On the Ecology of Racism

Posted February 4th, 2015 in Blog, Featured, Zine Comments Off on On the Ecology of Racism

It has one – racism has an ecology. As I wrote a few days ago about fossil fuels, so of racism. What we said about ecology is that it is about “a web of interconnection, intricate, complex, ubiquitous, supporting” – in this case, supporting what? A way of being, entitlement and privilege, attitudes, identities, and underneath it there is an energy, a force, a resonance that impacts everything around it, everything it touches, every part of the reality in which it is allowed to exist.

At first glance, it appears to be more an anti-ecology, an attempt to separate out, fragment, isolate. It is mechanistic in the extreme – pulling the “human machine” apart into isolated fragments, then thinking those fragments are or can be actually isolated in a world this crowded now, this overlapping, this tightly woven by economies, urbanization, transportation, breathing the same air, drinking from the same sources of water, walking down the same streets.


…without my sisters and brothers.

We don’t live in separate worlds anymore. Our tribes have moved, have reproduced, have intermarried, have migrated across borders over centuries of war and empire-building and the search for evermore resources to use up for human commerce, and sailing across oceans, conquering new lands, while growing population at ever-increasing rates until we have nowhere else for our tribes to run and hide, except to the exurbs or the gated-communities, and even those don’t work anymore, not really.

There is no way any longer for tribes of race, ethnic identity, and culture to live with no connection to one another, or worse, with one fragment of the human species dominant over all the others, those others kept at a safe distance – not if we want to restore balance to our lives on this planet.

If we understand ecology correctly, we know this kind of separation is impossible. It is a form of socio-cultural mechanistic thinking – a belief that we can break ecology, in this case human ecology, into separate parts, isolate ourselves into enclaves with little or no contact with the “other,” and create a stable, happy world for those isolated parts. Rather than create wholesome and peaceful communities, the attempt creates intense tensions, huge amounts of energy directed toward enforcing this unnatural form of human life. It breeds resentment, anger, fear. It makes it impossible to work for the common good because there is no sense that the “good” is held in common.

Photo: Margaret Swedish

Photo: Margaret Swedish

Ecology means that we can never cut ourselves off from the reality of the whole. Even that attempt impacts the whole, and the reaction of the whole to our attempt at separation impacts everything around us. The attempt itself has enormous consequences for the ecological community made up of all sentient and non-sentient beings in any bioregion. It reveals an attitude toward Nature itself. What we do to one another we do to Nature. The connection between our ravaging of the Earth and our ravaging of one another has long been noted in the community of ecologists and poets, among others.

Racism and ethnic discrimination is not working anymore…it never really worked. It took thousands of years of an awful bloody tribal history marked by those empires, cultures, races that felt or feel superior to another, conquering and/or suppressing people of other cultures or races (or who worshiped other gods) and ruling over them with great cruelty, or engaging in ethnic wars that resulted in building yet more resentment leading to more ethnic conflict (think Ukraine right now, or Sunni v. Shiite, or how anti-immigrant zealots in Texas and Arizona responded to Central American children fleeing to the U.S. to escape gang violence) for us to finally begin to come to terms with the meaning and the reality of racism and ethnic oppression in our world, and here at home.

Or here in my hometown of Milwaukee and its surrounding suburbs, for example, where we are, sadly, one of the most racially segregated in all of the country. Has it helped create a healthy ecology in this bioregion? We can’t even create a light rail system in the Greater Milwaukee Area, or efficient bus lines to the suburbs where the jobs are, because so many who have fled “otherness,” what for decades has been called “white flight,” are afraid of who might get on those trains and buses and show up in the streets of their sprawling communities. So every day, the tens of thousands get in their cars and hit the highways, while demanding more and more highways to accommodate their desire to remain separate, burning more fossil fuels and spewing more carbon into the atmosphere, while paving over some of the state’s richest farmland.

blmWe see the racist tensions in our own streets, as in Ferguson, New York City, and Milwaukee, yet many refuse to see them in the same light as the ethnic conflicts in other parts of the world which we roundly condemn. This society is a long way from overcoming this cultural legacy. In fact, as the era of the civil rights struggle in the U.S. waned, those who felt displaced by the struggle for social justice and equal rights became a reactionary force that has reshaped the politics and culture of US America, a potent politics of resentment that reached a crescendo when the country put an African-American family in the White House. The nation has moved backwards. What so many call the red-and-blue divide, when you see the sea of deep red that blankets the south or the sea of red that now surrounds the city of Milwaukee, you see a picture of what is really going on, what most people are still afraid of saying out loud – about what the colors that divide us really are.

In order to understand that deep-seated cultural legacy, we would have to talk about that history; we would have to acknowledge that this country was built on slavery and the oppression of millions of people (not to mention the extermination of former inhabitants of this land) and that without that we would never have become the powerful nation we claim now to be. We want to believe this great nation was built upon principles of freedom and democracy, but the reality is that disenfranchised people have always had to struggle like hell to be included under the banner of those principles. If the European invaders had not enslaved Africans for two centuries, this great North American economy would never have come to be.

Earth from Galileo - NASA photo

Like it or not, we all share this one round world. NASA photo

That, too, is ecology, the interrelatedness of all things, all energies within which we live and move and have our being. Thich Nhat Hahn calls it “inter-being,” an ecology across both space and time. One thing leads to another. Because there is this, there is that. Suchness. The “who” that we really are.

Not saying this out loud, holding back from articulating clearly that this is a large part of what is at work in the nation’s political culture right now, is like pretending that the rise in CO2 and methane is not fundamental to the rise in global temperature leading to climate change, and certainly has nothing to do with all those cars we drive or tanks and fighters we build.

We are, all of us, profoundly interconnected. When we tear at the fabric of life, we weaken the web that holds us all. And that does not just mean the ravaging of Alberta’s boreal forest by the tar sands industry, or the raping of the Earth by fracking wells that drill deeply into shale rock, fracture it, break it open so that oil and gas can be released, or the fouling of our oceans by pollution on a scale beyond imagining – it also means what people do to the human community by way of racist exclusion, ethnic genocide, claims of racial superiority, or a thousand acts of environmental injustice thrust upon people who are poor and not-white.

Marktown, a community of working class African-Americans in the shadows of the BP refinery in Whiting IN. BP is slowly buying out and destroying the community as it expands its capacity. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Marktown, a community of working class African-Americans in the shadows of the BP refinery in Whiting IN. BP is slowly buying out and destroying the community as it expands its capacity. Photo: Margaret Swedish. See also: Historic town fears for its future

Here is one horrific example of what I mean: China Is Building a $1.85B Methanol Plant in ‘Cancer Alley’ Louisiana But No One Bothered To Inform Its Predominantly Black Community. The same mentality that is destroying the atmosphere and biosphere of the planet by way of industrialization is at work within the African-American community of Louisiana, one of thousands upon thousands of examples we could cite.

Too many people think they can work to preserve Nature apart from working for social and economic justice and for world peace (war being one of the greatest sources of destruction to humans and the Earth).

Racism is also an ecology. In this case, it is an all-too-human ecology. I quote again the definition of “human ecology” from Merriam-Webster that was in my last post: “a branch of sociology dealing especially with the spatial and temporal interrelationships between humans and their economic, social, and political organization.”

And the point I’m going to argue here is this: we cannot heal the ecology of the planet, we cannot salvage the “environment” for human survival, we cannot bring the human community back into a sustainable balance with the life-giving dynamisms of the Earth, if we do not address this essential aspect of our ecological reality.

Worshop on gender justice at the Body & Soul Healing Arts Center in Milwaukee on MLK holiday. Photo: Venice Williams

Worshop on gender justice at the Body & Soul Healing Arts Center in Milwaukee on MLK holiday. Photo: Venice Williams

White people are not going to save this planet from global warming and the sixth great extinction. The human community, mimicking Nature – diverse, plural, all mixed up with one another in a vibrant cross-cultural sharing of wisdom, expertise, real knowledge, life experience, ecological spiritualities, bonded together by a deep hope for survival and the dream of a different kind of world than this one – that human community, in deep relationship with other sentient and non-sentient beings, is the only kind of community that can save a human future, a human share of the story of Gaia.

Life exists and thrives in diversity. Cultural anthropologists have written with great concern about the loss of languages and cultures all around the world as the monoculture of industrial/consumer economies invades every nation, every corner of the planet where people live (i.e., where a market exists). Some say that the loss of each language is an extinction as devastating as extinctions of unique irreplaceable species, because each one holds a unique way of experiencing life and meaning, another way of seeing the world. That cultural diversity in sync with the biodiversity of specific bioregions is part of what keeps those eco-communities protected in their integrity. After all, the Earth evolved them for a reason, and they have survived for a reason. Extinguishing this wisdom for the sake of consumer products and market shares is reckless in the extreme. Humans destroy places and communities before we even know them, understand them, appreciate why they are there and the role they play in the bigger scheme of things.

Alice's Garden: growing food and community in the central city. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Alice’s Garden: growing food and community in the central city. Photo: Margaret Swedish

Think of the wild diversity of Nature! Why do we humans so fear this among ourselves? Do we not all need one another in order to flourish? As we consider the interlocking nature of this globalizing reality in which we are fully embedded in this era of dense population and ecological crises, can we begin to realize the treasures we hold among ourselves in that wild diversity that could help heal this planet – heal it not only biologically but from all these wounds of violence and separation and injustice?

Aren’t we all in this together? Isn’t that what we have learned – finally? Haven’t we finally learned from science and the world of Nature in which we are included that all boundaries are porous, from the air we breathe to the water we drink to the animals and plants we eat and the cells of our own bodies – nothing exists by itself. Different aspects of the ecological whole depend on one another in order to live at all.

And so of the human community. We live in an ecology of mutual need and support. It’s time, and past time, that we start living as if that is the case. Our future survival now depends on it.

~ by Margaret Swedish

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