Tiffany Rose / Getty Images

Why America’s national parks are so white

Many prospective visitors worry about park employees’ disparate treatment and implicit racial bias

“Why are our parks so white?” columnist Glenn Nelson asked in a recent op-ed in The New York Times. Nelson, who runs Trail Posse, an online platform that promotes diversity in the outdoors, explains that people of color are only about half as likely to visit national parks as whites. He offers two reasons for this disparity: People of color are less familiar with parks and therefore hesitant to go, and there is a lack of racial diversity among the nation’s park employees.

However, it is not just unfamiliarity with the parks that keeps people of color away. Many prospective visitors worry about disparate treatment by and implicit racial bias of park staffers. Nelson refers to jokes made by his road trip companions, including one in which they expected whites-only signs at the national park entrances. Unfortunately, those jokes are not that far from the truth. African-Americans are less likely to visit parks for fear of racist treatment by mostly white park rangers, gate agents and other park staffers. It is therefore critical to assess and eliminate these inherent biases that exclude people of color from outdoor public spaces.

According to a 2009 survey by the University of Wyoming and the National Park Service (NPS), whites accounted for 78 percent of the national parks’ visitors from 2008 to 2009; Hispanics, 9 percent; African-Americans, 7 percent; and Asian-Americans, 3 percent.

When compared with their share of the U.S. population, white park visitors are overrepresented by 14 percentage points, whereas African-Americans were underrepresented by 6 percentage points. Whites are overrepresented not only as visitors but also as park employees. According to a 2013 report by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, 80 percent of NPS employees were white. And the National Park Foundation’s 22-member board, whose mission is to support the NPS through fundraising, has only four minorities.

Race/ethnicity of NPS visitors vs. U.S. population

African-Americans and Hispanics list various reasons for not visiting national parks, including the high cost of food and lodging, lack of outreach and information about parks, safety concerns and poor service by NPS employees. The limited outreach to African-American communities is rooted in the stereotype that black people don’t do nature. The disparate treatment of black visitors and misconceptions about African-Americans relations with the outdoors is part of the United States’ legacy of racial violence and segregation. In this dynamic, park rangers and park police often make African-American visitors feel unwelcome.

The National Park Service has a responsibility to make our parks safe and welcoming spaces for all Americans.

Last month we learned firsthand about the racist mistreatment of African-American park visitors during a scholarly event at Yosemite National Park in California. By inviting a diverse group of women to the park, we inadvertently carried out a study of racial profiling by park gate agents.

As part of our event, eight female academics — four of them white or Hispanic and four African-American — drove into the park. The organizers told participants not to pay the entrance fee and to inform gate agents that their fees were waived because they were visiting the research station.

The white and Hispanic drivers gave the agents the information as directed and were welcomed and waved through. The four African-American scholars entered the park at different times and entrances and gave the same information. In all four cases, the African-American professors were extensively questioned, made to fill out a superfluous form, which required extra and unnecessary effort and a check-in with the research center staff, and reluctantly let into the park.

One of the black professors was questioned about her college degrees, the title of her research project and her university affiliation and was asked to provide a faculty ID. The agents appeared incapable of imagining that a black woman could hold a Ph.D. and visit a research station for a scholarly event. (The Yosemite National Park Service has since opened an investigation into the incidents.) This is heartbreaking, not least because Buffalo Soldiers, members of all-African-American regiments of the U.S. Army, were among the nation’s first park rangers and built the first marked trail at Yosemite. Today only 1 percent of the park’s visitors are black.

Health benefits

Spending time in natural environments such as parks has proven mental and physical health benefits. A recent study by Stanford University researchers found that participants who walked for 90 minutes in natural settings improved their memory and lessened their anxiety, compared with those who walked in an urban setting. Since minority populations are largely urban (more than half of U.S. cities are majority nonwhite), national parks are important resources for them to connect with nature and gain those benefits. Yet the NPS has failed to conduct concerted outreach to minority urban dwellers.

Fortunately, people of color are working to reclaim these spaces and diversify America’s parks. One such person is Rue Mapp, the founder of Outdoor Afro, which trains volunteers to lead hiking, camping and nature excursions with their communities. Such efforts must be supported and expanded, especially in our cities.

In addition to its efforts to attract people of color, the NPS should train its employees to eradicate racial biases and discrimination that are discouraging black people and other minorities from visiting parks. It has a responsibility to make our national parks safe and welcoming spaces for all Americans.

Tanya Golash-Boza is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. Her latest book, “Deported: Immigrant Policing, Disposable Labor and Global Capitalism,” will be published in November 2015.

Safiya Noble is an assistant professor in the department of information studies in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA. 

Vilna Bashi Treitler is a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the chairwoman of the black and Latino studies department at CUNY’s Baruch College. Her latest manuscript is “The Ethnic Project: Transforming Racial Fictions into Ethnic Factions.” 

Zulema Valdez is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced. She is the author of “The New Entrepreneurs: How Race, Class and Gender Shape American Enterprise.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter