Sunday, October 11, 2015

Racial Diversity in the Quorum of the Twelve is Important--and Worth Caring About Today (Part 2)

Quick recap: I'm riffing on a post by George Handley about concerns some Mormons have expressed about the fact that the three new apostles sustained at last week's general conference are all white Americans. Part 1 is here, and Part 3 is here.

As I said in Part 1, my first point of disagreement with Handley is that this isn't a concern about individual apostles, it's a systemic concern. What do I mean by that? In short, it's bigger than you or me (especially if you're white like me) or the three individuals sustained as apostles last week.

Handley--misunderstandingly, I think, not with any bad intent on his part--takes the focus off the system and puts it on the individuals called. But that, I submit, is not what the criticism is about. This personal anecdote of his, while beautiful, is a good example of the focus on individuals called:
Twice now I have been called to serve as an ecclesiastical leader, the second time just two weeks ago. And on both occasions my name was announced and the congregation had a matter of seconds to decide to vote in support of me but did so unanimously. Kind notes and expressions of faith followed, helping to shore up my own state of astonishment that the Lord would have chosen me. I felt the most profound gratitude for God’s trust but just as importantly for the trust of the members who, apparently without much hesitation as far as I could tell, accepted the will of the Lord. . . . 
When it happens to you—you whose appreciation for your own weaknesses and limitations is especially keen—you feel such profound gratitude for the faith of others who trust that your particulars (in my case, a white middle-class male who is also blessed with a particular form of foolishness) will not stand in the way of the Lord’s will. Their faith might go so far as to believe that your set of life experiences might even be needed in the particular circumstances your ward or stake finds itself in. In my experience, such faith grants such an added source of power to a leader that revelations come much more easily. I can say this much: those hands raised in support signify not a vote in favor of a person but an expression of faith that together we can hope for the Lord’s guidance in our lives as we work together in doing the Lord’s work.
This is an absolutely beautiful and moving expression of how humbling church callings can be--and how zionizing it can be when a community truly sustains people in their callings. However, I think this is also where he starts talking past people. Granted, some people probably don't like one or more of the new apostles individually for some reason. But honestly, most members know little to nothing about any of them, and their talks were pretty neutral-to-positive-sounding for the more progressive Mormons who are the ones voicing concerns about (the lack of) racial and cultural diversity in the Quorum. This underscores that the concern is with the system, not the individuals. In other words, your ward might well be entirely fine with your white middle-class maleness, George, and believe you were an inspired choice--but it's not about you.

Systems can be sincerely and thoughtfully intended to be neutral, but end up being discriminatory or problematic in application. Questioning a system doesn't have to mean questioning any of the particular individuals administering it or who it chooses for advancement (though it can do that too--obviously it depends a lot on the particular facts).

Here's a little thought experiment to frame this. Let's take an organization that you really love--not a church, so we can keep the Eternal Truth baggage out of it (for now--we'll get back to that later). Let's say it's your local Rotary Club (or whatever). You're a big fan of this club. It does a ton of good, you feel lots of community there with your fellow members, the food is delicious, etc etc. Now let's say you live in a pretty white area of the country, and your Rotary Club has never had a person of color in its leadership (which is elected by the current leadership when someone moves out or dies). It'd be easy enough to say, "well, maybe there just hasn't happened to be a person of color in this small, 95% white town who was interested or qualified--and even if there had been, it's true that America used to be pretty racist, so maybe there was some discrimination in the past, but nowadays it's pretty much a meritocracy--and anyway, everyone in leadership is a great choice, they objectively do a ton of great work!" Fair enough.

But then let's say your city starts getting a lot more people of color in it, and in a decade or two it's about 80% people of color. And you notice that there still hasn't been a person of color chosen. And maybe you say, "well, it's important for our leadership to have deep roots in the community so they can do their jobs the best, so that probably has a lot to do with it--and anyway, the leadership are all still top notch: the new ones have brought in great new ideas and have very strong resumes and maybe white people just happened to be the best picks!" Alright . . .

Then fast forward another 50 years, and as an old geezer you realize you still haven't seen a person of color picked for leadership--but again, every. single. (white) individual who gets elected is a stellar candidate, with an impeccable resume! Is it possible to agree that no single white person was a bad choice to join the leadership, and yet believe that something very messed up is happening with how the system is set up? It might not even be consciously racist--maybe the leadership happens to pick people they know well, and (like most cities in America) unfortunately the races just don't interact nearly as much with each other as they do with themselves. So no conscious "let's keep the blacks out!," but just "hey, John's daughter just graduated from Harvard Business School, he was great, and she looks great, let's pick her!" And again, she really is a great pick! But I think you'd be very justified in being upset about how this system--which has chosen only great people--has been excluding many qualified people of color. [1]

Now, to be clear, I'm not saying this is how apostles are chosen, and I do believe that God literally inspires it and so it's better than my Rotary Club draft process, [2] but I'm simply using the example to explain the idea of systemic versus individual criticisms. The principle here is that people can be perfectly satisfied (or even very happy!) with the individual apostles chosen while still getting concerned as the years go on that only white people get chosen. It can start to suggest that there might be some shortcomings in the system. Of course, how long before any member starts to feel that way will vary--some people probably did by 1988, ten years after Official Declaration 2, and clearly many people still haven't gotten anywhere near that point. But I think that a lot of members would start getting pretty uncomfortable if, say, 50 years from now we still had never had a non-white apostle--even if those members had sustained and loved and appreciated each and every single (white) apostle who had served. My point is that it is possible to sustain each apostle but see a systemic problem.

To wrap this part up, then, I think Handley fundamentally misunderstands the concern. [3] He frames the concern as having problems with individuals, when many of the same people who were disappointed that (again) only white men were chosen also sustain those men as individual apostles. (See, again, The New Apostles: Soul Mates? Maybe Not.)

So that's the systemic vs. individual issue. Part 3 will discuss how people can reconcile this concern over a system with their simultaneous belief that the church is also guided by revelation in a meaningful way.

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[1] This is one of those times where "I don't see color!" is the worst. Because if you don't see color in any individual choice you make, you could end up with 50 years of only white people in your club leadership and not even realize it! Race matters. Keep it (appropriately) in mind.

[2] I have basically no insight into the details of how that process works except that I do believe that inspiration from God is literally involved. But Elder Christofferson did give an interesting peek into a bit of the process recently:
Elder Christofferson said the selection and calling of new apostles to the Quorum of the Twelve is the prerogative of the president of the church.
"President Monson, I don't know if this always has been the case, but his practice has been to ask each of his counselors and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve to give him names they would recommend for his consideration, not to discuss with each other but just individually, to give him whatever name or names they feel impressed he ought to look at," he said.
"What process he goes through exactly, I'm not sure. That's, again, something private he pursues. He then brings back, when he's reached his decision and had the inspiration he needs, the name or names to the council that we have of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to sustain it. That goes forward to general conference."
Ooh, and the lds.org page on calling apostles uses that same Elder Christofferson quote, and also includes a video of Pres. Hinckley describing the process too!

[3] And in a sense, it's easy for Handley to misunderstand, because it's not like most people are writing too-detailed online rants explaining every step of their thinking on this; in fact, the most common reaction by those who wanted to see an apostle of color called was (appropriately!) more visceral than academic. But then again, it's important to realize that that's a position of privilege not to have to spend a lot of time with these concerns or have to really grapple with what the root of the criticisms might be, judging them instead by tweets, facebook posts, quickly published blog posts, or whatever other sources he may have seen them expressed in.  (And again, the onus is absolutely not on people of color who were upset to have to educate everyone about everything in every tweet.)

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