Buddhists, racism and the selective application of local ordinances


In 2010, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit alleging that Walnut had treated the Zen center’s application differently from other building proposals, ordering repeated traffic studies even after the first showed the center would have little impact. According to the suit, the city had not denied a conditional use permit for a house of worship since at least 1980. [LA Times]

Here we fucking go again. The application for a new Ch’an Center was denied but, at the same time, the commission granted a permit for a Catholic church larger than the proposed monastery. In Shelley v. Kraemer, 334 U.S. 1 (1948), the United States Supreme Court held that courts could not enforce racial covenants on real estate. Which is exactly what is occuring in this instance.

[One distinction you may wish to make re: your excellent article. Shelley v. Kramer concerned a restrictive covenant which was placed on the land records barring black people from owning a certain house via the recording of a deed or other document. The Supreme Court ruled that such covenants were void under the Equal Protection Clause. In other words, some racist jerk decided that his house should never be owned by an “other” so let’s restrict its use.

The decisions you cite and write about are much more insidious because they concern race and affiliation neutral ordinances (seeking of zoning variances, etc) being applied in a discriminatory fashion by local governments. via MC commenting from Google Plus ~ Thanks MC for your clarification and I bow to your legal prowess. I think that the spirit of that ruling would make it obvious that any sort of racial/religious discrimination or unfair application of local zoning laws would be equally unconstitutional.]

wrote about the issues in Walnut previously. In light of other similar events a disturbing trend emerges:
  • The same type of incident occurred in Olathe, Kansas with a Laotian sangha refused a building permit
  • Another in Utica, NY about a Vietnamese sangha that was refused the same rights afforded to other religious groups in the same town.
  • Also action was taken in Garden Grove, California after the city denied the Vietnamese Buddhism Study Temple a zoning permit to operate in the city’s business district.
  • A Cambodian Buddhist Study Center was denied and denied in appeal at the State Supreme Court level in a bid to build a temple on 10 acres of land in Newtown, Connecticut.
  • A Thai Budhist temple was denied expansion in Spalding County, Georgia with the commisioners reaffirming their decision by stating that the “right to worship” has not been denied but evidentally their congregation is not allowed any amount of growth.
Each instance was a case for religious discrimination and the selective application of zoning laws to keep a largely Asian and/or immigrant Buddhist center from being built or relocated. There is also an instance of the Ming Ya Buddhist Temple being denied in Lincoln Heights, however, I can not find much information on this case so can’t speak directly about whether the land ordinance is universally applied equally to all racial/religious groups. Every denial is not linked to racism but each of these instances should be examined due to the emerging pattern of discrimination.

In the case of Olathe, a mega-church was built not too far away from the proposed center with concerned citizens concerned about monks performing animal sacrifices and noise. Most compelling was that the center would interfere with the residents’ perception of the “American Dream.”

In Utica, it was a statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion that was too tall according to ordinances but yet still not as tall as a statue of the Virgin Mary at a local Catholic Church. 
In Newtown, the commisioners stated that the “Asian architecture would have a negative impact on property values and was not in harmony with the area’s traditional New England architecture.”
And now we rehash the issue in Walnut. Beyond the religious discrimination that is obvious in these cases, each Buddhist Center that appealed for larger accommodation are primarily Asian sanghas. From Chinese to Laotian to Vietnamese the message is simple. They are not wanted in many communities due to the nature of their race, culture and religious practice.

God Fucking Bless America!

Before everyone jumps on my ass with appeals that the communities are not all that bad and have the best intentions at heart (just look at how wonderful the community in Utica was towards the local muslim community!) I still affirm that it is far too little and immigrant Buddhist sanghas seem predisposed towards this sort of selective application of ordinance and the communities support it or, at very least, are willing to be silent in their disagreement.

One particular instance that this was not true was with the Reverend Bobby Love that spoke up in protest about the actions of Johnson County [The video is over an hour long but worth watching to hear how ridiculous most of the complaints are and how little support the Laoist Buddhists received] in relation to the proposed Laoist temple. He spoke of his personal experience in moving his largely African American congregation to the same region in the 1980’s and recall the same sort of complaint. 

Each of these communities need more people like Rev. Bobby Love to speak up on behalf of injustice. I am not the most comfortable with priviledge as an argument: However, from these examples, privilege and racial/religious discrimination does not necessarily come in a fury of angry voices, drama or violence. It is a cold, logical and well-rehearsed application of an undue burden placed upon certain groups while not on others. Listen to each of the verbal bullet points expressed by the citizens of Olathe, Kansas. It is cold, precise and well leveraged discrimination.



8 thoughts on “Buddhists, racism and the selective application of local ordinances

  1. “…privilege and racial/religious discrimination does not necessarily come in a fury of angry voices, drama or violence. It is a cold, logical and well-rehearsed application of an undue burden placed upon certain groups while not on others.”So true. Reminds me of a section of a counterculture book I read almost 40 years ago, The Greening of America. It talked about how prejudice toward many things can find insidious backing within local zoning boards.

  2. I’ve gone to local planning meetings over the years and the NIMBY sentiment is definitely alive an well. The list of things people don’t want in their neighborhoods is long indeed. Some I’ve noted, even in open minded Vancouver Canada include:-certain kinds of ethnic restaurants (usually applied to late night sushi places even though there are bars across the street which are open later and are much noisier)-half-way houses of any kind-homeless shelters of any kind-charitable organizations that deal with mental health issues (drop in centers, clinics)-drug rehab facilities-religious institutions who’s architecture doesn’t fit with the “character” of the neighborhood (this most usually applies to Hindu and Sikh temples)-signage in languages other than English or French except in certain areas or if the signs have E/F as well.Even within condominium complexes or apartment buildings there are often coded rules that are thinly disguised racism, mostly to do with cooking (smells that pervade hallways), the type of draperies one can use on their windows (no colors, only a white backing-this means no signs or flags as well), what can be done on balconies-no laundry hanging or “excessive” gardening. Some of these can get pretty detailed. This is all what may be called the institutionalization of privilege. It’s written into various rules and enforced by the dominant groups. Of course it isn’t stated directly as racist or discriminatory and all kinds of other rationalizations are given but as you have done, when you look at the actual practices and who is always on the receiving end of the additional scrutiny, it shows up pretty clearly.

  3. Thanks for your comments @nellalou. Whenever someone states that an institution interferes with their "american dream" it screams privilege to me. There tends to be an unreasonable expectation of burden placed on non-dominant groups when they wish to grow, expand or move in.  

  4. “unreasonable expectation of burden”That is the crux of privilege. And that is why when privilege is enacted those who enact it don’t see it. There is often the retort “Everyone plays by the same rules”. The question is who set up the rules and who is enforcing them? Who is being complained against when the rules are violated? When rules and their social enactment are already stacked against a group then violations are pretty easy to come up with. This reminds me of that business with the atheists and the cross at the 9-11 site. Atheists objected to a Christian symbol being portrayed. They were told to just shut up and get over it. Yet when Muslims wanted to build a community center in the vicinity-not even at the site-the backlash was long and loud. All playing by the same rules. I don’t think so.

  5. I also hear more @nellalou from college students in relation to affirmative action. "Well, no-one paid for my college education"… Well. Maybe no-one was trying to sell you crack on the way to school. Maybe you had two working parents. Maybe you didn't have to live in a near-police state. Maybe your family already had the benefit of a few diplomas.   Recently, I recall a young girl being lost from her parents. I was just leaving work and I noticed her wander outside crying for her mom. In the time it took me to talk to the girl, show her my library name-tag and walk her back into the building; the mother was there with another small child ready to receive her child. Situation solved. Then another patron took the opportunity to "school" the woman (Native American) about how she needs to pay better attention, teach her child to go to the reference desk rather than outside etc. etc. I was mortified. The child was missing for less than 30-60 seconds. Now, in another situation, a white lady (a friend of mine actually) lost her child at a street fair. It was a full hour before the child was recovered. Mother naturally distraught and concerned. When the child was recovered everyone was encouraging her that it wasn't her fault, that these things happen. etc. I can't help but notice the double standard. 

  6. I am amazed, but never surprised when I hear of things like this. In a country that (outwardly, at least) prides itself on diversity, small minds still manage to affect the freedoms of all when they try to make their community in their own image.

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