A Different State of Race Relations
With Few Blacks Living There, Utah Is Feeling Its Way

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

SALT LAKE CITY -- Earlier this year, a state senator stood on the statehouse floor here and spoke disparagingly of a pending bill. "This baby is black," said Sen. Chris Buttars, a Republican, adding, "It's a dark, ugly thing."

Weary of talking about race? Come to the Beehive State, where race relations is a topic of bracing freshness.

Here, basic issues of sensitivity -- what is spoken of aloud and what is best left unsaid, assumptions good and bad, all the delicate matters that in so many parts of the country have been burnished to exquisite subtleties by worry and constant attention -- are still very basic indeed.

Take what happened to Tamu Smith.

Smith was in cosmetology class when she felt a hand on her head. A classmate was handling her hair.

"And I said, 'Don't ever touch my hair without asking me,' " Smith said. "And she was like, 'Well, I can touch your hair.' And I was like, 'What?' And she was like, 'I can touch your hair because I've never touched black people's hair before.' "

It was after a supervisor was summoned that, as Smith recalls, the classmate whined a question that, a decade later, still strikes at the poignant and suddenly timely essence of being black in Utah: "If I don't get to touch Tamu's hair, then what black person's hair am I ever going to touch?"

While Buttars's cutting remark about an offending piece of legislation was, the Rev. France A. Davis said, "the kind of thing you'd see when I was growing up in Georgia," the controversy was finally put to rest when the senator apologized before Davis's mostly black congregation at Calvary Baptist Church, which knew a teaching moment when it saw one.

"There is kind of a time warp," said Darius Gray, an African American and producer of the documentary "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons." "We are a bit slow on the uptake here."

Indeed, with race an inescapable part of the presidential campaign, blacks in Utah say their experiences serve as a reminder of the awkward times that most of the nation has moved beyond.

"We do ourselves a disservice if we only just look forward," Gray said, "because then we fail to recognize the distance traveled."

Consider the math. Less than 1 percent of the state's 2.6 million people are African American, including several hundred Hurricane Katrina evacuees who arrived by chartered jet and were frisked upon landing.

Consider also that, until 1978, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints preached that black skin was the mark of Cain -- a curse.

But also recognize, black residents say, the mix of ignorance, presumption and often an almost touching innocence that animate their stories about living in a place where most white people appear to be well-intentioned but simply do not know very many black people, and are not sure how to act.

"My first week here, one of the camera operators who was training me was asking me to teach him how to talk jive," said Tania Paxton, a TV camerawoman who arrived from back East in 1992 and found in the clear mountain air contrasts of a brightness usually seen in cartoons.

"When I travel across the state, I become this trophy," said Rodger Griffin, a human resources administrator who moved from Delaware in 1978. "People invite me to their house for dinner because they want their neighbors to see the black man."

Griffin, trained as an opera singer, came to Utah hoping to join the Tabernacle Choir but didn't cotton to being informed, upon his arrival, that he was no longer "cursed."

"I think what Utah can teach the nation is there's hope in terms of sensible race relations," said Darron Smith, a sociology professor and co-editor of "Black and Mormon." "I don't think people in Utah mean to be outlandishly racist as much as they are outlandishly naive about how race affects life."

"Naive's a good word," said Sylvia Morris, 55, the office manager at Calvary Baptist who, on visits to Los Angeles, startles black people by greeting them on the street, as she greets all fellow African Americans in Salt Lake City. "I think there are parts of Utah where children have never seen a black person."

A handful of states have fewer African Americans than Utah, but no place is more alien. Founded in 1847 by followers of the Mormon faith, the state's reputation for hard-shelled, institutional prejudice has kept blacks at a wary distance.

"I remember when my cousin first came to Utah seven years ago, she had all these preconceived notions. She heard something about tails," said Michael Styles, an African American and the director and sole employee of the state's office of black affairs. After a Utah childhood punctuated by telephoned death threats and a poisoned family dog, he now visits elementary schools around the state, handing out prizes to children who learn to say "people of color" instead of "colored."

"To survive, you have to have a sense of humor," said Paxton, the camerawoman, who followed a white boyfriend to Salt Lake City. She said that after the relationship ended, he confessed that he had chosen Utah believing it was the one place in the country she would not follow.

"A lot of times people tell me -- like it's a big revelation -- that I'm the only black person they know," she said. "And it's a lot of pressure. I have to be on my best behavior. I don't want their one experience to be a bad one."

"We all have to come with our 'A' game," said Tamu Smith, who was raised in Southern California as a niece of Black Panthers, joined the Mormon church as a teenager and moved to Provo in 1996. "We don't have room to let things penetrate and offend us. If I'm speaking somewhere, I have to be twice as prepared as the white person."

Indeed, black people here have learned to regard themselves as ambassador-pioneers: every man a Sidney Poitier, every woman a Diahann Carroll.

Cameos occur: When Griffin was voted secretary of the Utah Correctional Association, the 300 people casting ballots did not lay eyes on him until he rose, expecting the applause showered on every other winner asked to stand. What greeted him instead was "exactly" the silence Cleavon Little encounters in "Blazing Saddles," when his character, the black sheriff, enters a small Western town.

"I've had so many weird experiences like that," said Griffin. "I went to San Francisco, and people didn't stare at me. And it made me very uncomfortable, because everyone always stares at me."

Arriving in the same city, Doriena Lee, 59, phoned her mother. "Guess what," she said, "there are lots of us here!" Raised in Salt Lake, a city with so few, "I didn't think there were very many black people in the world."

The underside of such seclusion is evident not only in Buttars's "dark, ugly" remark in February, but also in his responses to the ensuing uproar. He complained of being persecuted by a "hate lynch mob" and finally asked, "How do I know what words I'm supposed to use in front of those people?"

"You can find racism anywhere in the United States, but it really is sort of magnified in a place like Utah, where it's been nurtured in relative isolation," said Alex LeMay, director of "Desert Bayou," a documentary on the abrupt arrival of 600 Hurricane Katrina evacuees at a Utah military base in 2005.

"The governor asked me to do on-the-spot cultural competency," said Styles, who briefed white officials on what to expect when the evacuees came and summoned as many local black people as he could find. "It was important that African Americans were the first faces they saw, to take some of the edge off."

After being patted down, the evacuees were showered with an outpouring of aid, including jobs that were better, said several African Americans who grew up in Salt Lake, than what they expected to see open to blacks.

"They were well-received initially," the Rev. Davis said. "But after a while, people began complaining of being stared at."

Most eventually returned East. But a couple hundred remain in Utah.

"After down South, all the killings and such, it's almost like heaven, in a sense, to me," Emory Ferdinand said. "I miss home. Don't get me wrong. But you know, in New Orleans, you're always looking over your shoulder."

Smith, the sociologist, is among many who see in the same Mormon faith that once stunted race relations an opportunity to leapfrog ahead. Until 1978, the church envisioned itself as a "white and delightsome people." That year, its president had a "revelation" that the priesthood should be opened to "all worthy males." Just like that, African Americans were equals in a church where decrees still matter.

Catherine Stokes, who retired to Salt Lake from Illinois, where she ran the state's hospital inspection program, lauds the civility and "innocence" of the culture.

"It's like when I go to Nova Scotia -- it's almost like stepping back in time," said Stokes, who is black. "It's quaint. I enjoy it. People are nice to you here."

Nudging along the process is an influx of outsiders arriving as Utah's economy booms. Mormons now account for less than 50 percent of the population in Salt Lake City proper.

And popular culture plays a role. The No. 2 radio station in Salt Lake is U92, "where hip-hop lives." Erika George, a law professor at the University of Utah who grew up in Chicago, said white students who talk to her after class sometimes move their arms in the exaggerated sweeps of Ali G, a wannabe-hip-hopper TV character, apparently thinking that's how best to communicate to a black person.

"I can't say it comes from a mean-spiritedness," said George, who was dismayed when a white woman sitting behind her at a UT football game tugged on her braids, and when she was ushered onto a bus with the Blind Boys of Alabama, a black singing group, by someone who assumed she was with the band. "It's ignorance and indifference. I don't feel a cross is going to be burned on my lawn."

Still, when she's at the airport, George asks any African American she sees: "Do you live here? Are you just passing through?"

"If they live here, we usually exchange numbers," she said. "Though most people don't live here."

Indeed, in the departure lounge one day last month, Monique Nesbit eagerly awaited her flight back to Los Angeles. A friend had told her to come take a good look around, because for the price of her Inglewood condo she could buy two houses in Salt Lake.

"But no. I knew in only two days," Nesbit said, and shook her head.

"You want a bit of community," she said. "And knowing that you belong somewhere."

Her daughter, Johnique Jackson, leaned forward.

"Besides," the girl said, "my cousin's here, and she started hanging out with white people, and she started smoking meth."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company