“Whitened Buddhism” and the opiate of the masses

Carolyn Chen, a UC Berkeley sociologist who studies religion, spent the last few years studying religion in Silicon Valley. She’s especially interested in the way work has become a religion for the tech workers of Silicon Valley — and in the way tech companies use religion to keep their workers in line.

Not surprisingly, given the stark realities of Silicon Valley, Chen finds that White supremacy is alive and well in this toxic mix of work, religion, and corporate control. In her book Work Pray Code, Chen writes about how tech companies co-opt Buddhism in service of making workers compliant and more productive:

“Most White Westerners don’t realize that the Buddhism they know is a particular brand of Buddhism that has been repeatedly altered and adapted to appeal to them…. This brand of ‘nonreligious’ Buddhism, however, has racial implications. It associated Asian Buddhism’s ‘rituals, robes, and chanting’ with ‘the complications of religious tradition.’ It dismisses the religious reality of most Buddhists who are Asian and is therefore a form of White supremacy….”

For this last insight, Chen cites Race and Religion in American Buddhism: White Supremacy and Immigrant Adaptation by Joseph Cheah (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011); looks like I’ll have to add that book to my reading list. Chen then goes on to detail the ways in which Whitened Buddhism ignore the religious realities of Asians:

“For the vast majority of Buddhists who reside in Asia, Buddhism is a devotional faith that involves the veneration of deities and beliefs in the supernatural. For example, in Chinese, the phrase that describes practicing Buddhism, ‘bai Buddha,’ translates to ‘worship Buddha.’ Most lay Buddhists in Asia orient their devotional practices — offerings of incense and fruit, ritual chanting, praying, bowing, donating money to temples and monasteries — to the attainment of merit or a favorable rebirth….”

Of course, for Silicon Valley tech companies enamored of Buddhism, what Buddhism is really all about is things like meditation. And meditation is supposedly a value-neutral “technology,” not a religious practice. Whitened Buddhism focuses on things, like meditation, that can increase worker productivity and worker compliance. Whereas non-White Buddhism is deliberately ignored:

“Whitened Buddhism tends to protray the ‘religious’ Buddhism of Asians and Asian Americans as burdened by unnecessary accoutrements — ‘complications,’ ‘culture,’ ‘folklore,’ ethnicity,’ baggage’ — that distract from the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. For example, Mandy Stephens, whose company runs a meditation app for corporate clients, explains that they distill medication to ‘the fundamentals,’ ‘the part that isn’t religious or spiritual.’ Her company gets to ‘the fundamentals’ by getting rid of teachers who are ‘zany gurus’ [i.e., non-White] and replacing them with ‘strait-laced [White] trainers’ in [Western] business casual clothes. The chanting at the local Asian temple is ‘folklore,’ says former tech executive Pierre Beaumont, irrelevant to ‘what’s good for me in meditation.’ Mandy and Pierre dismiss the very elements of Buddhism that tens of millions of Asians hold most dear.” [my comments in brackets]

Because if you’re White, it’s apparently OK to co-opt whatever you want out of other religious traditions, and use it for whatever you feel like. And then you can say it’s not even really religion: “This Whitened Buddhism becomes a ‘universal philosophy’ and ‘science.’ It become ‘White’ — floating above context, invisible, and normal….” [Chen, excerpts from pp. 165-167]

I find the entire Silicone Vally Religion of Work to be repellent. But I find this especially repellent: co-opting a non-White religious tradition, perverting it from its original purpose to stop the endless cycle of rebirth, and instead using broken bits of it to control workers.

Indeed, as Chen notes elsewhere in her book, when tech companies offer things like meditation and mindfulness training to help tech workers deal with the overwhelming demands of Silicon Valley overwork, these companies are merely offering “therapeutic interventions, Band-Aids lovingly applied to deep and gaping wounds. Their programs might not be too distant from the ‘opiate of the masses’ that [Karl] Marx wrote about.” [Chen, p. 85]

Not OK

Someone pointed out to me that Star Island has posted an interesting job opening. Star Island, for those of you who aren’t familiar with it, is a retreat center off the coast of New Hampshire that was founded by Unitarians and liberal Congregationalists, and remains affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the UUA.

The position, titled “Island Minister/Beloved Community Project Manager,” will “work to further Star Island Corporation’s Beloved Community Project — a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative that is a core strategic priority of the Star Island Corporation (SIC).” This is a laudable goal, and it’s simply amazing that a nonprofit would hire a full-time year-round staffer to oversee diversity, equity, and inclusion.

There’s just one problem. The job posting does not list the salary range. Instead, applicants are told to submit their “salary requirements.”

I call bullshit.

The reason I call bullshit — and the reason that I use such a strong word to describe their action — is that refusal to include a salary range in a job posting is in itself a discriminatory act. In fact, in some jurisdictions, it is now illegal to post a job with no salary range: BBC news recently reported that Colorado now requires all job posting to include the hourly wage or the salary range. Similarly, SHRM recently reported that New York City will require all job posting in the city to include salary ranges. Why? Manhattan Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal says, “Failure to include a salary range would be considered a discriminatory practice.” That’s right, a discriminatory practice.

BBC has also reported: “Research shows that the pay gap, which is well documented, partly stems from the ‘ask gap’: the difference in salary expectations between groups, which undercuts women and minorities in particular. Closing this gendered and racialised ‘ask gap’ can pay major dividends for careers, reducing long-term salary inequality.”

Star Island is engaging in a discriminatory hiring practice — a practice that’s illegal in Colorado and New York City — in order to hire a staffer who will oversee diversity, equity, and inclusion. Oh, the irony. If you’re someone who has connections to Star Island (especially if you make donations to them), please contact their board and CEO and call them out on this racist, sexist practice.

We also need to call out all the UU congregations that post jobs with no salary range. Some day if I ever have time, I’m going to go through the job postings on the UUA “Jobs Board” and the LREDA employment postings and make a list of all the congregations that post jobs with no salary range — a sort of “Hall of Shame,” showing which congregations have racist, sexist hiring practices.

This is an equity issue that’s easy to fix. Let’s fix it.

Generational divide

Paul Gilroy is a professor at University College London, and director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the Study of Race and Racism there. He’s four years older than I am, and though in many ways we’re quite different it turns out we share a perception of today’s anti-racism work:

“Anti-racism has changed since Gilroy’s youth, its edge blunted. For much of the 20th century, being against racism meant being for a radically different political and economic settlement, such as socialism or communism. Today it can mean little more than doing what Gilroy mockingly calls ‘McKinsey multiculturalism’: keeping unjust societies as they are, except with a few ‘black and brown bodies’ in the corporate boardrooms. (‘I’m not very interested in decolonising the 1%’ he [says].) What is left is a more individualistic anti-racist culture, which is keen on checking privilege and affirming the validity of other people’s experiences, but has trouble creating durable institutions or political programmes.” — “The Last Humanist,” Yohann Koshy, The Guardian, August 5, 2021.

One reason I continue to call myself an “unrepentant Marxist” is that capitalism has proved unable to change racist systems in the U.S. (Indeed, from a historical perspective it’s arguable that capitalism initially thrived due to the way it exploited nonwhite labor, e.g., chattel slavery in the U.S.) I recognize that my view represents a tiny minority in the United States, or indeed in Unitarian Universalist circles, and that I may very well be wrong. However, if capitalism was able to solve the problem of racism in the U.S., I would think it would have done so many years ago. And it’s hard to see how a system built on inequality, as capitalism has always been, could somehow magically create racial equality. While Marxism may be the wrong answer, it’s no less wrong than capitalism.

Where does that leave us? sa Paul Gilroy points out, we’re left with an “individualistic anti-racist culture” which does not seriously address unjust societies.

Reforming police, 1969

In July, 1969, Jules Siegel interviewed several Black Panthers for an article he was writing. The Panthers he spoke to talked quite a bit about a topic that has been very much in the news over the past year — reforming the police. Field Marshal “D.C.” [Donald Cox] of the Black Panthers laid out the fundamental problem:

“It has been called police brutality. It’s a matter of educating people to the fact that yes, it’s brutal, but the term for it is fascism. Black people already know, because they’ve lived under fascist terror ever since we’ve been in this country. Fascism is the police running amok in the black community.”

“Poison,” a field lieutenant from the Chicago Black Panthers, outlined the Panthers’ solution — community control of police:

“Lots of people don’t understand what community control means. It means giving the people a voice. Right now they have no voice because it is a centralist form of government. Community control of the police doesn’t mean that the community would take over the present pig [i.e., police] department. It means that people will have people from within that community policing that community. If one of these police would commit a crime against the people, he [sic] would have to come home at night. It’s a hard thing to go home if you’ve committed a crime against your own people. Before you commit that crime, you begin to think.”

It’s also important to note that Field Marshal D.C. asserted that the fascism of the police was not rooted in race and racism per se:

“It’s in the interest of the power structure to propagate the idea that it’s a race struggle rather than a class struggle. As long as they can keep people divided into ethnic groups, the masses are not going to join together to form a united front against the exploiter who is oppressing everyone.”

In short, the Panthers saw that the real problem was not the police, but the power structure that the police represented.

The Black Panthers had many problems, including rampant sexism. But I still find much of their vision for society compelling. They saw that U.S. capitalism was upheld by a form of fascism, and that police brutality was one manifestation of that fascism. They wanted to wrest social control away from “the oppressor,” and put that control back in the hands of the people. And they combined grand theory with practical action: by July, 1969, the Panthers’ “Breakfast for Children” program was feeding 50,000 children a week across the U.S. In spite of their flaws, theirs was a grand vision for a more just and egalitarian society. This vision provides a necessary context for their proposals for police reform.

A screen grab from a National Archives video of the Black Panthers, c. 1966-1969, showing Party leader Kathleen Cleaver (?) speaking at Hutton Memorial Park, Oakland.

Notes: Interview excerpts from “The Black Panthers” by Jules Siegel, from his book Record (San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books/Rolling Stone, 1972). More about the Black Panther Party at the National Archives, including vintage video footage, and brief biographies of prominent women Panthers.

Anti-racism failure in a liberal college

My Philadelphia cousin sent me a link to an article from The Philadelphia Inquirer he thought I might find interesting: “Haverford College students launched a strike last fall after a racial reckoning. The impact still lingers”:

“In 1972 … [Haverford’s] Black Student League announced a boycott of campus activities over institutional racism. … Fast forward nearly 50 years: A 2018-19 campus report found that Black and Latino students at Haverford were less likely to feel they had meaningful social interactions on campus and that their academics were well-supported.”

That’s the college where I took my undergraduate degree in 1983. Reading this article makes it look like one thing hasn’t changed since 1983: the student body is still overwhelmingly white. Another hasn’t changed: in spite of its woke rhetoric, Haverford College still hasn’t confronted the systemic racism that was painfully obvious decades ago ago when I was a student.

Sadly, this is probably true of many of the so-called elite liberal arts colleges. As Haverford student Rasaaq Shittu put it in an op-ed piece published in The Inquirer back in July: “Primarily white, outwardly liberal institutions like Haverford have such a long history of talking the talk without living up to it.” Which is another thing that hasn’t changed since my day. No wonder non-white students called for a two-week student strike last fall to protest the systemic racism at Haverford.

However, one thing that has changed since my day is the cost of an education at one of these elite liberal arts colleges. Today’s students at Haverford pay an astonishing $75,000 per year for tuition, room, and board. When I was there, the inflation-adjusted cost was about $17,000 per year, so the inflation-adjusted cost has quadrupled. Thus while I completely agree with the goals of the student strike, I did not agree with one of the strike strategies. The strike organizers asked students to miss two weeks of class, and also to stop eating at the dining center for two weeks, and also to stop working at their campus jobs. If that strike had happened in my day, I wonder if I could have afforded to participate.

And maybe this reveals that another thing has not changed since my time as a student in an elite liberal arts college: as elite institutions, these colleges are pervaded with both racism and classism. Compare the Haverford strike with the Black Panthers, who provided both food and shelter for people in their organization. Or compare the Haverford strike with unions which build up a strike fund so they can give financial assistance to striking workers. This lack of awareness on the part of strike organizers about the financial realities of less affluent students demonstrates the enduring classism of elite liberal arts colleges like Haverford College. Since all oppressions are linked (as we used to say back in my radical days), we should not be surprised that an institution pervaded by unacknowledged racism is also pervaded by unacknowledged classism.

One conclusion: For those of you looking for a college to attend, be wary of elite liberal arts colleges. Very wary. Instead, try looking at community colleges and state university systems, where you can often get excellent teaching (from professors with degrees from excellent graduate schools), in company with a far more diverse student body (from whom you will learn more than from a heterogenous student body), for a hell of a lot less money.

And I will freely admit my bias: My older sister, who is an excellent teacher (I’ve observed her in the classroom and her pedagogical skills are superior to any of my Haverford professors), teaches in a branch campus of Indiana University. Well, maybe that’s not bias, maybe that’s just first-hand information.

Verdict

I don’t know about you, but I’m relieved that the jury in the Derek Chauvin trial took less than a day to reach a verdict of guilty on all counts. This was such a clearcut case of murder.

But you know Chauvain will appeal the verdict. And there are three more people facing charges in George Floyd’s murder. And there are so many more cases like this out there. This verdict is not the end of the story.

Notable year-end quote

“Black critics have pointed out some evangelicals use abortion as a way to recuse themselves from the movement for Black lives and the injustices that disproportionately harm Black people. The claim of banning abortion often masks a commitment to white power. I’m wondering how that’s going to work in the future.”

— Andre Henry, program manager, Racial Justice Institute at Christians for Social Action; from Religion News Service, “What to expect on the religious scene in 2021: Experts cast their sights on the year ahead.”

Please note that Henry does not say that banning abortion always masks a commitment to white power. Nevertheless, this is still a very useful insight.

UU theologies: Hosea Ballou’s Universalism

Here’s the first short lecture I used in last night’s online class on Unitarian Universalist (UU) theologies:

Click on the image above to go to the video on Youtube.

For accessibility, the text of the lecture is below. Note that I may have altered the text a little when reading it.

Continue reading “UU theologies: Hosea Ballou’s Universalism”

Scholar strike for racial injustice

A bunch of U.S. professors and scholars will stop teaching and attending to routine meetings today and tomorrow, in order to have a sort of “teach-in” about racial injustice in America. On the blog of Academe magazine, Anthea Butler and Kevin Gannon write:

“Scholar Strike is both an action, and a teach-in. Some of us will, for two days, refrain from our many duties and participate in actions designed to raise awareness of and prompt action against racism, policing, mass incarceration and other symptoms of racism’s toll in America. In the tradition of the teach-ins of the 1960s, we are going to spend September 8–9 doing YouTube ten-minute teach-ins, accessible to everyone, and a social media blitz on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to share information about racism, policing, mass incarceration, and other issues of racial injustice in America.” Link to full blog post.

It was Anthea Butler, professor of religious studies and Africana studies at UPenn, who started the whole thing with a tweet towards the end of August. I’ve been interested in her work for a while now: she keeps getting quoted in news stories I read, and she’s got a book coming out in the spring, White Evangelical Racism: The Politics of Morality in America, that I’m looking forward to reading.

Butler and Gannon also acknowledge that many, perhaps most, scholars working in academia, will not be able to participate in the strike:

“We are also acutely aware of the precarity of most college faculty; many of our colleagues hold positions in which they cannot step away from their duties for a day or two, or are covered under collective bargaining agreements. It might seem odd to think of college faculty as “workers,” but the stereotype of the fat-cat tenured professor is not an accurate one. Indeed, 75 percent of all credit hours in US colleges and universities are taught by underpaid adjunct faculty, who not only lack the protections and benefits of full-time faculty, but are employed on a class-by-class, term-by-term basis. Even those of us in more secure positions still work on campuses where fiscal crises and a pandemic have combined to make everyone’s employment status precarious….”

And of course it’s a challenge to do this kind of teach-in when many students aren’t even on campus due to COVID — and of course, distance learning was already becoming the norm for many colleges and graduates schools, since distance learning is so much less expensive for the administrators to operate. Nor is it a coincidence that distance learning also makes it much harder to fan the flames of discontent among students.

Follow the strike live:
Scholar Strike Web site
Scholar Strike Youtube channel
Scholar Strike Facebook page
Twitter hashtag #ScholarStrike
Canadian Scholar Strike
News stories:
Inside Higher Ed article
Religion News Service article (emphasizes religion and theology scholars)

Click on the logo above to head to the Scholar Strike Web site.

Law and order

It has been very interesting to listen to Donald Trump respond to the protests following the lynching of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers: Trump has made calls for “law and order.” For anyone who remembers Barry Goldwater or Richard Nixon, in the not-so-distant past a call for “law and order” was code for using police to keep African Americans in their place. But that history goes back before Goldwater and Nixon, as is made clear in this excerpt from “O Say Can You See,” the blog of the National Museum of American History:

“William J. Simmons, a former minister and promoter of fraternal societies, founded the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia in 1915. His organization grew slowly, but by the 1920s, Simmons began coordinating with a public relations firm, in part to chip away at the (accurate) perception that the Klan was an outlaw group involved in extralegal violence. Membership in the Klan exploded over the next few years. As part of this PR campaign, Simmons gave an interview to the Atlanta Journal newspaper in January 1921. While explicitly advocating white supremacy, Simmons played up his group’s commitment to law and order … and even boasted of his own police credentials. He claimed members at every level of law enforcement belonged to his organization, and that the local sheriff was often one of the first to join when the Klan came to a town. Ominously, Simmons declared that ‘[t]he sheriff of Fulton County knows where he can get 200 members of the Klan at a moment’s call to suppress anything in the way of lawlessness.'”

This blog post ends with a pertinent question in Latin, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” Here’s my free translation of this phrase: “Who will police the police?”