Often times, these results are simply attributed to income levels or cultural differences – rubbed off with a “black don’t wander” or similar negative arguments.
But the truth behind the gap in outdoor recreation, like so much in the United States, has its roots in systemic racism, said KangJae “Jerry” Lee, an assistant professor at North Carolina State University who studies racing and outdoor recreation.
“When we start connecting the dots,” said Lee, “the problem becomes naggingly clear that historical institutional racism has banished people of color from the great outdoors.”
How nature was racized
When the pilgrims first first arrived in North America, the awe one sees for nature today didn’t exist, Lee told CNN. The wilderness was viewed as a dangerous place that had to be tamed and cultivated in order to survive. he said.
But that changed in the 19th century when urban white elites began to romanticize nature and view it as a healthy environment (think Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, both of whom were writers at the time).
With this romanticization came racialization, according to Lee.
“(Some white elites saw) the urban environment as dirty, unhealthy, with a lot of immigrants and colored people, while green spaces were clean, calm and for whites,” Lee said.
And this belief was widespread. The environmental movement was closely related to eugenics, and the first director of the US Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, was active in the eugenics movement. Another famous conservationist, Madison Grant, who was instrumental in creating Denali, Olympic, Everglades, and Glacier National Parks, claimed the Northerners were the superior breed and, according to Lee’s research, saw parks as a way to help Nordic descendants thrive .
“They had no interest in serving people of color,” Lee said. “Some of them even viewed parks and outdoor recreation as a means of maintaining white supremacy, believing that white Americans could develop harsh and exuberant qualities outdoors.”
Even former President Theodore Roosevelt, who oversaw the establishment of many national parks, did so out of fears that the White Race would become inferior if they got too soft, according to Lee’s research.
By the time the National Park Service was established in 1916, Jim Crow laws had already been implemented in the south and other racist laws and customs kept black Americans away from these parks. Even when the NPS officially closed its parks in 1945, local ordinances sometimes prevented blacks from entering. said Lee.
Instead, blacks are only allowed to use the “negro areas” of white parks or parks built only for blacks, but these are few and far between and often not in good shape, Lee said. The Lewis Mountain Negro Area in Shenandoah National Park was one of the first of these “Negro Areas”, which opened in 1935.
In 1952, 180 state parks were available to whites in nine southern states, while Lee’s research showed that there were only 12 available to blacks.
Latinos are also banned from using these parks in places like Texas, Lee said – to keep these outdoor areas as privileges only granted to those of European descent.
“Outside spaces weren’t just coded as white, they were white,” Lee said. “They were defined and managed as white spaces.”
The Effects of Racism on Nature Today
Today’s trends – lower participation of colored people in outdoor recreational activities – reflect much of this racist history.
Nicole Boyd and Narshara Cade co-founded Black Girls Hike RVA in 2020 as a space for women of color to enjoy and experience nature. Twice a month, the group – usually around 25 people – goes hiking and other outdoor adventures in Virginia.
Although many women have hiked with Boyd and Cade in the past year, they say one woman stood out to them. She was an older hiker, in her late 60s, and she told them a story about how as a young girl she tried to enter a state park and were not allowed because it was separated.
“Remember, every generation cannot go to the park, incapable of experiencing these things that affect an entire generation of people,” Boyd said. “So it was great to hear, but it was also hard to hear.”
But, Boyd went on, now the woman could experience nature with a group full of other black women – and that was something special.
Some researchers, Lee said, argued that the reasons for the racial divide in nature lay in cultural differences and a lack of resources – outdoor recreation can, after all, cost money, and parks can be far from cities where many people are concentrated of color .
But Lee said it doesn’t paint the whole picture.
“An important question to ask in this argument is why blacks and Hispanics have higher poverty rates when money is so important?” said Lee. “The answer is racism.”
The same can be said about why so many colored people live in cities or why some don’t grow up with an emphasis on outdoor activities. It all comes back to the legacy of institutional racism, Lee said.
Outdoor spaces are not always safe for people of color, either, and the fear of facing a racist crime can significantly deter some from participating in outdoor activities, he noted. The incident in 2018 when a white woman called the police when a group of black people were holding a barbecue party in a public park is an example of this is the white woman who called 911 at the Black Birdwatcher in Central Park, New York last year. Other encounters can be violent, even fatal. Earlier this year, two elderly Korean-Americans were slapped in the face while walking in a park in California. And last year Ahmaud Arbery was shot while trying to escape near Brunswick, Georgia.
Movements for a change in the open air
Even so, conversations about who can enjoy the great outdoors and have access to nature remain in the foreground as a number of people are calling for the dismantling of the colonial and racial capitalist links between settlers and related industries that have been sustained by removing the contributions of indigenous people and colored people.
And things are slowly changing.
Through groups like Black Girls Hike RVA, Outdoor Afro, or Indigenous Women Hike, Lee sees the emergence of a social movement to change the idea that outdoor recreation is only for whites.
Eddie Taylor is a climber on the Full Circle Everest Expedition, which will become the first all-black team to attempt to climb Mount Everest in 2022. The team often talks about representation, Taylor told CNN, like most people in the United States and Nepal, blacks don’t necessarily associate climbing Everest with climbing.
“(Our expedition) not only changes the US narrative of climbing, it also kind of changes what’s going on there,” he said of Nepal. “This is an expedition of people who are not normally on this mountain or in this room.”
Taylor hopes the protests’ momentum will continue in 2020 and urges groups to make more efforts to diversify outdoor recreation.
However, Lee noted that many of these initiatives come from the bottom up. He told CNN that he would like more change from above, both by recruiting more colored people into positions of power and highlighting contributions from people of color to the cultivation of the great outdoors.
For example, many people may not be familiar with the roles of Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers, who did significant work in national park conservation, and the black members of the Civilian Conservation Corps who built and renovated many state and national parks at one time they were not legally allowed to visit her.
“Unfortunately, these stories are largely neglected, so I think it’s extremely important that People of Color highlight this story,” said Lee. “I think this will be an effective way of clearing up common misconceptions.”
And, eventually, it could lead to a permanent change in the nature of outdoor recreation.