Opinion: Utah legislators risk rooting in racism — and repeating ugly history

Just as the name “An Act in Relation to Service” covered the ugliness of slavery, HB 261′s name, “Equal Opportunity Initiatives,” covers the ugliness of eliminating institutional attempts to include groups of people who tend to be systematically excluded.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Members of the public gather as House Bill 261 is heard in committee during the 2024 legislative session at Utah Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024.

In the 1852 legislative session, on January 23 (nearly 172 years ago, to the day), legislators first debated allowing the enslavement of human beings in the territory of Utah. The bill in question was called “An Act in Relation to Service,” using “service” as a euphemism for the system allowing Black people to be bought, sold or even tithed.

“The Lord God said that cursed [be] old Cain,” said Brigham Young, the territorial governor. “Consequently I am firm in my belief of servitude.”

The bill passed, and Governor Young signed “An Act in Relation to Service” into law.

Perhaps nothing tarnishes Brigham Young’s legacy so much as his stance on race. His leadership introduced the policy excluding Black people from priesthood and temple ordinances from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his teachings propagated racist “theories and explanations” the church now disavows.

“He was a product of his time,” many say to explain Young’s words, which now sound horribly immoral and which were deeply harmful in their effects on Black people for over a century.

But, as historian Paul Reeve points out, there were plenty of people during Brigham Young’s time who were not deceived by such prevailing racist ideologies. Orson Pratt, an apostle and legislator, moved that “the bill be rejected in toto.”

“Shall we introduce this evil into our midst?” he asked. “For us to bind the African because he is different from us in color [is] enough to cause the angels in heaven to blush.”

At the time there were also numerous Black citizens in Utah, such as Green Flake and Jane Manning James. If the White legislators had viewed these Black citizens as equals and consulted with them, how would it have affected their vote?

Now, 172 years later, Utah’s legislators have before them another bill which, though not as weighty as that 1852 act sanctioning slavery, is similarly the product of popular currents of racist rhetoric and policy.

Just as the name “An Act in Relation to Service” covered the ugliness of slavery, HB261′s name, “Equal Opportunity Initiatives,” covers the ugliness of eliminating institutional attempts to include groups of people who tend to be systematically excluded. Nevertheless, this bill emerges out of an ugly nationwide political backlash against attempts to root out racism. It is not based in data, nor does it arise through collaboration with Utah’s communities of color. The testimonies of the many people of color speaking out against HB 261 suggest that racism is alive and well in Utah and that equal opportunity for all is not yet a reality. Disparaging diversity, equity and inclusion is a giant step in the wrong direction.

True, tackling centuries-old systematic racial inequality in government and society is a fraught project. Current institutional efforts to promote DEI can doubtless be improved — but by partnering with Utah’s citizens of color, not steamrolling over them.

Just as in 1852, the majority of Utah legislators (86%) are Latter-day Saints. Ironically and unfortunately, this sweeping move to preserve the status quo of racist culture within Utah institutions comes in the wake of President Russell M. Nelson’s prophetic call to “root out racism,” not only in personal behavior but also in “government, business and educational” situations.

A recent message from Church leader Christophe G. Giraud-Carrier called on Latter-day Saints in Utah to abandon racism manifest not only in outright bullying, but also in forms “more insidious, such as comparing, thinking less of, neglecting or overlooking others.”

I do not doubt that today’s Latter-day Saint legislators and Governor Spencer Cox, just like the 1852 legislators and Governor Young, are deeply committed to being good people. They would not want to consciously neglect or overlook others on account of race.

But they are in danger of making the same mistake made in 1852: accepting prevailing currents within national society to gauge right and wrong instead of applying the stricter standard of treating others as you would have them treat you. Today, Utah’s citizens of color plead with Utah’s leaders to listen to them, to respect them and to represent them.

As a father raising four children, I recognize Utah’s relative lack of racial diversity puts them at a disadvantage in learning how to navigate the real world, which is full of human difference. We must ensure our educational institutions teach all students how racism works, and reach out specifically to root out obstacles to opportunity that many face due to historical and present racism.

Legislators in the Senate and Governor Cox, please be more than just “products of your time” and the nation’s tribal divisions. Scrap this flawed bill “in toto” and work together with communities of color to achieve legislation that fits our community’s needs. Establish a new historical legacy for Utah of which future generations can be proud.

Joseph McMullin

Joseph McMullin lives in Draper with his wife, four kids and Lab cross. He is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and has an abiding interest in Latter-day Saint history. He enjoys hiking and exploring Utah’s beautiful landscapes with his family.

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