What we can learn from the Sierra Club's moment of self-reckoning

What we can learn from the Sierra Club's moment of self-reckoning

The Sierra Club, that paragon of environmental activism, just did something unusual: it admitted it has a problem. In July, the nearly hundred-and-thirty-year-old organization released a statement in which it acknowledged the racial prejudices of its founder, environmental icon John Muir, as well as the harm it has caused Black, Indigenous, and people of color over the decades. 

The nationwide protests that followed George Floyd's killing in May have reenergized conversations around our collective need to grapple with the long history of racism in America. The Sierra Club's acknowledgement of its problematic origins and its sincere commitment to make amends should serve as a model for how other organizations and institutions can reckon with their own checkered pasts while not invalidating the positive work they have done over the years. Problems can only be fixed when they have been identified and named; others should take note. 

The Sierra Club is one of the nation's largest and most influential environmental organizations. Since its founding in 1892, the club has worked to preserve and create new public parks, lobbied for the protection of clean water and the adoption of renewable energy, campaigned against the continued use of coal, and promoted youth environmental education. It's co-founder and first president, John Muir, inspired many with his writings and was instrumental in creating the movement that led to the establishment of the National Park System, earning him the sobriquet "Father of the National Parks." 

Notwithstanding its achievements over the decades, the organization recently issued a public apology for Muir's harmful writings and beliefs in which it noted that his characterizations of Black and Indigenous people often played on racist stereotypes. "As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history," the statement read in part, "Muir's words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color."

In its early days, the organization screened out potential members based on race, limiting the environmental engagement of people of color. Sadly, Muir's views and statements were emblematic of many of the early conservation movement's failings — most obviously the fact that the very lands being protected were expropriated by white settlers from Indigenous populations. Muir's ideal state seemed to be "the lone white man at one with nature." This exclusionary view has had long-lasting impacts, including the disproportionately low number of people of color who visit national parks today. 

A founding father who inspired a movement spanning generations but who considered the land on which it was based "free" only after its Indigenous inhabitants had been removed. A visionary whose prejudices ran counter to his overarching message — a message he and his peers couldn't and, frankly, had no desire to uphold. An iconic figure who helped move the country in a positive direction while ignoring and damaging communities of color. It's an all-too-familiar story. 

With its recent acknowledgement of Muir's failures, the Sierra Club has taken a bigger step forward than many others in the United States. Indeed, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that while 59 percent of Americans believe Black people face discrimination, only 44 percent believe it is systemic and perpetuated by policy and institutions — in effect putting the burden of systemic racism on a few "bad apples." 

And while the poll also found that a slight majority of Americans, 51 percent, support the removal of Confederate statues from public spaces, an ABC/Washington Post poll that asked the same question found that only 43 percent of Americans supported the removal of such statues and only 42 percent supported the renaming of military bases named after Confederate generals. Polling discrepancies aside, the message is clear: at least nearly half of Americans believe we should continue to honor men who fought to protect and preserve chattel slavery in the United States. 

Admitting that you have a problem is the first step to recovery. Admitting that the United States has a racist past and has long ignored structures and systems that are inherently racist is not the same as saying that Americans are rotten to the core, incapable of doing good, or irredeemable; it is, instead, an acknowledgement that we have harmed ourselves and those to whom we have a moral responsibility. Sometimes the only way to address a problem is through an intervention, but even interventions are futile without fundamental acceptance of the basic problem. The Sierra Club has begun to do the work needed to heal the damage and move forward; the rest of us should follow its lead.

Garrett Zink (@GarrettZink) is a corporate social responsibility specialist based in Washington, D.C.

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December 27, 2018