Liberal, progressive — and racist? The Sierra Club faces its white-supremacist history- from WaPo

I think one of the ways it’s easy to talk past each other is that some people have a philosophy of “letting things alone” (philosophical, abstract). Other people tend to be more concrete (would 15 or 30 snags per acre be better for a species of woodpecker?). Perhaps (this is a hypothesis) collaboration that works from with concrete kinds of people can’t fundamentally work out with philosophical differences. Some people have criticized some environmentalists as being “religious” in the sense of holding strong beliefs that are not based on reason. I think there may be something to the difficulty of successfully mediating philosophical disputes. For example, in religion there are unitarians and trinitarians.. no one has proposed duotarianism as a way for them all to get along. But folks can either burn each other at the stake or agree to disagree. In subsequent posts, I’ll be doing more digging into the philosophies underlying folks’ views.
My bolds.

Anyway, this is an interesting article from the WaPo that touches on John Muir’s philosophy. I bolded the religious adjectives.

No one is more important to the history of environmental conservation than John Muir — the “wilderness prophet,” “patron saint of the American wilderness” and “father of the national parks” who founded the nation’s oldest conservation organization, the Sierra Club. But on Wednesday, citing the current racial reckoning, the group announced it will end its blind reverence to a figure who was also racist.

As Confederate statues fall across the country, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in an early morning post on the group’s website, “it’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth-telling about the Sierra Club’s early history.” Muir, who fought to preserve Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Forest, once referred to African Americans as lazy “Sambos,” a racist pejorative that many black people consider to be even more offensive than the n-word.

While recounting a legendary walk from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, Muir described Native Americans he encountered as “dirty.”

Muir’s friendships in the early 1900s were equally troubling, the Sierra Club said. Henry Fairfield Osborn, a close associate, led the New York Zoological Society and the board of trustees of the American Museum of Natural History and, following Muir’s death, helped establish the American Eugenics Society, which labeled nonwhite people, including Jews at the time, as inferior.

The Sierra Club isn’t the only organization that is shaking its foundations. Leaders of predominantly white, liberal and progressive groups throughout the field of conservation say they are taking a hard look within their organizations and don’t like what they see.

African American and other minority employees are pointing out the lack of diversity in green groups and the racial bias that persists in top and mid-level management.


The roots of American environmentalism are grounded in a reverence for nature and racism. Muir’s contemporaries at the turn of the last century included Madison Grant, a co-founder of the Bronx Zoo who wrote “The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History,” an argument for white supremacy in which he decried the decline of Nordic people.

Former president Theodore Roosevelt, who created the first national parks, praised the 1916 book, which helped shape the views the future leader of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler, who would go on to write the anti-Semitic autobiography “Mein Kampf,” called Grant’s book, “my bible.”

Within mainstream environmental groups, diversity is lacking

Given the troubled history of the groups, black and brown activists who have long complained about unfair funding and lack of attentions to their communities weren’t impressed.

“The big white green groups have all issued racial justice statements — a good first baby step,” said Robert Bullard, a Texas Southern University professor and activist who helped restart the National Black Environmental Justice Network this month.

“In my opinion, none of them have taken a strong stand in the way their white privilege sucks up damn near all the green dollars from foundations and donors, away from people of color.”

Environmental and climate justice groups work in communities with the greatest need, said Bullard, a founder of the environmental justice movement that started when African American, Latino, Native American and other environmentalists gathered for the first time in D.C. in 1991 and vowed to fill the gaps big green groups missed.

For more than 30 years, environmental justice groups have deployed paltry budgets to fight big battles over power plants, refineries, landfills and other projects that foul the air and land around black and Latino communities. Ludovic Blain, who attended the second environmental summit a decade after the first, said activists often worked without pay.

“If you’re very used to not getting funded, people are used to doing it free,” Blain said. “The environmental movement has a lot of philanthropic money, there’s enough money to go around.”

According to its tax filing, the Sierra Club had assets of more than $106 million in 2018, and the Union of Concerned Scientists had nearly $40 million. One group, the Nature Conservancy, had assets and grants that totaled more than $1 billion that year. Another, the Natural Resources Defense Council, had more than $350 million.

A view of Yosemite Valley from the Tunnel View lookout point in Yosemite National Park in California. John Muir’s activism helped lead to the creation of the park.
A view of Yosemite Valley from the Tunnel View lookout point in Yosemite National Park in California. John Muir’s activism helped lead to the creation of the park. (Apu Gomes/AFP/Getty Images)
That compares to about $2 million for the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans and $2.5 million for West Harlem Environmental Action in New York. Los Jardines Institute, another environmental justice group, had about $300,000 in revenue in 2018.

“If you had told me two decades ago that millions of dollars would be going to Latino environmental justice work, I would never have guessed it would have been through Natural Resources Defense Council,” Blain said.

The nation’s biggest philanthropies have traditionally given to established environmental groups. The Hewlett Foundation, for example, has given about half a million dollars a year to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s lands program for a quarter-century, but last year it informed the organization that it would be giving that money to more-local groups such as Outdoor Afro, GreenLatinos and the Hispanic Access Foundation.

15 thoughts on “Liberal, progressive — and racist? The Sierra Club faces its white-supremacist history- from WaPo”

  1. Liberal progressives are rooted in racism. Eugenics was THE consensus science in the late 18th to early 19th centuries. Even things such as worker unions and minimum wage that progressives enact to help workers were designed by early progressive economists to exclude lower skilled workers from taking jobs from higher skilled (usually WASP) males.

    “A legal minimum wage, applied to immigrants and those already working in America, ensured that only the productive workers were employed. The economically unproductive, those whose labor was worth less than the legal minimum, would be denied entry, or, if already employed, would be idled. For economic reformers who regarded inferior workers as a threat, the minimum wage provided an invaluable service. It identified inferior workers by idling them. So identified, they could be dealt with. The unemployable would be removed to institutions, or to celibate labor colonies. The inferior immigrant would be removed back to the old country or to retirement. The woman would be removed to the home, where she could meet her obligations to family and race.” — Thomas C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics & American Economics in the Progressive Era

    So, yeah, quite a few institutions have racist (aka progressive) origins.

    – Norm

    “If [Thomas] Leonard didn’t have the quotes from prominent progressives to back up his claims, this would read like right-wing paranoia: The state’s most innocuous protections reframed as malevolent and ungodly social engineering. But his citations are genuine. Charles Cooley, a founding member of American Sociological Association, warned that providing health care and nutrition for black Americans could be ‘dysgenic’ if not accompanied by population control. The eugenicists weren’t just dreaming: Between 1900 and the early 1980s, over 60,000 Americans were involuntarily sterilized under the law.”

    • Norm, we folks who were trained as geneticists are highly sensitive to the dark side of our science’s history. I attended a Park Service meeting in Asheville some years ago where folks were saying that blight-resistant American Chestnut with 1% Chinese Chestnut should not be introduced on federal lands… I felt something historical and creepy.

      The “latest” science can, and often has been, used to make more legitimate the authority of the privileged. That’s why I think we need to query the framing of issues as scientific, and actively explore alternative framings.

      • I’m sure I’m not the only reader of this blog who finds the use of “shekel” in this context extremely offensive. Used this way, the word is widely recognized as a racist, anti-Semitic dog whistle.

        Moderators, please take action to prevent the comment section of this blog from allowing this type of language.

      • Sounds like Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who infamously said that support for Israel “was all about the Benjamins” ($100 bills).

        I take it that the “different group” is the Jews, as opposed to “the typical ‘white’ man/woman living in America.”

        I say leave the post in place, because it’s good to know what people are thinking, no matter how vile.

  2. It easy to deride famous personalities in our past, who have achieved monumental positive change for our country, as not being as aware as we are today or not measuring up to our moral/ethical standards today. That’s an unfair assessment, just as lifting John Muir to a saint-like status is an over-valuing of his contribution.

    In the Catholic faith, the saints (who are revered for their holy accomplishments) were flawed humans, just like you and I. They bore the same human frailties as we do, yet we tend to overlook their human-ess to exalt why they were named a saint. I see the same for these historical personalities. I did not know that Theodore Roosevelt was a white supremacist, but that was recently highlighted. Does my opinion of his accomplishments change? No, but I certainly have something to think about in understanding who he was as a person.

    So, for the collaboration “hypothesis”, maybe the point is to objectively understand the people participating in the group. Didn’t Stephen Covey write, “seek first to understand, then to be understood?”

    • Tony- I think it’s harder with many Catholic saints to know, because all we have today are hagiographies.. there’s a reason that word is used today .. one definition is “biography that idealizes its subject”. We could probably find “the other side of the story” for Mother Teresa or Oscar Romero (if there is one) . Perhaps Joan of Arc or Teresa of Avila as the writings of their enemies are still around. Back farther than that..very hard to tell.

      As to “seek first to understand” that is Covey but also (and earlier) one of my favorite prayers, The Prayer Attributed to St. Francis.
      “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
      Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
      Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
      Where there is discord, let me bring union.
      Where there is error, let me bring truth.
      Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
      Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
      Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
      Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
      O Master, let me not seek as much
      to be consoled as to console,
      to be understood as to understand,
      to be loved as to love,
      for it is in giving that one receives,
      it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
      it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
      it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.”

  3. The question is interesting about how collaboration relates to some of the issues regarding underlying philosophies, perhaps even philosophies that creep into some of the more offensive and structural issues we’re facing today as a nation.

    In the social sciences, there’s been a long-standing construct of value-belief-attitude systems, with much debate about how to arrange the concept. The basic idea, which I’ve found very relevant to contentious situations that we were trying to move towards collaboration, is that core values are often so deeply held as to be invisible to the person who holds them. Beliefs are often thought of as how one sees the world based on values. Attitudes tend to be thought of as more about how one acts on that world (note that some argue vehemently for other descriptions).

    I mention this because there could be a connection to the philosophies you’re getting at in your post, Sharon, and this value-belief-attitude construct.

    Where this seems to relate to collaboration, in my experience, is that I find it helps to think about each of these three levels while recognizing that, especially for values, some of what I might think I see could be different from what a particular person would say (i.e., a reminder that what I think I see may not be what others see). Also, its generally accepted that, for this construct, attitudes are less resistant to change than values. For collaboration, this has implications for the whole idea of “willing to live with it” as a goal, rather than full-on agreement associated with win-lose, positional bargaining.

    Not sure this is entirely where you were going, but sure is fascinating stuff 🤔

    • Thanks, Peter! I figured that social scientists had already been where I was going (they usually have been). I’d love a guest post that summarizes the value belief attitude construct as described by academics and reflections on that from your own experiences…

  4. I’m fine with the Sierra Club’s stated willingness to reconsider its ethos and believe its commitment to try is sincere.

    I question, however, whether it’s really going to be able to follow through, given its ultraconservative basic ideology and its equally ultraconservative membership of one-dimensional true believers.

    In the San Francisco Chronicle, club executive director Michael Brune is quoted as saying:

    “The whiteness and privilege of our early membership fed into a very dangerous idea … that exploring, enjoying and protecting the outdoors can be separated from human affairs,” he said. “The persistence of this misguided idea is part of the reason why we still get comments from our own members telling us to ‘stay in our lane’ and stop talking about issues of race, equity and privilege.”

    The article summarizes:

    The club was founded as a mountaineering group for middle- and upper-class white people who wanted to save the land they walked through, Brune said.

    That divide among club members appeared in the online comments on Brune’s piece Wednesday. While some praised the Sierra Club’s directors for encouraging change and promoting equality, others derided the effort as revisionist history and vowed to end their support for the organization.

    I suspect many in the club’s membership loathe the idea of integrating the club’s collective ideology with “human affairs” unless it’s entirely on their own terms of what “human affairs” merit consideration.

    So much Sierra Club support for public lands is partly about conservation but also very much about maintaining a taxpayer-supported private playground and museum out of de jure (ostensibly) but not de facto (in terms of access) public lands that a few million people, mostly white and elderly, have carved out legislatively for their preferred pursuits.

    Create Wilderness areas wherever a few hundred acres present the possibility of a designation, though it means extirpating evidence of human settlement and excluding human-powered travel other than on foot or by canoe (notably, no bicycling). Create roadless areas with alacrity, though it means excluding anyone with an ATV, dirt bike, or jeep—the great unwashed, the hoi polloi.

    A strong base of club members are not going to give up these exclusionary values easily, and if bringing in Asians, Latinos, and African-Americans threatens loosening the grip on the public lands model as a combination of private playground and museum, it will not be well tolerated for long.

    • Lourenço , I’ve long been curious as to whether there was some kind of class issue with regard to motorized. I think there’s something deeper that has perhaps not been explored. I have looked at Google Scholar and didn’t find anything on this specific question. It’s interesting that we have tons of federal science dollars to hypothesize what might happen at different levels of carbon in the future, but somehow we have no dollars to understand why we have controversies today. (end of rant)

      For example, I and friends hike on trails that allow ATV’s. I wave and say hello. I saw a Mom and her kids sleeping in the back. I say to myself “yay, they’re outdoors and having experiences with their parents!”. Others say “they’re noisy, and they would be better off if they walked.” What’s that really about? It seems like what we called in theology school “othering”. when is tolerance of diverse views and approaches OK, and when isn’t it, and who decides?

      • Sharon, excellent question to ponder, regarding who decides what’s tolerable and suitable. It seems kind of recursive, because ideally one wants people to be able to decide such things (for example, we all agree that murder is unacceptable), and yet if their preference is invidiously exclusionary and they have the power to implement that preference, they shouldn’t have that power—their preference should remain confined to their own opinions, which they are powerless to impose on others.

        I’m not articulating this as well as I should, but it could take hours to compose a better answer.

        For now, let me say that people simply spout all the time religious shibboleths like “mountain biking isn’t meant for Wilderness” or “Wilderness isn’t meant for mountain biking” (or bright clothing, or jogging, or cell phones, or whatever), when what they really mean is “I don’t like [fill in the blank] there,” since they offer no science-based empirical evidence of anything in support (like, as concerns mountain biking particularly, environmental harm, collisions, or a pattern of objectively scary encounters), only their aesthetic preferences.

        As for the class issue, it’s not that easy. When I referred to the great unwashed, I unwisely added “the hoi polloi,” the Greek term meaning “the many” or “the [common] people.” (And since “oi” is “the” in the Greek original οἱ πολλοί, the “the” in English is redundant. But I digress.) I mean a value system obliquely but not necessarily related to economic or social class. Those Texans who trek to Crested Butte in the summer in their giant SUVs, some to retreat to their garish faux–log cabin McMansions nearby, are undoubtedly much wealthier than the people who run and work for, say, Wilderness Watch. But the latter have a value system that might be called more genteel or patrician, and the former one that the latter (and doubtless many others) would regard as vulgar, meaning aesthetically debased, with social or economic class not a consideration.

  5. Was Muir a racist? Here’s an article on the Sierra Club John Muir Exhibit website that takes issue with the claim that Muir had a racist attitude towars Native Californians

    Nowhere mentioned, not in the article cited above or in the current coverage, is there any mention of Muir’s close friend, Joseph Le Conte, a Cal professor and fellow conservationist. Le Conte was also a life-long advocate of pseudo-scientific notions of white racial superiority. A couple of years ago the Sierra Club hastily changed the name of its Yosemite Valley environmental education center from “Le Conte Lodge” and the Berkeley Public Schools renamed Le Conte Elementary. But apparently Muir nowhere expressed misgivings about a best friend with such views.

  6. Lourenço,
    I think you are definitely on to something.. with the idea of “aesthetically debased.” and kudos for getting Greek letters into the comment box! And with the Texans, you’ve also touched upon the “rich people from elsewhere crowding our woods” phenomenon.
    As for me, it reminds me of..
    “τί δὲ βλέπεις τὸ κάρφος τὸ ἐν τῷ ὀφθαλμῷ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ σου τὴν δὲ ἐν τῷ σῷ ὀφθαλμῷ δοκὸν οὐ κατανοεῖς”

      • Ain’t google grand? In the immortal words of Koheleth ( 400-250 BCE)
        מַה-שֶּׁהָיָה, הוּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶה, וּמַה-שֶּׁנַּעֲשָׂה, הוּא שֶׁיֵּעָשֶׂה; וְאֵין כָּל-חָדָשׁ, תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.


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