SALT LAKE CITY — Laws prohibiting racial discrimination have been on the books for decades, but changes in attitude lag behind, a prominent Utah religious leader observed Friday.
“We have much to be grateful for. We’ve gotten some laws on the books, and we still have a lot to get done,” the Rev. France A. Davis, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church of Salt Lake City, said Friday during the Stand Against Racism rally at the Salt Lake County Government Center.
“Attitudes may well be the next great challenge. People’s attitudes take about 40 years to change. Although laws say you can’t do certain things or you can do certain things, people still — because of their attitudes, their training, their upbringing, their schooling, their indoctrination — have attitudes about other people that cause them to treat them negatively.”
In the past week, two incidents related to racist speech have surfaced, stirring intense public discussion.
A New York Times story on Wednesday quoted defiant Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy telling supporters that blacks might have been better off in slavery than with current government subsidies that leave many of them sitting on porches doing nothing.
Earlier in the week — and closer to home — a University Hospital nurse in Salt Lake City resigned after being placed on administrative leave for making racially charged comments on social media sites.
Todd Shrum, reacting to a U.S. marshal shooting and killing a defendant who had attempted to attack a witness during a trial in federal court Monday, commented on a TV station's Facebook page, saying: “Tongan Trash. Kill them all.”
Davis said he was not familiar with Bundy’s comments, but he described Shrum’s remarks as “inappropriate.”
“That comment is just out of place. It is inappropriate to respond to a person’s life being taken. Granted, he was doing something perhaps he should not have been doing. But (for his life to be taken) and then get that kind of added comment from another person in the community, I believe, is inappropriate.
“I think we should respect individuals no matter who they are, no matter their behavior and actions, we should respect them as human beings. They’re human beings, and they deserve to be treated as human beings."
Friday’s event, part of a national observance effort by the YWCA, was hosted by Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams’ Office of Diversity Affairs and the Council of Diversity Affairs.
Participants took the following pledge, which was read at the rally in English, Spanish, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Tongan: "As an individual committed to social justice, I stand with the YWCA against racism and discrimination of any kind.
"I will commit to a lifetime of promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all people in my community and in the world."
The event also observed the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Rep. Rebecca Chavez-Houck, D-Salt Lake, said the nation continues to work on changing racist attitudes and discriminatory practices.
“We’re not quite fixed yet,” she said.
While bigotry is not as overt as in the past, it “flares its fury” on social media and comments on articles on news organizations' websites, Chavez-Houck said. Often, the writers conceal their identities behind screen names.
“Those who harbor those loathings do not have to own up to their own sin? How many who walk among us with with big time smiles on their faces go home at night and add their venom to their blogs, news story comment boards and Twitter feeds?
"This anonymity is precisely why we cannot say racism doesn’t exist any more,” Chavez-Houck said.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent from the court’s recent 6-2 decision to uphold Michigan’s voter-approved ban on affirmative action, provided an apt message for Friday’s gathering, she said.
Sotomayor wrote, in part, “The only way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination. We ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society. It is this view that works harm, by perpetuating the facile notion that what makes race matter is acknowledging the simple truth that race does matter,” Chavez-Houck said.
McAdams noted that American society is only “a few decades removed from pervasive and institutionalized racism.”
Racism, he said, "is not something that happened 20 years ago or 100 years ago. It’s something that’s alive and well in our community.”
For attitudes to change, Utahns must stand united against racism and discrimination, he said.
Taking a page from President Lyndon Johnson’s address at the signing of landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act, McAdams said, "Let us close the springs of racial poison. Let us pray for wise and understanding hearts."