A comment on a news article last week called the Book of Mormon racist because of its references to dark skin in conjunction with a curse. I responded with the usual explanation: the curse is spiritual separation from God (2 Nephi 5:20), and the dark skin was just a useful way to distinguish those who’d been cursed. However, the more I looked at what I’d written, the less satisfied I was. I felt like I was missing something. I went back to the text.
I don’t think the Book of Mormon references to dark skin are literal anymore; I think they’re only a poetic idiom. Subsequently, I now have a different theory for what the mark of the curse really was.
The Controversial Verses
First, look at the relevant text. There are three passages in the Book of Mormon that specifically mention dark skin as the mark of a curse (in 2 Nephi 5, Jacob 3, and Alma 3), and a fourth that bears on them (3 Nephi 2). Here are the most controversial verses: