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Sierra Club’s John Muir apology shows that racism in the outdoors was built by design

July 28, 2020, 8:03 PM UTC

We must, I’m afraid, reclassify John Muir.

He seemed the safe one, the nineteenth century naturalist who helped stoke a deep, American love for the outdoors and the will to preserve the wild spaces of a colonialist nation. Nice guy. Cool jacket. Big beard. A walking Successory poster. Just the mention of his name conjured, for many, sepia toned images of a simpler time along with your basic Ken Burns soundtrack.

The truth is more complicated, and the Sierra Club has now felt compelled to acknowledge their co-founder’s problematic past.

“The Sierra Club is a 128-year-old organization with a complex history, some of which has caused significant and immeasurable harm,” the environmental group said in an article titled “Pulling Down Our Monuments.” On the subject of John Muir, they were direct. “He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life. As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color who come into contact with the Sierra Club.”

But the story of the Sierra Club gets worse before it gets better:

“Other early Sierra Club members and leaders — like Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan — were vocal advocates for white supremacy and its pseudo-scientific arm, eugenics. Jordan, for example, served on the board of directors during Muir’s presidency. A “kingpin”of the eugenics movement, he pushed for forced-sterilization laws and programs that deprived tens of thousands of women of their right to bear children — mostly Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and poor women, and those living with disabilities and mental illness. He cofounded the Human Betterment Foundation, whose research and model laws were used to create Nazi Germany’s eugenics legislation.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that membership in the club was white—by design—until the 1960s.

RaceAhead has covered the white supremacist convictions of the early conservationists in detail—and why, as an avid fly-fisherperson, I never encounter any people of color on any river, in any capacity. Yes, Muir evolved. Decent people often do when faced with the error of their ways. But acknowledging the “complex history” of the Sierra Club is an opportunity to have important conversations about how the same ideas that preserved the outdoors for the benefit of white people are baked into the foundations of every part of American life.

So, while we’re pulling down the monuments, take a moment to go outside in nature and refresh you spirit, if you can. That’s my plan for the week. Think of it as a radical act of democracy.

Ellen McGirt

On point

Google ad portal equates Black, Latina, Asian girls with porn If you want to target your Google ads to a certain demographic, Google’s Keywords Planner is designed to help you choose keywords to help improve your search results. However, if you query “Black girls,” “Latina girls,” and “Asian Girls,” most of the terms are pornographic, reports The Markup. Search for “white girls” and “white boys,” and there are no suggested terms. This is the remnant of a larger issue revealed in 2012 by UCLA professor Safiya Noble, who found that Google searches for “Black girls” yielded results linked to porn sites. Click through for more on the ad portal, and the racist history of search.
The Markup

State insurance regulators to analyze car insurance rates for racial bias  People have been complaining about this problem for decades, begins personal finance expert Penny Wang, never one to bury the lede. Now, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, the body that oversees state insurance regulators, are planning to analyze how insurers set premiums and the way they use credit scores, education, and occupation in their assessments.  "Within the NAIC, we're seeing unprecedented discussions between our members and stakeholders on race and its role in the design and pricing of insurance products," the organization’s president told Wang in a statement. Oh! And this ProPublica story from 2017 shows that insurers in California, Texas, Illinois, and Missouri were charging Black and brown neighborhoods some 30% more than white ones with the same level of risk assessment.
Consumer Reports

Nike announces a new chief talent and diversity officer in a bid to improve diversity in senior ranks Felicia Mayo joined Nike last year from Tesla, and is now set to lead a newly formed team as chief talent, diversity and culture officer. She will be replacing Kellie Leonard, who was appointed diversity chief in April 2018 after a series of high profile complaints about the company’s culture. The move is part of a broader restructuring by Nike’s still newish CEO, John Donahue. Mayo is the real deal; I interviewed her in 2018 at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women conference.
Wall Street Journal

There are still people alive whose parents were enslaved It wasn’t that long ago, and Daniel Smith, now 88, remembers the stories his father told him about being born into slavery in Virginia, and his grim life in the years after the Civil War. Smith is his own witness to history, a medic in the Korean War, a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge as a foot soldier for voting rights, as a federal worker. So, what’s it mean to be a living reminder of the country’s evil past? “Quite frankly, I’ve just grown up and been busy, and I’ve never thought much about it,” Smith said. And yet, now, when he thinks about it, it seems the country is “almost to the point where [slavery] could happen again.”
Washington Post

On background

Should business leaders support reparations? Michael Gee, business strategist and diversity expert says yes. As a Black business leader, be benefitted from affirmative action in the 1970s, then watched diversity initiatives come and go. “After all that, we’re left with a lopsided world where white people have some 10-20 times the net worth of Black people and we are severely underrepresented in white collar jobs in general,” he says. He offers a reading list for the skeptical or underinformed, which starts with “Why We Need Reparations for Black Americans,” from the Brookings Institute, published this spring. His big takeaway: Even without federal action, reparative acts are happening – such as Netflix’s investment in Black-owned banks.

Being Black on the Appalachian Trail In light of Muir’s reclassification, I thought I’d re-up this gorgeous piece from Rahawa Haile who is Black —from Miami by way of Eritrea  —“but not Black-Black,” a friendly white man is quick to point out to her at a popular layover on the Appalachian Trail. “Blacks don’t hike.” And so begins her extraordinary I-hiked-the-Appalachian-Trail-alone tale. “Heading north from Springer Mountain in Georgia, the Appalachian Trail class of 2017 would have to walk 670 miles before reaching the first county that did not vote for Donald Trump,” she writes. Cold, wet, achy, and awed, she reconciles the grandeur of nature and the smallness of those who profit from it. “It will be several months before I realize that most AT hikers in 2016 are unaware of the clear division that exists between what hikers of color experience on the trail (generally positive) and in town (not so much).” A must read, if only for the resplendent prose.
Outside Magazine

Remembering Mimi Jones She was just 17-years- old when a photo of her went the 1964 version of viral: Her face contorted in fear as a motel owner dumped acid in the Florida public pool she was swimming in to protest segregation.  “The water bubbled up like a volcano right in front of my face,” she told the Boston Globe in 2017. The young activist died recently, at 73, an underacknowledged foot soldier and lifelong activist. “I cannot tell you how many times Mimi got arrested,” said her younger sister, Altomease Ford Latting of Birmingham, Ala. Rest in power, Mimi.
Boston Globe

raceAhead is edited by Aric Jenkins.

Today's mood board

A horse drawn carriage carrying the body of civil rights icon, former U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) crosses the Edmund Pettus Bridge on July 26, 2020 in Selma, Alabama. On the second of six days of ceremonies, Lewis’s funeral procession continues to follow the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail on its way to the State Capitol where he will lie in state. On March 7, 1965 Lewis and other civil rights leaders were attacked by Alabama State Police while marching across the bridge in support of voting rights for African Americans. The day would come to be known as "Bloody Sunday". Rest in Power.
Michael M. Santiago—Getty Images