Smoot in 1961, well after many current BYU leaders were born. It is not ancient history. It is not the name of a university. We know from the BYU Slavery Project that multiple descendants of the Smoot family support a name change. We possess sufficient enlightenment and nuance to commemorate Smoot’s sacrifices to help establish the university and to commemorate the sacrifices of Black people he enslaved.

I hope you join my call and pursue one of three potential options:

  • Rename the ASB the Administration and Services Building by August 31, 2020:

  1. Change stone sign outside and begin the process of expanding a more complete and accurate history—not contracting or in any way diminishing or erasing, the existing interior exhibit about Abraham Smoot, including his contributions to help establish BYU as well as his legacy as an enslaver of Black people.

  2. In conjunction with the BYU Slavery Project, you work together with a diverse set of faculty and students, including Black students who will be permanently memorialized, receive academic credit and/or payment as research assistants.

  3. Restore the dignity, personhood, humanity, and names of these formerly enslaved Black members of the Church — Lucinda, Jerry and Tom. Say their names. Engrave them on a plaque just as Melodie Jackson has requested.

  • Change ASB to Administration and Services Building later in 2020, as part of your anticipated set of recommendations this fall semester; initiate the same process with the university and BYU Slavery Project as outlined above in 1.a – 1.c.

  • Recommend a change to ASB to another neutral label, by late 2020, as one of three other longer term pathways: (1) building a new structure given the outdated ASB 4-wing design and susceptibility to a future earthquake (2) as part of a retroactive application of neutral purpose-based naming to all buildings (if and only if that is legally or contractually necessary, which I do not believe is the case) or (3) a more ingenious idea based on the options above provided it begins the renaming process in 2020.

Just because we have not figured out how to reckon with our complete past is no excuse to not act on the ASB name, on Smoot, who most clearly and unmistakably is linked to the sin of bondage that is chattel slavery. Racism led to self-deception and Smoot’s choices to keep Black people like Tom (surname erased but his personhood is undiminished) enslaved, a choice that “haunts” W. Paul Reeve, the award-winning historian and BYU alumnus who recently uncovered new details of Tom’s fate. Tom’s fate should haunt all of us, not just Black students, and not just scholars like Reeve, Joanna Brooks, Tonya Reiter, and Amy Tanner Thiriot. BYU should defer to the BYU Slavery Project, your committee, and Black students and alumni with matters beyond the ASB. The guiding eternal principle is the same: Does adding to history, not erasing it, but embracing its complexity, expand agency? Yes, it enables the agency of Black people by confronting and combating racism. It also enlarges the agency of White people as they overcome the self-deception of racism, an institutional problem that requires collective action.

The Mississippi Legislature recently and suddenly voted to remove the state’s flag and emblem to the defense of slavery after decades of calls to remove it. Tellingly, they left it to voters to decide upon a new flag that would be designed by a commission. Similarly, there is no defensible excuse to delay action. The ASB must be renamed now. By doing so, BYU can set forth a pattern and practice, and lay the foundations for a process for other building names and statues. Those may find other resolutions than the options I set forth for the ASB. Yet, the process must start now, in 2020. “By small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (Alma 37:6).

The road is long but we must at least take the first step towards truth, justice, and healing. We cannot waste this moment that is 2020. Were it any other year before, I would not pen this letter. Indeed, I never have, and now repent myself for not acting earlier. The time is now.

Reform 2. New diversity and inclusion GE requirement (Deadline: April 2021)

Rachel Weaver, a Black American student from the neighborhood where I was raised in Chicago and who has been part of my diverse team of TAs, also spoke truth to me last week: While it is better that BYU listen to Black students, it would be best if the call to rename buildings, reform curriculum, and recruit faculty of color was the prevailing majority view among all students. As Jesus taught, “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).

The cause of racial trauma are not the building names. As Don Izekor argues, the racial rationalizations of the names perpetuate the causes my students know well: White supremacy, white entitlement, white normativity, white transparency, and racism against people of color. We must actively combat racism and institutionalize antiracism in our required curriculum.

My students, colleagues, and I have united in a call for a new BYU GE requirement on racial equality that all students must complete to graduate. It should be based on 15 to 20 course options across several disciplines, many of which are already well-proven and in demand beyond capacity. Such courses must expand the number of sections and focus mainly on race, racism, and antiracism in the American context; comparative courses like Introduction to Africana Studies should be included. I strongly believe there cannot be more than 20 course options given current course offerings so as not to dilute the list like the current Global & Cultural Awareness GE requirement, which consists of 290 courses.

I have estimated that 70 or more faculty stand ready right now to teach the courses that could make up this new, focused requirement and it could employ a new generation of diverse TAs that enrich the potential faculty pipeline, too. As part of a multi-year process started nearly three years ago, all of GE is being redesigned at BYU and is expected to be voted upon at all levels through the coming academic year, hopefully to be approved in its final form by April 2021. Please join the Faculty Advisory Council (contact FAC for proposal made to GE) and Office of Undergraduate Education in their calls for a new equality and inclusion GE requirement.

Reform 3. Institutional structuring, investment, and creation of center to diversify faculty (Deadline: September 2021) Proven mentoring, research funding, and student-centered initiatives already exist at the college level at BYU. As a faculty member, I am most concerned with enriching the pipeline of future faculty candidates as well as the immediate hiring, integration, and promotion of more people of color and women, especially Black people now, in the 2020-21 academic year. A campus center for equality must also prioritize the racial integration of the student body, which remains 81% White. The latest data show BYU Sociology major enrollment is 63% White, so I speak from experience when I declare the intellectual, social, and spiritual benefits of teaching a racially and socially integrated set of students united in pursuit of truth. And how I learn from them, as this letter intends to show.

This new center should also balance diversity with accountability; I invite you to read and make recommendations based on the seven essential action steps outlined by Déborah Aléxis here. See also the recent excellent BYU FAC proposal for a campus center for diversity (also enclosed). Since you, members of the BYU Committee for Race, Equity, and Belonging, are the forerunners to any future permanent, full-time, fully paid, and fully funded university center for racial equality, I defer further details to your discretion, expertise, and wisdom. I do, hope, however, that there is a firm deadline to launch such a new center no later than September 2021.

Black BYU Lives Matter

I have heard the cries of Black students and been humbled to change my mind by the power of their truth. I have literally heard their cries. They have shed tears and sobbed in my office, in class, and at countless public events. I will never know the depth of their pain, but I will never stop fighting for Black students, alumni, staff, and faculty. Again, this is not about dead White men. It is about centering on Black women and men who are alive, but not well. They are super-heroes, but not super-human: they cry, bleed, suffer, and die from racism. Their cries are heard by our Heavenly Parents. Their cries inspire me to work for change, to write to you.

I implore you to not ignore their cries, to not put off their demands for future study, to not back down as advocates for justice. Change begins now and comes through your historic committee. As beloved American hero John Lewis asked, “If not us, who? If not now, then when?”

In solidarity,

- Jake

Jacob S. Rugh, MPA, URP, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Sociology Brigham Young University

Jacob S. Rugh, Ph.D., is an associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University.