On National Parks Traveler a fascinating and important discussion has broken out on the issue of race in the national parks, inspired by an essay by Wayne Hare in The Salt Lake Tribune.
The discussion is ongoing and contains a lot more than this piece I am sharing here; however, I think what I wrote this morning is enough to stand more or less on its own. I hope that people will go back to National Parks Traveler and join the discussion or post thoughts here.
I think an interesting companion piece to this discussion was my essay Yellowstone and class. I find it interesting that some are arguing that the race issues can be explained simply in terms of the class issues, which is simply not the case. However, the faulty logic that produces both, as well as speciesism is one and the same. However, the application of this faulty logic through the different -isms creates very different realities for different people.
Anyhow, here is what I wrote this morning.
On July 17th, 2007
First of all, it's a very interesting discussion, and I sense we are all taking it to heart. I appreciate Kurt's bibliography, though I'll insist that it wasn't necessary for us to have a serious discussion about this - it certainly adds to the richness of the discussion. I'm thankful to RangerX for being sincere and honest and putting himself out there on this issue, even if I vehemently disagree with him. And, I'm thankful that Wayne Hare has come in to add to his thoughts on the issue and see a lot to think about there.
Secondly, specifically to Jon, be careful how you use statistics. Per capita statistics are general averages and don't speak to specific populations. While economic class is an important consideration in determining park visitation (and I least of all would ask us not to consider it), it's not the only thing that explains the statistics around visitation, according to the study by Dr. Roberts that Jeremy posted. Furthermore, the strong correlation between economic class and race at the general level is itself a source of concern for us. To the extent that race has been used as a cause for economic inequity, it is worth exploring whether the reasons for that are similar or different from those that cause various kinds of inequity in the parks.
Thirdly, I think it's strange that we are talking about this problem in the parks as something that we think we need to do something about, as though diversity is spread in just the manner that Bush talks about spreading freedom to Iraq. It's not something we create; we don't just add a few numbers here, subtract a few numbers there, and voila have diversity. In fact, the language is still hierarchical, as though "we" make this happen. Here is where I can agree with RangerX to the extent that the answer isn't to set an artificial target of a certain type of person and make it our life's work to go out and get them; however, it's not because I think the target isn't so worthwhile, it's because I don't think the process is right. It still is paternalistic. The problem is much more deep rooted built on centuries of abuse and mistrust, perception, misperception, and deeply ingrained prejudices and stereotypes.
Let me try to explain what I'm getting at from an example in my experience and also to let you know that I certainly don't have answers or a magic plan to end racial mistrust, just a sense that we need to challenge ourselves to examine the ways that racism infects us in even the most subtle, unintentional ways. For several years, I was involved with an anti-war group in Washington, DC, called the DC Anti-War Network (DAWN). DAWN is an open, non-hierarchical (meaning no leaders) group of people who met on Tuesday nights and planned actions together against U.S. militarism and against social injustice. It was for the most part a great and strange mix of people - socialists, liberals, libertarians, anarchists, gay, straight, atheist, Quaker, Jew, Muslim. In two ways, it seemed to fall short in diversity. There were often far more men than women; there were usually far more whites than people of color. On the second issue, that's troubling in a city that's 2 to 1 black to white. DAWN was an open group, allowed everyone to come in, met in a racially diverse neighborhood that was accessible to anyone in the city and most in the equally racially diverse suburbs, but the group was still with only a handful of exceptions, a group of whites. The question often came up on how to get more racial diversity in DAWN since it was embarrassing for the group not to have that racial diversity. One answer seemed to be that there was a group somewhat like DAWN called "Black Voices for Peace" that was founded and run by the late Damu Smith. I visited Black Voices for Peace on a few occasions and found a group that was almost the mirror of DAWN, overwhelmingly black, with a scattered white person. Instead of being non-hierarchical in the process, Black Voices for Peace was mostly run by Damu, though he had a board of three prominent people in the African American anti-war community who made the decisions. It was not a group that many people in DAWN would have felt comfortable, with prayers, without a voice in decision-making, much less so about race. Damu was a complicated man (he died a year ago of liver cancer) who had his own radio show, worked on race and environmental justice issues (though environmental justice is such a small issue in DC), and was often fond of speaking out against white people, even as he was quick to embrace and hug me. Anyhow, when confronted by the white/black divide in the anti-war movement, Damu said the problem was that white groups come to black groups out of their sense of guilt and look to bring them along. He wondered why after so many hundreds of years that whites didn't take the lead from blacks, from those who have been oppressed for so long. Of course, that would never fly to people in DAWN, not because they were adverse to the problems of racial oppression but because of the hierarchical way in which things had been framed. So, the reality has lingered on. In 2001, at Bush's first inauguration, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson spoke to a mostly African American audience by the Capitol. At Dupont Circle, a mostly white audience rallied. Even if both groups had mostly voted against Bush, were both upset that democracy had been dealt another blow, they did it separately (and perhaps unequally as well). I can list example after example of this and the charges of tokenization and so forth. For instance, when a white group wants racial diversity (as almost all say they want), they tend to trot out the same people of color time and time again.
I've thought long and hard about the failures of DAWN on the issue of racial diversity. If the answer wasn't going out and simply recruiting people of color to join the group, and if the answer wasn't simply giving up one's beliefs and letting someone else control a group just to attain diversity, then what is the answer? I know that if I had any inkling of that answer, I'd be following through on it. It's not fun to live on these streets and be yelled at with racially derogatory remarks, at least a couple times a month. It's certainly not fun seeing how the gentrification of the city have plenty of racial elements as well, with the white population growing and the African American population declining. I live in an apartment building that happens to be about 90% Latino (mostly from El Salvador) - most of the rest are African Americans. English is the second language here, and there have been incidents of accusations against us because we are white. It's hurtful because I hate racism so much, but I have some sense that there are solid reasons where the pain being thrown back at me comes from. There are a million privileges I have had for being white, though I haven't asked for any of them. Nevertheless, I have some responsibility to do something about it. I strongly believe the first step is just this sort of dialogue where we talk about race, how it affects us, and listen to people. We're going to find all kinds of complex differences and experiences that explains why we don't just all get along, and we're going to have numerous setbacks. Yet, we have to keep talking about it. We have to learn from it. I had no idea when I moved to DC that perhaps my moving here was part of a process that could be tied to race. I thought I was just working on a Ph.D. But, that was naive of me. People are getting displaced constantly due to a lot of forces we are unwittingly a part of. We need to educate ourselves about them. My Salvadoran neighbors were in many cases displaced by political and economic upheaval in El Salvador's rural areas brought about by actions of the United States government. I didn't ever call for this upheaval; I've fought against it. Yet, whatever economic advantage I have, whatever social advantage, have led us to be the neighbors we are.
We have to keep talking; that's how we'll build a rich diversity full of rich experiences. When I talked with Damu, I'll admit there were some ways I liked him less, but it was no longer about race but about ideas. I didn't embrace him as just a man whose color led me to embrace him but because he was a man struggling for the same things I was, albeit in different ways. It was the problem of race that separated us, made us suspicious in ways we can't always imagine (another reason to talk), but it was something else that kept us separated. That sounds bad, but that's progress.
So, in the parks, I don't think you just go out and recruit people of color and "do something" about the problem of diversity. But, we cannot run away from the problem, we cannot be in denial that it doesn't exist, we cannot deny that we all as members of this society are part of its race problems. We need to talk and to listen. That's the only step that makes any sense to me. The research that Dr. Roberts shared, the experiences that Wayne Hare shared, that we are sharing now is extremely important. It undercuts the bogus logic of domination that has been part of race relations and environmental protection. It is the first step in a journey whose end we cannot map out, a hike into the wilderness, of a very important topic to us all, if we are truly to heal all the hundreds of years of abuse and mistrust. Let's hope that as we move to talk about other important issues, that we integrate this into our conversation, not just because we should out of some sense of guilt, but because we must if we are going to get a handle on the causes of everything else that's going on.