Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

In Utah, celebrating multiculturalism in the most monocultural of states

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January 28, 2002

c.2002 Newhouse News Service

SALT LAKE CITY _ When George Garwood of South Ogden _ black population 99 out of 14,377 _ was elected Utah’s first black mayor, he received a call from a woman proclaiming how happy she was. “I’m tired of all those Mormons,” she said.

Only, this being Utah, Garwood is a Mormon and, like most Mormons, a Republican to boot. The new mayor, who took office Jan. 7, is also an example of the puzzle of Utah’s diversity. Even as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints _ and the state it dominates _ has become more racially and ethnically inclusive in recent years, Utah remains, more than any other, a state in the sway of a single religion and way of life.

To visit the Beehive State on the eve of the 2002 Winter Olympics is to find a place buzzing with the contradictions of a monoculture’s assiduous celebration of multiculturalism.

The state is as conservative in its politics and social mores as any in America. But the recent Martin Luther King holiday was flush with heartfelt observances, from a march along the street named for Martin Luther King in Ogden (there is a major thoroughfare named for King in Salt Lake City as well) to a candlelight procession, 600 strong, on the Provo campus of Brigham Young University, where 98.9 percent of the students are Latter-day Saints, and only 138 of the school’s 32,771 students are black.

There may be only one black and one Hispanic in the state Legislature, but there are separate state offices of Hispanic, American Indian, Asian, Polynesian and Black Affairs, the last with this “urgent” posting on its Web site: “Due to shortages in the African American community, many children are left with the only option of being adopted into loving Caucasian homes.”

Indeed, Betty Sawyer, who headed the Office of Black Affairs from 1988 to 1999, said that when she moved from Baltimore to Utah in 1975, “it took me a whole week to see the first black person, and then they looked at me like I was crazy because I was hanging out of the window screaming.”

According to the 2000 Census, Utah is 85 percent white. (Fifteen of the 50 states _ from Maine to Minnesota and West Virginia to Wyoming _ are whiter still.) Nine percent of Utahans are Hispanic, and the other minorities _ blacks, Asians, American Indians and Pacific Islanders _ are each in the 1 percent range.

Binding the state is the church that, fleeing 19th century persecution in the East and Midwest in the decades after its founding, created the state of Utah nestled amid the spectacular mountains that bestow on this place the aura of a secluded kingdom, a modern Zion. The church estimates that three-quarters of Utahans are Latter-day Saints.

The Mormon influence in Utah is distinctive and pervasive. Members of the church are not supposed to smoke or drink alcohol, coffee or tea. Sundays are for church and Mondays for Family Home Evening, which means what it says.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey conducted by the City University of New York, only evangelical Christians and members of Assemblies of God churches are as likely as Mormons to be Republicans, and Mormons are the least likely of any major denomination to marry outside their religion.

But the fast-growing church also estimates that more than half of its 11 million members live outside the United States. Some of Utah’s increasing diversity is a consequence of converts from places where Mormon missionaries have had great success _ like South America and the South Pacific _ being drawn to the mecca of their newfound faith.

Utah has one of the nation’s largest Pacific Islander populations. On the eve of the King holiday, Salt Lake City Police Chief Charles Dinse  – who during a career with the Los Angeles police led the investigation into the beating of Rodney King  – met with a gathering of more than a dozen leaders of the city’s Tongan and Samoan communities. He condemned racial profiling of Polynesians and pledged his commitment to increasing their representation on a force that already has 18 Pacific Islander officers.

Growing up Tongan in Salt Lake City in the early 1970s, “they called me nigger,” said Mata Finau, executive director of the National Tongan-American Society, whose great-grandfather played a historic role in welcoming church missionaries to Tonga. But Finau says there were only about 50 Tongan families in Salt Lake then. Now, he says, there are thousands and Finau co-hosts a bilingual Tongan radio show.

Finau and Robert Archuleta are also the city government’s liaisons with minority communities, their cubicles around the corner from the office of Mayor Rocky Anderson, a former Mormon who has made diversifying the city work force a priority.

For the Olympics, an organization called NAPAH (for Native American Asian Pacific Islander African Hispanic) is setting up an “ethnic village” downtown to provide visitors a glimpse of Utah’s unheralded diversity.

Still, Utah’s political and economic leadership continues to look about as white and Mormon as the apostles who oversee the church. According to the American Religious Identification Survey, only Lutherans, Presbyterians and Jews are as likely to be white as Mormons are. It was not until a revelation led to a change in church teaching in 1978 that black men were permitted to become lay priests and thereby fully participate in the church.

Darius Gray is president of the Genesis Group, the officially sanctioned black Mormon group he helped found in 1971, and the co-author of two books of historical fiction about early black Mormon pioneers. When he came to church-sponsored Brigham Young University in 1965, there was only one other black student. The first time he saw a black couple in a car in town, he ran up and banged on the window. “They told me they were just passing through,” he said.

Not long after his arrival he was told to attend a showing at the student center of a movie on the civil rights movement.

“I was the only black face in a packed house,” Gray recalled. The film, “Civil Riots,” was a production of the John Birch Society. It depicted Martin Luther King as Communist-inspired.

This year’s MLK candlelight procession at BYU led to that same student center where this assemblage, led by members of the Black Student Union, joined in the singing of Mormon hymns and the Negro National Anthem.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Gray.

At an MLK performance at Peery’s Egyptian Theater in Ogden, a group of teen-agers sang, danced and made statements about the events of Sept. 11. “Let’s remember that Christianity and Judaism have extremists, zealots and fanatics,” proclaimed one. “Just think for a minute of the white supremacists in our neighboring state of Idaho,” declared the next.

For all the gestures toward multicultural sensitivity, the state’s politics remain solidly conservative. Repeated efforts to enact hate crime legislation have foundered on the inclusion of protections for homosexuals. In 2000, voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative making English the state’s official language, even though, because most young Mormon men and many Mormon women do two-year missions somewhere in the world, Utahans are reputed to be more versed in foreign languages than the people of any other state.

“It’s New Sweden _ blue-eyed, blond-haired and apple-cheeked,” said James Gonzales, a prominent political and public relations consultant who was on the losing side of the official English and hate crime debates.

Gonzales’ grandparents came to Utah from Mexico and while he said he is more successful than they could have ever dreamed, he believes that as a “triple minority _ Hispanic, Catholic and Democratic,” he remains an outsider who will never get the most lucrative contracts. “I think there is a glass ceiling in this state,” he said.

“There is no sinister intent. I believe people in this state, the vast majority, are well-intended,” said Gonzales. But, for those outside the Mormon orbit, he said, “the social and political climate is incredibly oppressive.”

“Imagine a society in which there is something more important than race,” said Herman Hooten, who grew up in Alabama, played football at Notre Dame and came to Utah 25 years ago, for many years counseling black students at Weber State University in Ogden. Here, he said, religion trumps race. “What you believe is more important than the way you look.”

Hooten, who is black, is married to a Latter-day Saint but has resisted her entreaties to convert. “I don’t want to become part of the overbearing culture,” he explained.

For Mormon newcomers to Utah, there is the reverse shock of coming to a place so attuned to their faith.

“I was blown away,” said Aaron Alsop, 24, a member of BYU’s Black Student Union. In Utah, he has found that any affront on account of his race is a consequence not of malice but ignorance, which he said was not the case back home in Cincinnati.

Mayor Garwood said being black in Utah has made him an object of curiosity but not hostility. Yet he does think that Utah’s Mormon majority could learn lessons in tolerance from Mormons elsewhere, and he is trying to do his part. He was, he said, the first candidate for mayor in South Ogden not to list his religious affiliation in his campaign literature.


Written by jonathantilove

September 3, 2012 at 7:30 pm

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