I was in 7th grade during the Rodney King riots, and at the time my family lived about 100 miles north of Los Angeles. News stories with helicopter footage of buildings burning and people looting stores made me worry that the unrest would spread to my city. This year’s race riots have brought some of those old memories back to the surface.
On the third day of the 1992 riots, Rodney King made a short public statement condemning the lawlessness:
“I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids? And … I mean we’ve got enough smog in Los Angeles let alone to deal with setting these fires and things … It’s just not right. It’s not right, and it’s not going to change anything. We’ll get our justice. They’ve won the battle, but they haven’t won the war. We’ll get our day in court, and that’s all we want. And, just, uh, I love – I’m neutral. I love every – I love people of color. I’m not like they’re making me out to be. We’ve got to quit. We’ve got to quit; I mean, after all, I could understand the first – upset for the first two hours after the verdict, but to go on, to keep going on like this and to see the security guard shot on the ground – it’s just not right. It’s just not right, because those people will never go home to their families again. And uh, I mean, please, we can, we can get along here. We all can get along. We just gotta. We gotta. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s, you know, let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it, you know. Let’s try to work it out.” (Transcript quoted from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_King)
Rodney King was a flawed human being, like the rest of us. He didn’t consider himself a hero, and didn’t really want to be a public figure. His main weakness was alcohol addiction, which is what got him in trouble with the law in the first place. It is obvious from his body language and from his rambling speech that King was not well-prepared for this press conference. Watching him squirm in front of the cameras is actually sort of painful for me, being a sociophobe myself.
But you don’t have to be a great orator, or a philosopher, or even a model citizen to ask important questions. I think his stage fright actually lends authenticity to what he said, and his question still rings loudly in our ears today. In a fallen world, and in a society with a history of hundreds of years of racist oppression of black Americans, “Can we all get along?”
As I described in a few earlier posts, reading about black history this year has opened my eyes to a new dimension of understanding in the Book of Mormon, which has a lot to teach us on the subject of race relations. I want to revisit this topic for the next few posts and highlight some of those lessons.
But first, a bit of context.
Biology and Ethnicity
Human skin color is determined by the amount of melanin within skin cells called melanocytes. Interestingly, dark-skinned and pale-skinned people have about the same density of melanocytes; the difference is how much melanin each melanocyte produces.
Acknowledging that there are genetic (and therefore physiologic) differences between human ethnic groups is like asserting that apples are different than oranges, or, to make the analogy closer, that Golden Delicious apples are different than Red Delicious. For example, people of northern European descent tend to be lactose tolerant in adulthood, unlike most other human populations in the world where lactose intolerance is the normal adult condition. East Asian populations have a high incidence of alcohol flush reactions, caused by a genetic variation in the ALDH2 gene, which is involved in alcohol metabolism. Some ethnic groups have an unusual gift for distance running, like the Kalenjin tribe from Kenya and the Tarahumara tribe from Mexico, and it seems likely that this is due to genetic factors and reinforced by cultural ones in both groups.
Epidemiology — the study of how diseases are distributed and spread in populations — has revealed a multitude of differences in health outcomes between ethnic groups. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit some minority groups harder than others, for instance, but it has been known for years that there are differences in life expectancy and survival outcomes from heart attack, stroke, and other major health events between white and black populations in the USA. Some of these differences may be genetic, while others seems to be related to socioeconomic conditions and are cited as evidence of systemic racism within American healthcare. A recent study suggested an immunologic mechanism from chronic discrimination-based stress — an intriguing hypothesis.
Racism in the Book of Mormon
It seems absurd to me that something as trivial as melanogenesis could be the reason for hundreds of years of oppression, slavery, political and economic disenfranchisement, and enduring ethnic tensions in American society. Is it not rather the excuse for such things? The real darkness is in human nature, and the darkness of skin is incidental.
Except in the Book of Mormon, where skin color is used as a symbol.
The Nephites and Lamanites diverged from the same family — Nephi and Laman were brothers, born with similar skin hues. A succession crisis ensued when their father Lehi died, and Laman conspired to murder his little brother. Nephi was warned by the Lord to run away from them, so the family separated into different tribes. The Nephites built a righteous culture and continued their lives pretty much as they had before. But the Lamanites changed, and here is where things get biologically interesting.
“And he had caused the cursing to come upon them [the Lamanites], yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them” (2 Nephi 5:21).
How can a whole group of people who were born with light skin develop dark skin, in a way that is heritable? Was this a genetic change that simultaneously occurred in many individuals? Maybe a viral infection they passed around that altered a regulatory gene for melanin production? Or was it some dietary or lifestyle factor? I don’t really know.
And I guess it doesn’t really matter.
A more important question is this: does the Lamanite curse of dark skin teach us anything useful about ethnic groups in our world today? Is there a general principle to be derived from this story? Are we to understand that anyone who has dark skin is under some kind of curse?
“[The Lord] denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:27-28,33).
Skin tone implies nothing about a person’s intelligence, talent, moral integrity, or that of their ancestors. The case of the first generation of Lamanites is an exception, and we would be wrong to accept it as the rule.
The mission of the Sons of Mosiah to preach the gospel to the Lamanites was the first successful bridge between the two nations. Similar outreach efforts a few hundred years earlier had failed, but somehow these four brothers made a difference.
“[The Sons of Mosiah] were desirous that salvation should be declared to every creature, for they could not bear that any human soul should perish” (Mosiah 28:3).
Things didn’t exactly go well at the start of their mission. They were largely rejected, and all of them spent some time in prison. The early resistance they faced was because of their Nephite ethnicity. Here is the king of the Lamanites talking about these missionaries:
“[The Nephites] are sons of a liar. Behold, he robbed our fathers; and now his children are also come amongst us that they may, by their cunning and their lyings, deceive us, that they again may rob us of our property” (Alma 20:13, see also 19:19).
But through sincere and loyal service these Nephites were able to win the confidence of many of the Lamanites, whose hearts were then open to the message of the gospel. Accepting the message went hand in hand with accepting the missionaries.
Here is the king of the Lamanites (son of the previously quoted king) speaking to his people just a few years later:
“[…] I thank my God, my beloved people, that our great God has in goodness sent these our brethren, the Nephites, unto us to preach unto us, and to convince us of the traditions of our wicked fathers.
“And behold, I thank my great God that he has given us a portion of his Spirit to soften our hearts, that we have opened a correspondence with these brethren, the Nephites” (Alma 24:7-8)
The Nephites and the Lamanites both had cultural narratives that tended to demonize or dehumanize the other group. Do we not have a similar situation today? But the Sons of Mosiah looked past their culture and saw a nation of human beings who were in need of saving. They reached out with sincere love, softening the hard hearts of their old enemies and making them the dearest of friends.
This is the first lesson we learn from the Book of Mormon about race relations: the gospel of Jesus Christ has an ability to reach across divides and heal the old animosities. Distrust can give way to unifying love.
Charity — pure Christian love — still works the same way today. With this love, white and black Americans can see one another as equal in the eyes of God who is the Father of all, and can love one another as brothers and sisters.
“Wherefore, my beloved brethren, pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled with this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ” (Moroni 7:48).
Another lesson from this story is even more basic, and is the answer to Rodney King’s question: Yes, it can be done.
“Please, we can, we can get along here. We all can get along. We just gotta.”
Antagonistic hearts full of racial hatred can change. It has happened in the past, and it can happen again. It can be done, “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37).
Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.