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BYU is being tested by racial slurs at a volleyball game. It’s been here before

Brigham Young University, cougar statue at LaVell Edwards Stadium on campus, Oct. 2, 2016
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Cougar mascot at LaVell Edwards Stadium on the campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Oct. 2, 2016

Brigham Young University has made national news for all the wrong reasons.

Duke University’s Rachel Richardson said a BYU fan yelled racial slurs at her and other Black volleyball players during a match in Provo on Aug. 26.

BYU is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is 81% white. The university condemned the action. While the man identified as the offender was seated in the BYU student section, they say he is not a student and that he’s been banned from BYU athletic venues. The university, however, is still investigating because they don’t have any evidence.

Campus groups like the popular Black Menaces on TikTok are calling for mandatory anti-racism training for all students, staff and faculty.

This isn’t the first time BYU has found itself in the middle of a national uproar over racial issues. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, before the church lifted the ban against Blacks in the priesthood in 1978, BYU was the target of anti-racism protests throughout the country. Athletes from other institutions boycotted, and there were calls to cancel games.

Still, at BYU’s Education Week in mid-August, Elder Clark G. Gilbert, commissioner of education for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the university shouldn’t teach diversity and education the way “the world” does, but should find a “gospel-centered approach.”

“We should be better than we are now,” Gilbert said, “and we should be a light to the world but not replicating the world.”

Patrick Mason, a professor of religious studies and history at Utah State University and a BYU graduate, told KUER’s Pamela McCall it’s an example of the tightrope the church and its institutions walk: they want to be accepted by mainstream America while still standing apart.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela McCall: There have been a lot of questions on social media about why students who may have been within earshot in the crowd didn’t intervene. KUER also spoke with some BYU students of color Monday — the first day of the semester. They told us it was business as usual on campus. Are you surprised that students of color say they didn’t see more outrage?

Patrick Mason: It's a complicated story, to be sure. I mean, we're getting a lot of reports from people who were in the gym, including police officers and other students who were there who said they did not hear what the volleyball player and her family said that they heard. Apparently, it was a loud, raucous environment. I think it's still unclear exactly who heard what and what was said. But I do think there's a lot of people on campus who are saying whatever was said in that gym, this is an opportunity for self-reflection on campus and how do they do better.

McCall: The church wants to find a “gospel-centered approach” to diversity education. What do you understand that to mean?

Mason: Elder Gilbert, who supervises all of church education, has been clear, along with other church leaders, that BYU and other church schools need to carve out their own path within the landscape of American higher education. On the one hand, they're committed to academic excellence. On the other hand, they're committed to the distinctive identity of the school as owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. BYU has made a lot of steps, actually, in the past year in terms of identifying areas on campus where they need improvement around issues of equity and racial inclusion. There's been campus committees formed that have included faculty and students, including a number of persons of color. But apparently, Elder Gilbert isn't just going to import something developed by other people. But he seems to signal that they'll develop their own.

McCall: Did the protests and threatened athletic boycotts of the ‘60s and ‘70s have an influence on BYU and the church itself?

Mason: They undoubtedly did. We know from the historical record that BYU administrators and church leaders were deeply concerned by those protests in the 1960s and ‘70s. They were really concerned about the image of BYU across the country. It's been very important for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints over the past century to integrate within American institutions, to be accepted as mainstream, for its members not to be seen as strange or weird when they go out to get jobs or run for office or be part of their communities. And so it really stung in the 1960s and ‘70s, all of these protests over the church's racial policies. As the national media reported on this, as this became a story that went viral over the weekend, it did recall some of those really unpleasant feelings of being in the national eye, but not for the reasons that BYU and the church want to be.

McCall: Yet Elder Gilbert has said the way BYU does its training should not be the way the world does it. Given the events that have just occurred, does that work? Should the church go it alone?

Mason: This is the tightrope that the church has walked for recent decades: that they want all the benefits of being mainstream, but they want to do it in their own way. And they'll point to ways that lots of minority communities in the United States have found ways to be distinctively themselves while also participating within the broader American mainstream. They also lean heavily into constitutional protections for religious liberty. But I think we have to admit that it's always been only modestly successful. In national polls, when people talk about religious groups, Latter-day Saints score pretty low. [They] remain seen as something of outliers as a minority group that a lot of people remain skeptical of.

McCall: BYU has hired a vice president of belonging. There are diversity and inclusion committees across campus. But what's at stake if they don't respond to groups like Black Menaces who are calling for mandatory anti-racism training, especially with the national spotlight on BYU?

Mason: I think the spotlight brings a kind of prominence and attention to these decisions that heretofore have been localized. BYU wants the spotlight. BYU wants to have a national reputation. So the question for BYU is can it really succeed at the national level in the way that it wants to without doing it the way that everybody else does it? And so this is going to be a moment where BYU is really tested in terms of its resolve, in terms of racial inclusion, to really make BYU a campus that is welcoming for everybody while at the same time apparently doing it their own way.

Pamela is KUER's Morning Edition Host.
Elaine is the News Director of the KUER Newsroom
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