In this week’s feature, Janis Hashe covers the complicated racial history of environmental advocate and icon John Muir. Yes, he founded the Sierra Club, and he was also a white supremacist with unflattering, and sometimes cruel, opinions of Black, Brown and Indigenous people. This should come as no surprise. In fact, it should come as no surprise to find out that if you’re white, your grandparents, great grandparents and everyone they knew were more than likely white supremacists, too. It was the norm that permeated every facet of society for hundreds of years. Anti-racist white people were the outliers that rarely made the history books.
A recent study guide from the Unitarian Universalist College for Social Justice discusses how our understanding of white supremacy has evolved over time, saying, “Originally, the term ‘white supremacy’ was used to identify overt racist behaviors and organizations like the KKK, with the declared intent and belief that whites should retain and increase political and cultural power. More recently, sociologists have begun to encourage us to think of white supremacy as an ideology, as a collection of ideas that encourage us to value whiteness (white norms, white culture and white people) more highly and above other cultures.”
The East Bay Express has worked under this expanded definition of white supremacy for quite some time. In 2017, Robert Gammon wrote “Hidden Monuments to Racism,” pointing out how white supremacist ideas were willfully, but not always consciously, transferred through generations with the raising of monuments, the zoning of neighborhoods and the naming of streets, parks and schools throughout the Bay Area. In the article, he writes of Joseph LaConte, a professor of geology, natural history and botany at UC Berkeley, and co-founder of The Sierra Club with Muir, who also once wrote that freeing the slaves and allowing Blacks to vote was “the greatest political crime ever perpetrated by any people.”
Also, in 2017, Liam O’Donoghue confronted this white supremacist tradition with “The Albany Cross Resurrects Memories of the KKK” where he writes, “Rochelle Nason, one of the Albany city council members named in the lawsuit, doesn’t accuse the Lions Club of intentionally resurrecting a racist tradition with its illuminated cross, but her research revealed potentially troubling origins of the practice. She said the Stege Presbyterian church, one of the first religious groups to hoist a cross on the hill, hosted ’15 Klan members in full regalia’ who attended a service ‘to make a gift to the church and deliver a letter lauding the pastor’ a few years before the church launched its Easter cross-raising tradition in 1933.
“To innocent newcomers, the cross might just be a lovely tribute to their faith. But to people who knew the background, especially those who had experienced the Klan period, the cross would carry a very different message.”
Just last month, the Express found itself at the center of controversy when it published Aimee Barnes’ editorial, “It’s time for Alameda to rename Jackson Park,” where she wrote that, “According to the City’s own research, Jackson Park—the City’s first park—was actually named Alameda Park when it opened in 1895. In May 1909, the City Council approved the renaming of Alameda Park to Jackson Park after President Andrew Jackson, alongside the naming of its two new parks, Washington and McKinley. There appears to be no known reason as to why the Park and Playground Commission specifically chose Andrew Jackson when renaming Alameda Park after a President.
While we do not know why the park was renamed, we can consider the social and political context of the times. The renaming took place at the height of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and against the backdrop of the Jim Crow Era. 1909—the year Jackson Park was renamed—was the year in which the single greatest number of Confederate monuments were erected around the country. We can’t ignore this context—nor the subsequent history of racism and segregation in Alameda, including redlining practices, and the passage of Measure A and its discriminatory after-effects.”
She also points out that, “In 1830 he signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to the ‘Trail of Tears.’ It resulted in the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans—including Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek and Cherokee people. Thousands died in the process—including more than 5,000 Cherokee people alone who lost their lives to whooping cough, typhus, dysentery, cholera and starvation along the 1,200-mile forced march to ‘Indian Territory.'” It is not a coincidence that the park that was named after “Indian Killer,” which was his moniker amongst those who loved him, sat on recently acquired Ohlone land.
These revelations of the pernicious and ubiquitous quality of white supremacy, resulting in taking down monuments, questioning the intent our leaders and seriously re-examining all facets of American history and contemporary social life, have caught many off-guard, and responses have ranged from flat-out denial to anger to the delegation of those who recognize it and want to do something about as being part of a “cancel culture intending to erase history,” which is the exact opposite of what we’re actually witnessing.
All of the articles I mentioned are about expanding our understanding of history as the definition of white supremacy has expanded, with the understanding that doing so does not erase history, but complicates it. In order to eliminate white supremacy, which is a must, we must grapple with accepting that our understanding of our history and ourselves is not so cut-and-dry, and more black-and-white than we’ve been willing to accept. Perhaps many will never adjust to this new complexity, but that does not negate its truth. What we’ve come to understand is that white supremacy is not a shark, it’s the water.