Are National Parks racist?

February 20, 2023 • 11:15 am

Of course they are! For that’s the implication of “inequities” in the proportion groups that visit parks—the explicit conclusion of ABC News in this long and misguided article about how the inequities, and the racism that’s supposed to cause them, are an “existential crisis” for America’s national parks. For those of you who think that the Biden administration isn’t using inequities as marker of ongoing racism, read below:

The data are these:

New government data, shared first with ABC News, shows the country’s premier outdoor spaces — the 419 national parks — remain overwhelmingly white. Just 23% of visitors to the parks were people of color, the National Park Service found in its most recent 10-year survey; 77% were white. Minorities make up 42% of the U.S. population.

There are more Hispanics than blacks visiting the park (only 6% of visitors are African-American), but still strong inequity.  The conclusion, of course, is that national parks, and the great outdoors itself, is racist. It’s not just that some people’s racism is said to keep minorities away from the parks in droves (an assertion that’s doubtful at the outset), but that the racism is systemic, somehow built into the National Park System, and these inequities must be erased through antiracist action. (The assumption here is that without racism, there would be perfect equity among park visitors.)

The repeated claim of systemic racism (all quotes from the piece are indented, bolding below is mine):

“The outdoors and public lands suffer from the same systemic racism that the rest of our society does,” said Joel Pannell, associate director of the Sierra Club, which is leading an effort to boost diversity in the wilderness and access to natural spaces.

. . . Advocates like Williams and Tariq say they hope the moment since George Floyd’s death in police custody brings attention to systemic racism in the outdoors as well as other parts of society and translates into a long-term change in attitudes and behavior.

. . . National parks and the conservation movement were created as a way for people to escape cities during the industrial revolution, which Pannell said is one example of systemic racism in the outdoors that hasn’t been confronted.

. . . Americans of all races in the new Park Service study said they value the nation’s iconic parks and landmarks as important to America’s national identity and think they should be protected. And advocates say they hope the current moment leads to future change and more attention to combating systemic racism in national parks and the outdoors industry and culture.”

Now the definition of systemic racism in the first link includes past laws and customs that might no longer apply but still exert an effect, but that’s not the tenor of the article, which assumes that the racism is an ongoing practice. It’s important to distinguish the two, because getting rid of current racism requires an entirely different agenda from dismantling the historical effects of racism. If they’re conflating the two, then the word “systemic” is no longer needed.

Why is this an “existential crisis”? One would think that if few minorities are going to the parks, and the parks are still doing big business (which they are), they’re in no danger of going out of existence. But the article says that more than half of America will be nonwhite by 2044, and that extra 8%, deterred from visiting by structural racism, poses a huge threat to the parks’ existence. I don’t buy it:

In national parks, the most prominent and famous natural spaces in the country, Black Americans are consistently the most underrepresented. In 2018, only 6% of visitors identified as Black, according to the new report, a slight decline from the previous year.

“We need to communicate that national parks, one, are part of your birthright,” Vela told ABC News Live in an exclusive interview.

This would be worrisome if we knew the cause was racism. Note that throughout this article, the assumption is that all groups have an equal desire to go to parks, but we don’t even know that. In fact, the data say the opposite:

Twice as many black and Hispanic Americans said they don’t know what to do in national parks than whites. When asked if they share the same interests as people who visit national parks, 34% of Black respondents and 27% of Hispanics said no, compared with only 11% of whites.

Well, if so many blacks and Hispanics don’t share the interests of people who do visit national parks, then the assumption of equal interests may be far off. On the other hand, I do love parks, and if the lack of interest comes from a lack of information, well, perhaps the government should advertise the parks more widely.

Now the sole evidence for racism in the article, besides the usual one or two “lived experience” anecdotes, is the inequity in proportions of ethnic groups visiting the park. But there are many possible explanations for this, and the last one I’d think of is racism. The first one I’d guess would be culture: that minorities have no tradition of hiking or camping, not because of racism encountered by doing that, but for other reasons. Living in cities is one: urban dwellers may be less likely to want to go to Parks. Or poverty (a residuum of historical racism) is another, and one that the article actually admits is a possible cause. But current, ongoing, systemic racism? I can’t imagine how that would keep minorities away from parks, but let’s see what evidence ABC adduces.

Ambreen Tariq, creator of the “Brown People Camping” social media campaign, says this:

Still, racial profiling and stereotyping remain a big concern for Tariq and many people of color in the outdoors.

“When I was a child, I felt like an outsider trying to gain entrance, except now I am American and this is my country,” she said.

However, when she camps or hikes as an adult, Tariq said she still faces assumptions that she doesn’t belong and a sense of “imposter syndrome” and fear — even facing questions from rangers about whether she has followed park rules when she doesn’t see white visitors asked the same questions.

. . .Combined with attitudes that people do outdoor activities to relieve stress has made it difficult to have tough conversations about race.

“When I’m walking to work with park rangers or with other campers and hikers who treat me in some sort of way that make me feel unwelcome, that make me feel unsafe, that is startling,” Tariq said. “And that goes unchecked because there’s, there’s just no channel for us to be able to challenge that in such remote places.”

“Unsafe” is a red flag here. In what sense does Tariq feel unsafe? Does she think the rangers will attack her? Exactly what form does the “unwelcome behavior” take? I’m not doubting it, but remember that this is a sample of one person.

Such behavior is of course possible, and if it happens often it must be based on racist assumptions of rangers. But where are the surveys? I’d also like a statement  about structural racism from the Park Service itself, but there’s just this:

“That tells me that we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said David Vela, acting director of the National Park Service.

What does he mean? Is he admitting structural racism? Or just saying that we have to have more equity in visitors? Remember, a lot of visitors to parks are Europeans (that’s all you see in Death Valley in summer, when the Germans come to scorch themselves red in 120-degree heat), and Europeans are mostly white.

But forgive me if I can’t take as dispositive evidence a statement about how one person like Tariq feels. Does she know that white visitors aren’t asked the same questions. Remember, “lived experience” is not evidence for a proposition like this one, though if it were repeated many times, we’d get more suspicious.

It’s true that many of the parks were created at a time of de facto segregation, and it’s barely conceivable that somehow that has led to a tradition of minorities not going to parks. But the claim is that the racism is systemic and ongoing, and that’s a different claim. Speaking of history, the article does claim this:

Lack of transportation to national parks and the cost of visiting were cited as the top reasons people — especially Black and Hispanic Americans — don’t visit them more often, according to the study.

So it’s not bias but money and access! That is not systemic racism under any construal, though it may be the historical result of racism, and doesn’t jibe with the claims of “racist treatment” of minority visitors. Which is it?

Another claim is that minorities don’t come to parks because some of the parks’ founders were bigots. But is it believable that that fact, known only to those with a deep knowledge of park history, would keep people from going to parks now?:

Carolyn Finney, a storyteller and cultural geographer whose book “Black Faces, White Spaces” focuses on African Americans’ relationship to the outdoors said the dominant narrative around national parks doesn’t include that they were considered primarily with white visitors in mind.

She said that despite the value of the ideas that conceptualized the National Park Service and laid the groundwork for the modern environmental movement in the early 1900s, figures like John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt did not consider how those spaces would include people of color because they were actively segregated at the time. And some figures close to the conservation movement like Madison Grant, who founded organizations like the Bronx Zoo, espoused actively racist ideologies.

Well, Roosevelt’s and Muir’s racism is something that few Americans even know about, while what on earth does Madison Grant have to do with inequities in Park attendance? Before you claim that the history of the parks’ foundations are what’s causing inequities among visitors, find out why.  How many Hispanics say, “Well, I’d go to Yellowstone but that Muir was such a bigot”?  One would think that this would be the first thing to investigate. But it never is. The cause goes hand in hand with the observation of disproportionality, and that is the classical instance of begging the question.

Two more reasons are given for attendance inequity:

Many people of color say that history of the parks is another psychological barrier white Americans don’t have to face.

“Historically, in the South, in particular, many atrocious things that happened to Black people were in the woods,” said Frank Peterman, an outdoors enthusiast who began visiting the national parks with his wife Audrey 25 years ago.

Where are the surveys of “many people of color” showing that? The only one quoted is Peterman, and he’s surely not been put off: he’s been to many parks. To me, this sounds like a made-up reason. Where are the data? You can’t use phrases like “many people of color say that the history of the parks is a psychological barrier” unless you document it. “Many” has to be “more than one.”

And this:

Many advocates say public information about parks and outdoor activities are not tailored to communities of color. Posted signs, for example, are mostly in English rather than Spanish. Park ranger uniforms that resemble what is worn by law enforcement are intimidating to some immigrants and minorities in light of documented cases of profiling.

Given that America is becoming almost bilingual with Spanish, it would be nice to have signs in Spanish in parks, especially in the Southwest. But I’m not down with changing the ranger uniforms. They don’t look like military uniforms (look at the hats!), and they have to look somewhat official so that they have authority and people will recognize them easily.  When you’re looking for help in a park, as I’ve done many times in Death Valley, you have to be able to recognize the rangers. What do people want, for crying out loud: Hawaiian shirts and shorts and a ranger hat?

The lessons of this dire piece are ones we’ve learned before:

a.) With enough effort, you can find structural racism everywhere. If you can find it (and people have) in yoga, pumpkins, lattes, and glaciology, you can find it anywhere. I challenge someone to come up with an institution that can’t be accused of structural racism, except, perhaps, the NBA or other sports. But, I believe, even the NFL has been accused of structural racism despite the high percentage of black players (58%).

b.) Structural racism is always taken to be the prima facie cause of unequal representation of groups. For several reasons, including different preferences, different cultures, and an overrepresentation of marginalized groups in some areas, this cannot always be the case.

c.) If you’re going to make such accusations of ongoing, current racism, you need to document them, because. . . .

d.) . . . if you think that unequal representation needs to be made perfectly equitable (which it needn’t), you must find out the reasons for the inequities. It’s wrong to assume structural racism from the get-go, and that’s why this ABC article is so terribly off the mark.

36 thoughts on “Are National Parks racist?

  1. As with the National Park Service, so it will be with every other branch of government, President Biden having signed an executive order several days ago mandating the planning and assessment of various DEI programs in all federal agencies.

  2. In addition to differences in wealth (as discussed above), major factors willl be:

    Geography: the national parks are mostly in states with lower black populations (California, Alaska, Colorado and Utah have 25 national parks between them; Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia total zero).

    Demography: National Park visitors skew heavily to recently retired folk, and the age profile of US blacks is much younger than that of whites.

    1. To add: compare this map of black population fraction with this map (a little bit down) of where the parks are, and that’s obviously a huge influence on visitor numbers.

      Of course one could try arguing that the distribution of parks is racist …

    2. These two factors alone strike me as being more than sufficient to explain the observed disparity, without having to reach for more tendentious explanations.

    3. And Jerry gives another number that could easily provide yet another alternative explanation. Jerry points out that at certain times of year, many park visitors are European. If a large percentage of park visitors are European, and if Europeans are mostly white, then this could explain the whole of the observed “inequality”.

      1. I’m not sure that it’s true to Europeans are mostly white. The large European countries that probably account for a majority of European visitors to the US (eg Germany, France, UK, Italy) all have significant non-white minorities (eg around 18% in UK). I’d guess that the proportion of these people visiting American national parks is not in proportion to the racial make up of the countries they come from either. However, it doesn’t follow that this is because of ongoing systematic racism in the national parks the same arguments given with respect to US visitors also apply to these visitors (age profile, cultural differences, wealth profiles etc).

  3. The NFL is having problems not because of the number of black players, but the predominant number of white head coaches.

  4. I was trying to come up with factors for this imbalance. One might have been cost, since it can be expensive to take a vacation to the middle of nowhere. But a test for that is to look for attendance at big amusement parks like Disney World. Is there a significant racial imbalance there as well? Disney World ain’t cheap, so if not then the reason for the park imbalance might not be cost.

  5. “…many of the parks were created at a time of de facto segregation…” This, of course, is
    precisely the offense of everything created in the US before the promulgation of Critical Race Theory. Thus it applies to the parks, the trees, the railroads, the post office, the electric grid, the Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, the Erie Canal, the Boston Post Road, etc. etc. The same offense applies to everything of European origin, such as “white empiricism”, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, classical music, etc. etc. There is virtually no end to such “systemic” offenses ascribed to the system.

  6. Taking a slight sideline, but

    Given that America is becoming almost bilingual with Spanish,

    Yes, when is that going to become an accepted and legislated part of American society? In my (aware) lifetime, I’ve seen the British countries accept bilingualism – to some degree (English/ Scots and Scottish Gaelic here ; English and Welsh in Wales ; English and Irish Gaelic in Ulster with it’s bloody fellow traveller questions) ; I’ve seen public services accept that, in order to serve their citizens, they need to talk to people in languages that the people understand. I’ve seen – at a distance – the Canadian government accept that it has significant minorities who speak French and various Inuit/ “First Nations” languages. It’s a fairly general trend.
    At some point, America is going to have to recognise that it has at least two regularly-used languages, and become officially bilingual. And that is really going to upset some people. Ho hum.
    Does this bear on the National Parks question? Probably mainly through the “terra nullis” assumptions that gave the Colonial (later, Washington) governments a sense of “ownership” of the country divorced from the “Native” peoples who occupied them for the last few centuries before the arrival of the white man and written records. Without that “you are not white, therefore you are not human and you can be property, but you can’t own property” underlying assumption, would there be a concept of “National Parks”, as implemented in America?
    Is my Spanish good enough to translate this post into Spanish? Probably not. But I could get a significant part of the way there.

    1. I don’t think you want to make a language official just because a lot of people speak it. French and English are official in Canada only in certain limited senses and for particular historical reasons related to how the British decided to manage the Conquest of 1763 (when assimilation failed) not merely that there are French people here. Even at that the costs of ensuring that people can communicate with the federal government in either language are large. Every border crossing has to have someone who can speak both languages in case a fluently bilingual person from Quebec wants to speak French when crossing from Montana into Alberta. Above a certain level in the military and federal civil service you have to be bilingual. For a small country, this constrains the talent pool substantially: in practice, nearly all positions will go to Quebeckers who learned French at home and then picked up passable, if heavily accented, English later in life. (Imagine if all U.S. Supreme Court justices had to be drawn from the pool of black women, not just one.). The Prime Minister will almost always be from Quebec, the province that threatens to secede. The number of functionally bilingual people who learned English first has been declining for decades, particularly since the great purge of bilingual Anglos from Montreal after Quebec positioned itself as a French-only society, and French is needed almost nowhere else in the country.

      None of the hundreds of now-nearly extinct Indigenous languages have been made official in Canada.

      Sprinkling a few Spanish signs in the National Parks might be a nice gesture, especially ones saying “One mile drop straight down beyond this point!” or “Scalding hot water! Do not climb fence!” or “Don’t feed bears or they will eat you!” But making Spanish an official language would be foolish and, yes, divisive. Nothing Ho hum about that.

      There is nothing wrong with expecting immigrants to speak the prevalent language of the country they voluntarily move to if they want to participate in society beyond their language ghettos. Hindi or Mandarin or Arabic are not going to become official languages in either Canada or the United States unless they take over the government and then they can fight amongst themselves which should prevail. In reality, everyone with political aspirations will have long since learned English and will find it opens more doors than it closes.

      Black people in the United States owned not only real property but also chattel slaves, as did Native people. I think you are way off base there.

      1. “None of the hundreds of now-nearly extinct Indigenous languages have been made official in Canada.” I think this is only correct if you lean into “now nearly extinct”. Nunavut has two official indigenous languages, Northwest Territories has eight official indigenous languages. Small numbers of speakers do not necessarily imply nearly extinct.

        1. Appreciate the correction, Miriam.
          I was referring to the federal level to apply across Canada, for brevity. The provinces and territories are all over the map. Even unilingual French Québec, where all other languages are suppressed by law, allows the use of Inuktitut in educational settings in the far north to secure peace in its vast hydroelectric development that flooded much land up there.

  7. Much of what is said in the piece doesn’t apply straightforwardly to Shenandoah National Park. This is very near a city with a large African-American population, which has its own complicated historical relation to Shenandoah National Park, and which commemorates that history in the Park.

  8. Could it possibly be racist to suggest black people should swap their Houston rap concert for a night of contemplating the Milky Way from Big Bend?

    1. It may be like that essentially. I feel in ‘m gut that people who grew up camping will tend to go camping as adults. People who visit the Grand Canyon or Yosemite as kids will grow up into adults who will take their kids to those parks if they possibly can.
      So a provisional test of all this is a Big Survey to test for cross-generational vacationing habits. The hypothesis being that people tend to vacation in a manner that is similar to how they did it as kids.

  9. On the left, National Parks are racist, and on the right, Corporations are people. No wonder this country is struggling with reality.

  10. I remember reading about this at the time the assertion came up—either the ABC article itself or elsewhere; I don’t recall. But I do recall thinking at the time—and still believe—that the case for racism is poor. It has sadly become fashionable for people and institutions to find racism everywhere which, of course, gives those people and institutions an opportunity to decry it and to claim morality points.

    And yes, indeed, the administration and countless others are being simplistic at best in using attendance patterns as prima facie evidence of racism. At worst—which I can’t rule out—they are doing this to deliberately mislead.

    There are many possible reasons for people not visiting our national parks. Whatever the reasons, this is unfortunate, as our national parks are national treasures. We should indeed do more to encourage people to visit and enjoy them. But we need to figure out the real reasons for the discrepancies in order to address them effectively.

  11. This is hopeless fuckery à la, the esteemed prof Hobb.
    …reasons why people don’t go to parks.
    To much walking.
    Exercise without cool gear.
    No couch provided.
    No shopping.
    Seen it on tv.
    Uncomfortable with trees, mountains, white people, wolves, bears and beevers.
    No fun rides and you may have to run.
    Isolation.
    No takeaways.

    A small hotel co host told us of two young Japanese women who walked a reasonable heavily going walking track in one of our national parks outside Taumarunui NZ.
    They had on hot pants, high heel shoes and skimpy top, the whole nine yards.
    They walked it with a group of superannuates with all the gear, raincoats, etc. Weather turned nasty but on they went. When the walk was over, the supers’ clapped them to the finish they were so impressed. The girls themselves were nonplussed wondering what the all the fuss was about.

  12. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, perhaps visiting national parks is not a thing in the African-American subculture. If so, then this is another instance of a pipeline problem.

    1. I think you’re on the right track. There has been some of this stuff in the UK over the past few years, along the lines of ‘why do so few people from ethnic minorities visit our national parks?’, or indeed visit the countryside more generally.

      Thankfully, the ‘systemic racism’ card has not (yet) been played, but such research as has been done suggests that people from ethnic minorities tend to think that a day out in the country is for people other than them. There is no logic to this; and certainly, in my experience, there is absolutely no prejudice against those who do come to visit.

      I suggest that the issue goes far wider than this, and that it is the less-privileged urban communities in general, not just black or brown people, who are reluctant to take their share of enjoyment of what the countryside has to offer. (Is this true of the US also?) Maybe they think that fellwalking or birdwatching are not for them, which is an indictment of our education system if nothing else. If this is really so, it can be changed, without bringing the red herring of racism into it at all.

      1. I think most youngsters who have no experience of real nature while growing up are unlikely to want to go out of their way to do so as adults.

  13. There is no one African-American subculture. If there hadn’t been a demand for a campground, there wouldn’t have been a reason for the Park Service, in the days of segregation, to set up a campground for African-Americans in Shenandoah National Park. It was also the kind of place to which church groups would go for picnics and outings. Nowadays, visiting the Blue Ridge Parkway (one of the most visited national parks) when the autumn foliage is at its peak is as much a national park-y thing to do as anything can be. Not anyone’s specific subculture.

  14. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park consistently has been the most visited national park. There is no entrance fee. It is a reasonable driving distance/time (for the reasonable person) from Atlanta, Birmingham, Raleigh, Lexington, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Richmond, Greensboro, Chattanooga, Nashville, among other urban areas.

    I remember from several years ago a NY Times article basically lecturing White people who saw national parks as a place of solitude and quiet. While I suppose an exception is reasonably made for campgrounds, why go to any place in a national park if all you want to do is to loudly party and whoop and ululate?

  15. “So it’s not bias but money and access!”

    Exactly, and as usual the sociocultural elite who operate institutions like ABC don’t wish (or don’t know how) to talk about class, so they pretend it doesn’t exist. Undoubtedly there are forms of systemic racism at work in the US, but turning the term into a catch-all explanation for every problem isn’t helpful. Racism accounts for why black and Hispanic Americans have less money and access than white ones, but calling the park system racist is a do-nothing solution to increasing park attendance. Devising programs to increase economic mobility for the working class Americans, regardless of race, is part of the real solution.

    1. How do the Korean grocers and other upwardly mobile “middlemen minorities“ do it now, then, while living and working in these same racism-blighted neighborhoods? Thomas Sowell asks.

  16. The population figures given are simply wrong. The population is quite close to 77% white, by self-report, according to the official census.

  17. While teaching a few years back, I asked my classes to write a Top 20 list of things they wanted to do in the future. It could be general (eg. be rich) or specific (eg. become President of ___ bank). I was shocked at how few students were able to come up with 20 items, and I pointed out that I could have filled it with “I want to travel to X, I want to travel to Y. etc.”. However travelling wasn’t of interest to many of them. In fact, I later learned that a number of 16 year old students had never left the city (a satellite city of a larger city…eg. lived in Hollywood for 16 years and never visited Los Angeles), and some had never left their neighbourhood.
    So rather than the types of ethnic groups visiting parks being an example systemic racism, I think it is rather a function of their socio-economic area.

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