How to heal painful legacies of racism, according to this BYU sociology professor

When BYU professor Ryan Gabriel visited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, tears filled his eyes as he reflected on the loss of four young girls in a prejudice-driven act of violence. He recounted this experience in a devotional April 6 at BYU, “Healing Racism Through Jesus Christ.”

In September 1963, in an attempt to harm and intimidate the local Black community, four white supremacists placed dynamite under the stairs of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The explosion killed Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Carol Denise McNair.

Latter-day Saints know of incidents caused by religious prejudice in Church history such as the Hawn’s Mill Massacre, but are less aware of tragedies motivated by racial intolerance. 

“Expanding our understanding of the suffering and tragedies of others can awaken charity within us,” said Gabriel, an assistant professor of sociology. 

He emphasized the importance of contemplating challenging historical moments through the lens of the gospel of Jesus Christ to “increase our appreciation of the beautiful healing power of the Prince of Peace.” 

“Similarly, we will uncover clues from the life of, and principles taught by, our Savior on how to faithfully fulfill the charge that President Russell M. Nelson has given us to ‘lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice,’” Gabriel said.

Historical racial injustice and succor from Jesus Christ

Although there are many admirable aspects of the United States’ history, there are also events that “have marked our nation’s history where acts of racial injustice have destroyed families, their communities, and hindered hopes for unity and belonging,” such as the forced migration of Native Americans known as the Trail of Tears and the Japanese internment camps of World War II.

“The most well-known example of racial injustice traces back to what some call America’s original sin — slavery,” Gabriel said.

After the Civil War, racial injustices persisted in forms such as convict leasing. In the 1940s, Southern states passed laws that pertained only to African Americans, which “effectively placed Black people, including children, under a new form of slavery where they encountered terrifying work conditions that frequently ended in death,” Gabriel said.

There also were roughly 4,400 documented lynchings, events of public torture to “terrorize Black communities into a state of fear and servitude,” from 1877 to 1950.

Though it is painful to imagine this type of treatment to Heavenly Father’s children, the knowledge that “the Savior knows [the pain] of each African slave, Black children who died in dark mines, Mary Turner — full with child — hanging in agony from Folsom’s Bridge, and little Sardius, Alma and Charles at Hawn’s Mill” can bring peace and solace “when reflecting on the injustices done to our brothers and sisters.”

BYU sociology professor Ryan Gabriel taught how to heal racism through Jesus Christ, in a BYU devotional April 6, 2021.
BYU sociology professor Ryan Gabriel taught how to heal racism through Jesus Christ, in a BYU devotional April 6, 2021. Credit: Madeline Mortensen/BYU

The creation of race and peace in Jesus Christ

In addition to early misguided scientific justifications, incorrect interpretations of scripture were used to argue that individuals with African ancestry were lesser children of God.

“Consequently, many who had social advantages because of their race possessed the view that their advantages and society’s poor treatment of darker-skinned groups were approved by nature and by God,” Gabriel explained.

During the historic Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Christian leaders of the boycott had their homes firebombed and were arrested because of their involvement in the boycott.

“It took faith for boycotters to endure these daily indignities, to walk resolutely in peaceful Christian protest, and to still find joy,” Gabriel said.

“(Christ) is keenly aware of the persecution and resistance that will surely come to those who labor to build fairer societies, and with that He imparts a vision of hope and magnificent spiritual abundance for those devoted to such a cause.”

Pride, greed and racism

Although the nation has made progress regarding racial equality, racism remains a destructive force. 

“The adversary uses pride, intrinsic to racism, to attempt to distort a foundational tenet of the plan of salvation — that we are all equal spirit children of Heavenly Parents,” Gabriel taught.

Innocent individuals who are searching for a sense of purpose and destiny can be lured to the philosophy of racial supremacy, Gabriel said.

“Pride as it relates to race and racism can manifest with great subtlety, making it difficult to root out.”

Pride draws individuals to racism and justifying its application, and greed often motivates it.

“The adversary offers the destructive force of racism as a dangerous tool to justify greed, greed that manifests in the oppression of others for material gain, power and control,” Gabriel said.

BYU sociology professor Ryan Gabriel taught how to heal racism through Jesus Christ, in a BYU devotional April 6, 2021.
BYU sociology professor Ryan Gabriel taught how to heal racism through Jesus Christ, in a BYU devotional April 6, 2021. Credit: Madeline Mortensen/BYU

Healing racism through Jesus Christ’s great commandments

The Savior invites all to share in His gifts of love and redemption.

The adversary, according to Gabriel, attempts to perpetuate the idea “that if we want a world where race is no longer a contributing factor to how various groups are treated then we need to stop focusing on race.”

However, because of the “historical sins that reverberate into today,” this perspective does not work.

“Attempting to not see race diminishes our ability to see the distinctive challenges of our sisters and brothers and limits our capacity to serve them in ways that are most beneficial,” Gabriel explained. 

To diminish the impacts of racism on the lives of Heavenly Father’s children does nothing to stop racism that occurs in education, the criminal justice system, housing and employment — all of which affect the opportunities of families and have their roots in a past beset by deep and far-reaching racial injustice, Gabriel said.

“Christ Himself asks us to remember and know his suffering — to touch the scars on His hands and feet. He does not ask us to deny another’s pain but to know it and touch it. To deny the genuine pain of another is to deny the very suffering Christ felt for them privately in the Garden of Gethsemane and publicly upon the cross at Calvary.”

In order to move toward a Zion community, Gabriel suggested focusing on the two great commandments — to love God and to love thy neighbor as thyself.

Exercising gratitude to God leads to the understanding that “we are totally reliant upon Him for all that we have, both temporal and spiritual, and that no one is greater than another,” which combats the justification and motivation of racism because of pride and greed.

“If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we are to recognize their needs, their pains, their hopes and dreams,” Gabriel said.

The second great commandment also necessitates “thoughtful questioning of our assumptions about those that look different from us.”

“For instance, do you believe that the main reason economic poverty is higher in some racial and ethnic groups compared to others (is) that economically poorer groups do not value hard work?” Gabriel asked. “If so, I humbly invite you to notice where that line of thinking takes you. It might lead you to feel that the poor in these other groups are not worthy of service because you perceive that they solely brought their economic condition upon themselves.”

Christ is the paragon for how to love others, and “we can work to follow His sublime example to help heal racism within our communities and to build belonging.”

BYU sociology professor Ryan Gabriel taught how to heal racism through Jesus Christ, in a BYU devotional April 6, 2021.
BYU sociology professor Ryan Gabriel taught how to heal racism through Jesus Christ, in a BYU devotional April 6, 2021. Credit: Madeline Mortensen/BYU

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson stated that “the relationship we have to social problems is similar to individuals who inherit an old home.”

“The home is on beautiful grounds and has a sturdy foundation, but it has warped walls, rusted pipes and faulty wiring. Despite not being originally responsible for these problems, we are the inherited owners of what is right and wrong with the home,” Gabriel detailed. 

Representatives of Christ can work hard to heal the inherited, painful legacies of racism that continue to manifest in new and pernicious ways.

Gabriel invited listeners to build Zion by learning about cultures different from their own and developing friendships with individuals of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds.

“Uniting around our commonalities will go a long way in building bridges of cooperation and lasting friendship,” he taught.

“My dear sisters and brothers, we have all thought, spoken or behaved in a prejudiced manner at some point in our lives,” Gabriel said. “The good news is that we can turn to the fountain of living waters, Jesus Christ and his Atonement, for our healing and redemption.”

“Through applying the Atonement personally with the intention to live the great commandment, we are collectively contributing to the creation of Zion — a community of the pure in heart.”