The Truth Behind the Fad

The Mindfulness Fad, part 3

So how do you get genuine mindfulness? Some things to keep in mind – to be mindful of, in the old sense:

(1) There is no true multi-tasking. Your brain cannot actually do more than one task at a time. What we call multi-tasking is really just switching back and forth among multiple tasks. You’re still only doing one thing at a time, but you’re only doing it for a few seconds before switching to something else, and then switching back.

(2) This so-called multi-tasking lowers productivity. “Students and workers who constantly and rapidly switch between tasks have less ability to filter out irrelevant information, and they make more mistakes.” (Time)

(3) The more we multi-task – that is, switch rapidly among tasks – the worse at it we become. Unlike just about everything else in life, multi-tasking is one thing that we get worse at the more we do it. In other words, the people who spend more of their time unitasking – focusing on one thing at a time and really getting into the zone in that activity – are better able to juggle multiple balls in the air when an occasion arises that they have to. The ability to see the multiple things as features of one thing – the present moment – helps filter out irrelevant information and keep the focus on what’s most needful about each thing.

I mentioned the two aspects of mindfulness: (a) bringing attention to immediate experience – particularly, noting mental events as they happen; and (b) being open, curious, and accepting of whatever it is that you’re noticing. How do you do that? You can just decide to do that. Pay attention to bodily sensations, what thoughts are arising in your mind, investigate your immediate thoughts and feelings with nonjudgmental curiosity. Simply deciding to do that will typically last maybe 10 seconds. Maybe even a couple minutes. Then your usual habitual way of being kicks in.

If you want to change your habits – become habitually more attentive to and openly curious about immediate experience, that’s going to take some work. Sorry about that. No easy walk to freedom.

You could start with a class. Google “mindfulness classes near me.” Prolonged reinforcement of the core concepts in a classroom setting will help shift your brain’s neural habits. Of course, you'll need to keep practicing after the class ends. One of the things the class will emphasize is a daily meditation practice – so if you just aren’t able to take 30 minutes out of your hectic day, then you probably aren’t going to get much more mindfulness than you already have.

Another option is to skip the class and get a book. I’ve read a lot of books about mindfulness and meditation and Zen. The very first one I read some 16 years ago is still the best first one – and if you only ever read one, this would be the one: Mindfulness in Plain English, by Henepola Gunaratana. (Available in its entirety as a free PDF HERE). If you’re ready to change your life, it’ll tell you how to do the practice that, if you stick with it, day after day, will be transformative.

These are the truths behind the fad: (1) There's no easy path to transformation and liberation, and (2) There is a path that'll get you there if you stick with it.

Strengthening the mindfulness muscle is kinda like strengthening any muscle – you make it stronger by exercising it. Kinda like, but also kinda unlike. With muscles, there’s a fairly predictable timeline by which exercise increases strength. If you have a normal and healthy physiology, and you adopt a regimen of exercise, and stick to it, then you will get stronger. There’s a rough curve by which, with some wobble in the graph, you will progress toward the limit to which that regimen can take you. Mindfulness strengthening doesn’t go like that. It’s not a reliable product of putting in the time doing the exercise. The spirit has its own schedule. Committed serious spiritual practitioners can go for years when their practice just seems void and useless. Then they can hit a patch where they actually seem to be regressing. They’re acting as cranky, unkind, disconnected -- as withdrawn, on the one hand, or as controlling, on the other – as they ever had before they started any spiritual practice. There is no smooth curve of progress.

But there do, overall in the long run, tend to be certain fruits of the practice. A related difference between the physical and spiritual is this: With physical exercise, you become different by becoming different. With mindfulness exercise, you become different by becoming exactly who you are. Slowly, one finds that the overlay of judgments about who you think you should be drop away, and your true self shines forth a bit more.

It helps to have a group to practice with: a weekly group alongside the daily practice at home. Such groups aren’t hard to find. There’s one available here that I lead every Saturday at 10:00. Behind the fad, the third-eye chakra tea, the essential oils diffusers, the voice-activated guided meditation device, the acupressure meditation mats, the apps, the studios, the bells and whistles, there’s . . . you. And the reality you’re in and not separate from. And an authentic practice for being who you are and loving what is, every moment.

Whether you go for the version with the monks and robes, temples and statues, and sangha community or the version with teachers in professorial casual at retreat centers or studios and no ongoing community to speak of, there’s something real there – something worth our . . . attention.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "The Mindfulness Fad"
See also
Part 1: Origins of the Mindfulness Fad
Part 2: Mindfulness Goes Secular


Mindfulness Goes Secular

The Mindfulness Fad, part 2

Jon Kabat-Zinn
Westerners are weird about anything we identify as a religion. If something is a religious practice, we’re skeptical, suspicious. Some of us already have a religion – and we typically think we can have only one, so we aren’t interested in another. And those of us who don’t have a religion often don’t want one – so, again, we’ll stay away from a practice if we think it’s religious. But if it doesn’t feel like a religion, we will be game to try anything: Marxism, Freudian psychoanalysis, pilates.

If you have a cool therapy, technique, or analysis that you want to offer to people, you may be able to get access to schools, prisons, the military, meetings civic groups, and workplace programs to talk about your helpful practice. But if you're the messiah of a new religion, or a preacher, teacher, or guru of an established one, those institutions are much more likely to be closed to you. We're suspicious of religion. We want our public institutions generally to be neutral about religion, as we also want them to be neutral about partisan politics. We understand that religion and politics divides us. But a program that promises to be helpful to people of any religion, or none, and people of any politics, or none, has a chance to be welcomed in our public institutions.

So Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist and a long-time student and practitioner of Zen, knew that if Americans were going to accept the techniques he’d been learning in Zen, he had to find a way to present them so they didn’t feel religious. The program Kabat-Zinn devised and launched in 1979 is essentially a series of Zen trainings, but instead of calling them Zen trainings, he calls it Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – MBSR. As MBSR, it doesn’t have any of those trappings associated with religious traditions: no priestly types in robes, a minimum of chanting and bowing, funding itself more from fee-for-class and less from donations, not much sense of continuing relationship once the term of the class is over.

And it really took off. You pay four or five hundred dollars for a class that meets once a week for eight weeks, and you get the teaching and learn the practices without being subjected to authorities in funny clothes or membership in an ongoing community.

Google teaches mindfulness to its employees – and so do more stuffy companies like McKinsey and BlackRock. There are mindfulness apps for your smartphone – more than two dozen, some offering $400 lifetime subscriptions. There are mats and cushions and clothing lines and incense and bells and “mindful lotus tea” (6 dollars for 20 bags). Meditation-related businesses in 2015 generated $984 million in revenue. As journalist David Gelles put it: “For an enterprising contemplative, it’s never been easier to make a buck.”

“There are Mindful Meats, Mindful Mints and the Mindful Supply Company, which makes T-shirts.” You can paint your bedroom in “Mindful Gray.” A dairy-free mayonnaise-substitute called “Mindful Mayo” is $4.50 a jar.

There’s a book – actually two books – titled One-Minute Mindfulness: one by Donald Altman, 2011, and one by Simon Parke, 2015. But mindfulness needs to be more than a brief reprieve between checking Facebook and the next episode of Stranger Things. A newer 2017 book by S.J. Scott seems to acknowledge that mindfulness will take a little more time. Its title is: Ten-Minute Mindfulness.

Much of this mindfulness rage is faddish, and, I will say, not helpful. In fairness, I think there's also a lot of it that is helpful. And, full disclosure: I own and use daily: a zabuton (mat), a zafu (round cushion), inkin bell (bell on a stick), bell gong ("singing bowl"), wooden clappers, a Buddha statue, a meditation timer app on my tablet, and an ample supply of incense. The MNDFL studios and some of the apps strike me as rather pricey and often unnecessary, but for folks who can afford it, who don't have an established practice, who are looking around for what might work for them while fitting within their schedule, I'm glad they've got the options.

Yes, a lot of what peddles itself as a mindful product has nothing to do with actually doing anything. Moreover, it’s important to be aware that many of the supposed advantages of mindfulness can be gotten in other ways. For instance, it's true that 30-minutes of meditating does reduce stress and lower blood pressure and promote a more positive feeling about your life. You can also get those results from 30 minutes of stretching or exercising or, for that matter, watching an I Love Lucy re-run.

Many people find that the practice improves work performance, but perhaps you remember the Hawthorne effect? They kept making the lighting brighter, and productivity kept going up. Then they started dimming the lights more and more, and productivity still went up. It turns out that any change that you think will make you more focused and productive, probably will. It’s a version of the placebo effect. Maybe mindfulness training will get you a little further than the placebo effect – and so would getting more sleep.

There’s also worry that companies pushing mindfulness on their employees are just trying to get more out of them without otherwise improving their pay and working conditions. Some writers have worried that “McMindfulness” placates people into acceptance of political and social injustices (e.g., Virginia Heffernan, Kristen Ghodsee, Ruth Whippman). I don’t have this worry. It’s my own experience, confirmed in numerous accounts from other people, that being rooted in the here and now, and feeling the joy in each moment, also awakens compassion, and makes us more, not less, energized to take action for justice.

Your capacity for joy – your ability to feel and be present to and sustain joyousness – is equal to your capacity for sadness and pain – your ability to feel and be present to grief – for they are the same capacity. Mindfulness increases that carrying capacity for both joy and sorrow at the same time, for it is in the numbed-up mindlessness of pursuit of continual distraction that we push both of them away. Genuine mindfulness will then contribute to, rather than detract from, social activism for a more just and peaceful world, and workplace activism for fair wages and working conditions.

Next: How to get genuine mindfulness

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "The Mindfulness Fad"
See also
Part 1: Origins of the Mindfulness Fad
Part 3: The Truth Behind the Fad


Origins of the Mindfulness Fad

The Mindfulness Fad, part 1

Knees down, y'all.
If you're not able to let your knees rest on the ground, just use a chair.
Mindfulness is such a fad. It has really been all the rage. A Congressman wrote a book about it. A Congressman! Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) happened upon a Jon Kabat-Zinn book that had a section on Mindfulness in Politics, and he was so inspired he went to a 5-day mindfulness meditation retreat with Kabat-Zinn. Then he wrote a book called A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit. It has chapters devoted to:
  • Mindfulness in our schools: how it can increase our children’s attention and kindness.
  • Mindfulness in our hospitals and doctors’ offices: how it can improve our health and our healthcare system.
  • Mindfulness in our military, police, and firefighters: how it can improve performance and build resiliency for the military and first responders – and how, later on, mindfulness is the path for coming to terms with PTSD.
  • Mindfulness in the workplace: how it can help us rediscover our values and reshape our economy.
Much better.
It’s been five years since that book came out, and Tim Ryan is still in congress, now in his 8th term.

Then a couple years ago, Time magazine had a cover story on "The Mindfulness Revolution."

Things called meditation studios have started opening up. There’s a company called MNDFL -- which is “mindful” without the vowels because, I don’t know, vowels are so not in the present moment. With studios in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, and Upper East Side, they bill themselves as New York’s premier meditation studio. They got a nice article in Vogue, titled, “Introducing Manhattan’s Must-Visit Meditation Studio.” Classes are 30, 45 and 60 minutes, and start at $10. When classes are not in session, the studio is open for self-guided practice.

What’s all the hype about? Mindfulness has two aspects:
  • bringing attention to immediate experience – particularly, noting mental events as they happen.
  • being open, curious, and accepting of whatever it is that you’re noticing.
Do you need to take classes to do these two things? Maybe. You’d be entering into a social phenomenon, whatever else you’d be doing. So it's worth asking, how did “mindfulness” get where it is today?

Mindful used to mean, “bearing in mind,” – as in remembering. Someone who was mindful of their duties was remembering their duty – not forgetting it. If you were mindful of a slippery surface, you were remembering and keeping in mind that the surface was slippery.

Then in 1881, Thomas William Rhys David produced some translations of Buddhist scriptures, and he translated the Pali word sati as “mindfulness.” Perhaps a better translation of sati would be recognizing reality. Alternative translations include remembering the present, paying attention, being present. According to the Buddha, sati is one of the seven factors of enlightenment. (The other six, by the way, are investigation, determination, joy, tranquility, concentration, and equanimity.)

But it was Jon Kabat-Zinn, a century later, who took Rhys David’s word “mindfulness” and made it into a mass phenomenon. He did it by stripping away anything that smelled religious. By “smell religious,” I don’t mean a certain kind of belief. After all, believing, as Marxists do, that conflicts between employee and employer are the central driving force of iron laws of history that will necessarily eventually lead to government control of the means of production is roughly the same type of belief as that the second coming of Christ is imminent. Believing, as Freudians do, in Oedipus complexes is the same category of belief as believing in original sin. Believing, as Jeremy Bentham did, that one should always act to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number is the same kind of belief as believing one should adhere to the Ten Commandments. It’s not the kind of belief propounded that accounts for St. Paul, Mohammad, and Gotama being founders of religions while Marx, Freud, and Bentham are not. Rather it’s the other features typically found in what we recognize as religion:
  • priests or monks with distinctive robes;
  • special meeting places, usually architecturally distinctive, with a distinctive name like temple, church, mosque, or vihara, inside which are material symbols – altars and crucifixes or Torah scrolls or Buddha statues – or chalices;
  • unison practices like hymn singing or unison reading or chanting from sutras;
  • congregational community – which other forms of spiritual development like yoga classes or meeting with a spiritual director do not;
  • a distinctive economics: there’s no admission price for worship, or fee for classes, but rather a donation-based economics;
  • generally presumed exclusivity. While it is conceptually possible for one person to be both Christian and Buddhist, say – or both Unitarian Universalist and any other major world religion -- the general presumption is that, when it comes to religion, you choose just one, and it becomes a part of your identity. By contrast, the practices and teachings of cognitive behavioral therapy, or yoga, or marathon running, or wine connoisseurship, or BeyoncĂ© fandom don’t imply not being anything else.
Sati is a practice and teaching from Buddhism -- a religion with all the above trappings of religion. Kabat-Zinn's project was to promote the practice and teachings, but dissociate them from the accompaniments of a religion.

Next: Why was this necessary?

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "The Mindfulness Fad"
See also
Part 2: Mindfulness Goes Secular
Part 3: The Truth Behind the Fad


Persecutions Sometimes End

Witches, part 2

By the fall of 1692, people in Salem were beginning to come to a semblance of their senses. Many were questioning the sheer number of accusations – finding it improbable they could have that many witches. They began to question the trustworthiness of those who claimed to have been afflicted by the witches. Maybe the accusers were the ones who were lying? Suddenly – as suddenly as it had started – the witch craze was over. The numerous people still in custody were released.

We can easily surmise that behind the persecutions were resentments and grudges. There was also a fertile context of theological rigidity. As Stacy Schiff writes in The Witches: Salem 1692,
“Salem is in part the story of what happens when a set of unanswerable questions meets a set of unquestioned answers.”
As my colleague Rev. Erica Baron, herself a pagan trained in and active with the Temple of Witchcraft, put it:
“This is a story of a community willing to believe the worst about each other on some of the flimsiest evidence imaginable.”
1692 Salem was extreme, but every community harbors resentments, quarrels, grudges, jealousies.
Those tensions sometimes rend the fabric of community, and healing is in order.

Fourteen years after the witch persecution, in 1706, Ann Putnam, who had claimed to be afflicted by witchcraft and had accused over 60 people, apologized. Many of the jurors who had handed down guilty verdicts also apologized, signing a letter to the community and to descendants of those convicted and executed. They wrote:
“We confess that we ourselves were not capable to understand, nor able to withstand the mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness and prince of the air, but were for want of knowledge in ourselves and better information from others, prevailed with to take up with such evidence against the accused as on further consideration and better information, we justly fear was insufficient for the touching the lives of any...whereby we fear we have been instrumental with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon ourselves and this people of the Lord, the guilt of innocent blood....We do, therefore, hereby signify to all in general (and to the surviving sufferers in especial) our deep sense of and sorrow for our errors in acting on such evidence to the condemning of any person.”
1692 Salem was extreme, but women have long been the go-to group to blame for whatever is frustrating for the powerful, or, for that matter, the relatively powerless. No one has been literally burned to death in this country for being a witch for 300 years, but women continue to feel the burn of judgments that they are "witches" if they speak out against abuses they endure.

In the Salem of 1692, the sheer number of the accusations triggered a sudden shift, an opening of eyes -- a realization that this many women can't all be witches. Today we may see a dimly echoing parallel shift. The sheer number of accusations may – with any luck – trigger a similar eye-opening shift. This time the accusations are not against, but by, mostly women -- speaking up about sexual harassment and assault. But the growing realization is, again: this many women can't all be "witches."

In 1692, incredible accusations against mostly women were deemed credible. These days, highly credible accusations by mostly women have been disregarded and dismissed. Maybe we are prepared as a society now to see that women willing to speak up about unwanted advances are not some version of witches. As humans, we all want to be attractive and friendly. Women face additional burdens to not be attractive or friendly in what someone might perceive as "the wrong way" -- whatever that is -- yet still face harassment and assault, no matter how careful they've been, because it turns out it doesn't really have to do with attractiveness, or insufficiently prim dress or behavior. Mostly women and a few men face a double persecution: subjected to harassment or assault, and then subjected to a grueling and demeaning process if they speak up. Even on rare occasions when they win a significant monetary settlement, it comes with enforced silencing.

Ending the second persecution will go a long way to also ending the first. When victims can report harassment and assault and be taken seriously and believed, the impunity which allows that mistreatment to go on and on will be over.

In fall of 1692, in Salem, a persecution of mostly women very suddenly stopped. In fall of 2017, across the US, will another persecution of mostly women similarly suddenly stop? May it be so. May it be so.

* * *
This is part 2 of 2 of "Witches"
See also
Part 1: Witches!
I am indebted to my colleague Rev. Erica Baron, upon a sermon of whose I have relied.



Witches, part 1

One of the connections that the dominant US culture makes with Halloween is witches. So this Halloween I want to reflect with you about witches.

Witch is from the Old English wicce, meaning "female magician, sorceress." As Christianity spread through England, it came to mean "a woman supposed to have dealings with the devil or evil spirits and to be able by their cooperation to perform supernatural acts."

There were men, supposedly, who practiced witchcraft, too -- wizards and sorcerers. In fact, wicce is the Old English feminine and wicca the masculine for such practitioners. But this "dealings with the devil" idea has a very long-standing much stronger association with women. The Laws of Ælfred, established in about 890, for example, identified witchcraft as specifically a woman's craft, whose practitioners were not to be suffered to live among the West Saxons. Behind this, we see women's wisdom, power, or authority was resented and suspect.

The Biblical verse, Exodus 22:18, declares, in the King James, "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." The word rendered as "witch" meant "female sorcerer." That the feminine was specified apparently indicated that casting spells was much more common among women among the ancient Hebrews -- or that the patriarchal interests of the time were more threatened by women than men engaging in sorcery.

With that as background, let us turn to Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. It all began in January of that year with accusations against three people:
  • Sarah Good, a beggar who was disliked for constantly, well, begging – and showing little gratitude for what she received while cursing those who declined;
  • Sarah Osborne, also peripheral to the community, who was a widow engaged in a protracted court battle over the settlement of her husband’s will; and
  • Tituba, the Indian slave of the town minister’s family.
The two Sarahs maintained they were innocent of any devil consorting, but Tituba gave a long and lurid confession with all manner of strange details about her pact with the devil and blasphemous rituals. That really got the whole community worked up, and the search was on for others who might have participated. Eventually, 19 people would be executed: 14 women and 5 men.

Stacy Schiff, in her book, The Witches: Salem 1692, writes:
The youngest of the witches was five, the eldest nearly eighty. A daughter accused her mother, who in turn accused her mother, who accused a neighbor and a minister. A wife and daughter denounced their husband and father. Husbands implicated wives; nephews their aunts; sons-in-law their mothers-in-law; siblings each other. Only fathers and sons weathered the crisis unscathed. A woman who traveled to Salem to clear her name wound up shackled before the afternoon was out. In Andover, the community most severely affected – one of every 15 people was accused. The town’s senior minister discovered he was related to no fewer than 20 witches. Ghosts escaped their graves to flit in and out of the courtroom, unnerving more than did the witches themselves. Through the episode surge several questions that touch the third rail of our fears: Who was conspiring against you? Might you be a witch and not know it? Can an innocent person be guilty? Could anyone, wondered a group of men late in the summer, think himself safe? How did the idealistic Bay Colony arrive – three generations after its founding – in such a dark place? Nearly as many theories have been advanced to explain the Salem witch trials as the Kennedy assassination. Our first true-crime story has been attributed to generational, sexual, economic, ecclesiastical, and class tensions; regional hostilities imported from England; food poisoning; a hothouse religion in a cold climate; teenage hysteria; fraud, taxes, conspiracy; political instability; trauma induced by Indian attacks; and to witchcraft itself, among the more reasonable theories. You can blame atmospheric conditions or simply the weather: Historically, witchcraft accusations tended to spike in late winter. Over the years, various parties have played the villain, some more convincingly than others. The Salem villagers searched too to explain what sent a constable with an arrest warrant to which door. The pattern was only slightly more obvious to them than it is to us, involving as it did subterranean fairy circles of credits and debits, whispered resentments, long-incubated grudges, and half-forgotten aversions. Even at the time, it was clear to some that Salem was the story of one thing behind which was a story about something else altogether. In 300 years we have not adequately penetrated nine months of Massachusetts history. Things disturb us in the night. Sometimes they are our consciences. Sometimes they are our secrets. Sometimes they are our fears.
* * *
This is part 1 of 2 of "Witches"
See also:
Part 2: Persecutions Sometimes End
I am indebted to my colleague Rev. Erica Baron, upon a sermon of whose I have relied.


No More Disposability

Environmental Racism, part 2

There have been some victories in fighting back against environmental racism.
  • In 1989, the Louisiana Energy Services (LES) sought to build a privately-owned uranium enrichment plant just outside Homer, LA, straddling a road connecting two African American communities, Forest Grove and Center Springs. Residents sued, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atomic Safety and Licensing Board found that racial bias did play a role in the site selection process.
  • In Diamond, LA, a small, African-American neighborhood, was sandwiched between two large Shell Oil plants. For years, residents lived with an inescapable acrid, metallic odor and a chemical fog that seeped into their houses. They experienced headaches, stinging eyes, allergies, asthma, and other respiratory problems, skin disorders, and cancers. Periodic industrial explosions damaged their houses and killed some of their neighbors. Protests eventually led Shell to agree to relocate the residents.
Let me lay some historical context for this. The economics of slavery wasn’t just that the landowners got cheap labor. They got cheap dangerous labor. Slaves could be and were subjected to dangerous levels of heat, and mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria. After the civil war and a brief period of reconstruction, we re-created our habits of enslavement under other names: the share-cropping system and the prison system, for example. We also continued our national long-standing habit of subjecting people of color to greater environmental risks. The segregation created under the Jim Crow era, and continued through red-lining practices, did not merely concentrate minorities together – it concentrated them together in the more dangerous areas – or in areas that we then were more likely to make dangerous by putting pollution there.

It’s been 30 years since the UCC report, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States. Where are we today?
  • More than half of all people who live close to hazardous waste are people of color.
  • Black children are twice as likely to suffer from lead poisoning as white children.
  • Childhood asthma, linked to exposure to pollution, has actually been declining since 2011 – after rates doubled in the 1980s and 90s. So that’s good news. Still, more than 14 percent of black children have asthma, compared with about 8 percent of white children. And black children are also much more likely than white children to suffer severe complications.
  • The response to Hurricane Maria’s devastation of Puerto Rico has been lackluster compared to the response to Harvey in Houston and Irma in Florida.
The pattern of treating people of color as mattering less continues.

I’ve noticed that sometimes among Unitarian Universalists there’s what feels like a split. Some of us are more oriented to Climate Change. Nothing else really matters if we don’t ensure a future for the planet. Some of us don’t get so worked up about CO2 because unarmed young black men are being shot by police. But at root, it’s the same issue.

If we create a world where we don’t trash people, we can’t trash the planet. Environmental justice is not about environmental equity -- not about redistributing environmental harms. It's about abolishing them for everyone.

It's about, "No more disposability." A world without disposable people, without disposable communities, without disposable species, will require a world without disposable plastics. "No throwaway planet" and "no throwaway people" are one concept, one idea, one value.

* * *
This is part 2 of 2 of "Environmental Racism"
See also
Part 1: Racism and the Environment


Racism and the Environment

Environmental Racism, part 1

It was 30 years ago, in 1987, that the United Church of Christ conducted a study. (The UCC is generally regarded as the next most liberal historically-Protestant denomination after the Unitarian Universalists. I went to a UCC seminary, and the joke that they themselves tell on themselves is that UCC stands for “Unitarians Considering Christ.” Some years ago, UUA and UCC teamed up to create the "Our Whole Lives" sexuality education curriculum. That was a joint project of our two denominations.)

The UCC’s work in the area of environmental racism has been way ahead of ours. Thirty years ago the UCC Commission for Racial Justice undertook an extensive study of the subject. Their report, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, found that:
  • Communities with a commercial hazardous waste facility averaged 24% minority.
Even more striking,
  • communities with two or more [commercial hazardous waste] facilities -- or one of the nation's five largest landfills – averaged 38% minority.
  • communities with no such facility averaged just 12% minority.
Socio-economic status – class -- also played a significant role, but race was still more significant.
Minority groups continue to be burdened with a disproportionate number of environmental hazards.

The report is available HERE.

Let's now jump to a much more recent situation. Flint, Michigan. The city has just under 100,000 people, 41% poor and 57% African-American.

In 2014, Michigan state authorities, to save money, switched the water supply of Flint, MI, from Lake Huron to the Flint River, known for its pollution. Almost immediately, boil advisories had to be issued because fecal coliform bacteria was flowing into the homes of Flint. Because the Flint River is polluted to begin with, water from that river is corrosive. Flint River water was found to be 19 times more corrosive than water from Lake Huron. Treatment with anti-corrosive agents would go a long way to address that, and federal law requires such treatment. But the state Department of Environmental Quality violated that federal law and simply didn’t treat Flint’s water with anti-corrosive agents.

So this corrosive water, unmitigated in its corrosion, began flowing to Flint. It was coming in through aging pipes, and because it was so corrosive, it leached lead out of the pipes. Lead content in the drinking and bathing water in Flint shot so high it met the EPA’s definition of "toxic waste."

In fairness to the state of Michigan, as fair as we can be, the switch to the Flint River was always meant as a temporary measure for two years while a new pipeline from Lake Huron was being constructed. OK, good to note. But, still! It is not OK for the water in people’s homes to be toxic waste for two years – or even for one day. Is there any doubt that what happened to Flint would never have happened to a predominantly middle-class and white city?

Black lives matter. Black lives matter because all lives matter. Yet black lives are treated as mattering less than white lives. One of the ways we see black lives counting for less is environmental racism – that is, burdening minority groups with a disproportionate number of hazards, such as toxic waste facilities, garbage dumps, and sources of pollution.

Consider the case of Altgeld Gardens, a housing community Chicago, was built on an abandoned landfill and is surrounded by 53 toxic facilities and 90% of Chicago’s landfills. Mercury, ammonia gas, lead, DDT, PCBs, PAHs, heavy metals, and xylene, are among the known toxins and pollutants affecting the area, and residents suffer excessive rates of prostate, bladder, and lung cancer; children born with brain tumors; fetal brains developing outside the skull; asthma, ringworm, and other ailments. The population of Altgeld Gardens is 90% African-American and 65% below the poverty level.

Chester, PA, has five large waste facilities (including a trash incinerator, a medical waste incinerator, and a sewage treatment plant) with a total permitted capacity of 2 million tons of waste per year – compared to merely 1,400 tons allowed in all the rest of Delaware County, PA.
Chester residents suffer a cancer rate 2.5 times higher than anywhere else in Pennsylvania and a mortality rate 40% higher than the rest of Delaware county. Chester is 65% African American.

Our nations floodplains have high populations of blacks and Hispanics, placing them at higher risk if a flood comes. And, in fact, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, institutionalized practices had segregated minorities into the most vulnerable low-lying areas. Not only that, but New Orleans’ evacuation plans relied heavily on the use of cars. In New Orleans, 100,000 city residents, disproportionately minority, had no car. Hundreds who could not evacuate died. And then, after the hurricane, the federal response, according to many black leaders, was slow and incomplete. At the time of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was 60.5% African American.

These are the results of racism manifesting in the way environmental issues are handled.

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This is part 1 of 2 of "Environomental Racism"
See also
Part 2: No More Disposability