Negotiating Controversy and Contradiction

Racial Problems and Solutions: Negotiating Controversy
and Contradiction
US population trends have fluctuated broadly over the course of the twentieth
century. Early in the century, white American women born in the USA gave birth to
an average of 3.5 children over the course of their lifetimes (Kent and Mather 2002).
High levels of immigration fromEastern Europe contributed to fears of overpopulation
amongwhite people in the USA in the 1900s, followed by public concern over depopulation
after birth rates plummeted following the Great Depression in the 1930s.
These trends reversed once again during the post-World War II baby boom, in which
the average women gave birth to three or four children, adding 76 million people to
the US population between 1946 and 1964 (Kent and Mather 2002). Although immigration
trends have always had a significant impact on changes in US population
growth and decline, the role of immigration in national population growth took on
particular political significance in the early 1990s, after a plateau period of population
stability in the preceding twenty years was reversed. According to the Population
Reference Bureau, the US population increased by 33 million people between 1990
and 2000, a number nearly equivalent to the entire population of Argentina
(Population Reference Bureau 2011). During the 1990s, 60% of this growth was
contributed by natural increase (resulting from the difference between births
and deaths), and the remainder was the result of netmigration into the country (Kent
and Mather 2002).
Against the backdrop of a growing US population, a group known as Californians
for Population Stabilization (CAPS), organized in 1986, initiated a series of roundtable
discussions to define a shared agenda for “preserving California’s environment by
stabilizing population growth”.2 Excerpts from position statements submitted for
inclusion in CAPS’ 1990 roundtable reveal considerable anti-immigrant sentiment,
as a 1990 private letter written by a member of the group demonstrated:
“California adds over 2,000 people a day to its population. To keep pace with this escalating
growth, the state must make space on its roadways for an additional 1,000 automobiles,
construct nearly 20 new classrooms, and add approximately 800 housing units
per day … the United States Congress is considering legislation which would increase the
number of immigrants coming to America … since California receives approximately 35%
of the nation’s legal immigrants and refugees, that would amount to 350,000 new
Californians per year. Knowing that countless hoards [sic] of illegals cross the border into
California, passage of any measure in Congress which increases immigration, would be
[a] harsh a blow to our state…” (emphasis in the original).
This letter was a part of a larger project to push the Sierra Club, as California’s
largest environmental organization, into taking an explicit stance on immigrationled
population growth. Although there were many actors involved in these developments,
many of the strategies launched at this time can be linked to one man: John
Tanton. In October 1986, in a document known as the “Witan3 Memo”, Tanton
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outlined his positions on “assimilation and the character of American society”
(Southern Poverty Law Center, SPLC, 2002a). In it, he articulated a strong anti-Latino
immigration stance, arguing that immigrant Latinos threaten the cultural fabric of
American society, threatening to increasingly seize legislative power, impose
widespread Catholicism and Spanish language policies, instituting a system of apartheid
in California, and threaten white political, social and educational dominance
across the state and the nation. Central to the document was Tanton’s stance on
the impact of immigration on environmental sustainability. In a section of the memo
titled “Conservation and Demography”, he asks:
What will be the effect on the conservationmovement, which has drawn its support in the
past from other than the minorities, and which has relied on the political power of the
majority to pass legislative measures? As the people that groups like the Sierra Club represent
go into opposition (minority political status), will many of the things they’ve worked
for be lost because the new majority holds other values?
Lest members of the Sierra Club and other organizations were tempted to dismiss
Tanton’s inflammatory rhetoric, he cautioned in ominous tones that: “The Sierra Club
may not want to touch the immigration issue, but the immigration issue is going to
touch the Sierra Club! (To mention just one group)” (Southern Poverty Law Center,
SPLC, 2002a).
Although Tanton’s statements read as inflammatory, itwould have been difficult for
Sierra Club leaders to dismiss Tanton himself as irrelevant. Tanton headed up the
Sierra Club’s Population Committee in the 1970s and served as past president of Zero
Population Growth (SPLC, 2002b), before starting a slew of anti-immigration, nativist
organizationswith ties towhite nationalists (Levison et al. 2010). In the 1990s, Tanton
fulfilled his promise that the immigration issue would touch the Sierra Club. When
Sierra Club President J. Robert Cox was warned in 1996 that Club members were
planning to push immigration onto the institutional agenda, he and the Club’s
population programleaders agreed to adopt a statement of neutrality on US immigration.
Thismove was significant in that it amounted to a reversal of the Club’s population
policy, first adopted in 1969, which had included language emphasizing the
stabilization and reduction of the US population. While articulating this new position
of neutrality on domestic population issues, the Club they opted to continue to
address global population growth, which they “understood … had serious consequences
for air, the land and the food supply, of course” (SPLC 2004; emphasis
In response to the Club’s abrupt policy reversal, a group called Sierrans for US
Population Stabilization (SUSPS) formed in 1996, and gained Club membership in
significant numbers for the purpose of placing a referendum on immigration on the
next ballot. Over the next several years, SUSPS and other anti-immigrant groups
organized to place various anti-immigrant ballot initiatives on the agenda during club
elections, and mobilized an effort to take over the organization’s board in 2004.
Leaders within the Club were outraged by what appeared to be an imminent hostile
takeover of the organization, and mobilized vocally against the election of the new
board. One former Club leader described this period as the greatest threat in the
Club’s history (Park and Pellow 2011). A coalition of activists both inside and outside
From Darkness Into Light 1247
© 2013 The Author. Antipode © 2013 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
of the Club came together to defeat the initiative, specifically to fight the board takeover
(Erickson and Brotsky 1998). Although the 2004 election was heavily contested,
the anti-immigrant candidates were defeated by a wide margin, a process that was
repeated in the subsequent election in 2005 (Martin 2004; SPLC 2004). To this day,
the Sierra Club maintains a position of neutrality on immigration; its official population
policy includes a statement that, “Reflecting the vote of itsmembership, the Sierra
Club takes no position on immigration levels or on policies governing immigration
into the United States” (Sierra Club 2007).
The immigration controversy within the Sierra Club had a large ripple effect among
other environmental organizations that were operating population programs in the
USA. As the quote at the beginning of this article demonstrates, it arose during a
moment in which environmental organizations were already being challenged along
the lines of racial inequality, critiqued for imbalances in leadership and agenda setting.
The population issue was seen as adding fuel to the fire. Yet, the controversy was not
enough to deter all members of the organization, nor its population program
managers, from addressing population growth. A former manager of the Club’s
Global Population Environment Program (GPEP),who came into the Club shortly after
the controversy, found it important to address the issue head on, and to frame it
through what she saw as a positive, poverty reduction lens:
Author: During your tenure with GPEP, did you ever deal with domestic population
growth? Did immigration come up?
Former GPEP manager: I found, especially directing the program, I was very open and
honestwith people,when doing presentations, that it’s actually an issue. And for themany
reasons why Sierra Club doesn’t work on it politically, it would make sense for the organization
to address it on many levels … when it comes to women, when it comes to migration,
what are the root causes of migration? It’s something we can hopefully help to
alleviate, like in how forced migration or poverty make people leave their home countries.
So we would try to spin it in such a way that we would look at root causes for why people
are leaving their home countries and what Sierra Club could do … throughout my history
there [at the Club] it was always an issue and we had to be very clear in how we spoke to
the public and the opposition. It’s always going to come up. When talking about demographics
or population issues, immigration is a part of the challenge.
Rather than avoid the issue of immigration and environment, the question for some
environmental advocates since that time has been howto participate effectively in the
debate without degenerating into accusations of racism or scapegoating. A manager
at one ENGO started a condom campaign in 2010 featuring catchy slogans linking
condomusewith the protection of endangered animal species, and initial distribution
of condoms quickly reached 300,000, creating a months-long backlog for would-be
distributors (personal interview). When interviewed, the manager argued that it is
necessary for population–environment advocates to address population growth in
the USA, and not to cede the debate to those who make accusations of racism:
“If we as a progressive organization can’t talk about overpopulation, then only those who
really are racist will be the ones talking about it … Pointing fingers across racial and ethnic
1248 Antipode
© 2013 The Author. Antipode © 2013 Antipode Foundation Ltd.
lines is a recipe for disaster, and as a progressive organization, we’re not going to go there
or adopt that message. We don’t address immigration at all unless we’re forced to in the
media. It’s a racist, damaging argument; the finger is being pointed at Latinos, not Canadians
or Brits. We’re trying to set an example as an organization, saying that you can address these
issues without talking about race, ethnicity, or national origin.” (personal interview).
For many ENGOs, the Sierra Club immigration controversy served as an indicator
that discussions of population and environment in the USA would render environmental
organizations vulnerable to charges of racism, anti-immigrant hatred and
political conservatism. Plagued by a history of controversy, and critiqued bywomen’s
rights groups and people of color activists, the population-environment advocacy
communitymounted a concerted effort to re-brand its advocacy approach as positive,
progressive and forward-thinking. In what follows, I trace some of the emergent representation
strategies engaged by the Sierra Club to shift the context of population–
environment advocacy, focusing on the role of racialized bodies in both constructing
the population “problem”, and its solution.
Knowing and Representing Others

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