Mormons like to say that racism is in their past (of course, 1978 is a fairly recent past), but they forget that doctrinal racism extends beyond the denial of the priesthood to those of African descent.
According to Mormonism, people are chosen and blessed or cursed by racial and familial lines. Thus, the seed of Cain was cursed, as were the black-skinned descendants of Laman and Lemuel, while the “fair” seed of Nephi was blessed.
Assuming for the sake of discussion that the Book of Mormon is an actual history, all we know is that the Nephites were “white and delightsome” in comparison to the “dark, filthy, and loathsome” Lamanites. But we really don’t know what that means, do we?
Race seems to be a social construction that is largely unrelated to physical characteristics. I read a study years ago of mestizo and “native” communities in Guatemala where the author discovered that there was no discernable genetic difference between the communities but that they self-identified as part of the respective groups by adopting certain social markers.
Similarly, North Americans tend to lump all descendants of Africans as “black,” even though the peoples of the African continent are more genetically diverse than people anywhere else on earth. By contrast, in Brazil, where native, European, and African communities have lived and intermarried, there are not the hard and fast racial divisions we see in the US.
Thus, most North American readers of the Book of Mormon view the white/black contrast therein as mirroring their own social expectations of race. I saw this last night on a Mormon-themed message board, where someone was discussing some uncorroborated text from the Spanish conquistadors about blonde, fair-skinned natives.
The conquistador, Pedro Pizarro, reported in his account of the great Spanish invasion of South America in the 1500s, that while the masses of Andes Indians were small and dark, the members of the ruling Inca family were tall and had whiter skins than the Spaniards themselves. He talks of them having blue eyes, corn-blonde hair and white skins. (Heyerdahl, ibid., page 351).
What I find so remarkable is not the strained attempt to find evidence for the Book of Mormon but the attempt to inject favored European racial characteristics into the Book of Mormon. Mind you, I think when Joseph Smith was writing the Book of Mormon, he had in mind for his Nephites a European, white race, in keeping with the Mound Builder myths of a lost white race that had been killed by the Indians.
But the text itself never specifies this kind of racial division that we see these modern believers constructing. This continued obsession with race is just one product of Mormonism’s antiquated notions. Unfortunately, this kind of racism is canonized in scripture, so it is likely to remain indefinitely.