Outdoor Op Ed: What Is Environmental Racism, and What Can We Do about It?

Even now, during one of the most progressive periods of our nation’s history, when “inclusivity” and “diversity” are common buzzwords, there remains an ongoing racial and ethnic disparity in environmental equity: Black, Indigenous and other communities of color have felt the effects in their livelihoods, neighborhoods, drinking water and the air that they breathe. Writer, content creator and #vanlife advocate Mike Brown explores both the personal and historical impact of environmental racism—defined as the disproportionate ill effects of inequitable environmental policy and practices on people and communities of color—along with a call to action and ideas of what the outdoor community can do to address the inequality that still exists today.

I didn’t go on my first hike (a 3-mile route in South Dakota’s Custer State Park) until I was 29 years old. The first time I slid my feet into snowboard boots (on the slopes of Washington state’s Stevens Pass) I was 30. And sure, I rode a bike when I was a kid, but I didn’t go on my first bikepacking adventure (three days pedaling through Colorado’s Crested Butte) until I was 32.

As a Black kid growing up in Houston’s inner city, I didn’t spend a lot of time in nature. In fact, up until my 30s, I thought outdoor recreation was reserved for rich white people.

All that changed in 2018 when, inspired by the possibility of a life without the usual cycle of work-play-sleep, I quit my government job and transformed a cargo van into a home on wheels, made for adventure. I traded my regular paycheck for the freedom that van life and freelancing afforded. In the years since then, I’ve driven thousands of miles, up rugged mountain passes and through wildflower-laden valleys. I’ve hiked through Washington state’s Mount Rainier and California’s Yosemite National Parks. And I’ve seen sandstorms, glaciers, rain forests and mountains at sunrise that glow like fire.

When I visit these outdoor places, I can’t help but find myself in a unique mind space. I’m acutely aware, for example, that many of our parks are located on land that the U.S. government claimed from Indigenous communities. The subsequent conservation movement in the 1900s saw groups of Native Americans forcibly removed from their homelands and stripped of their identities. Reparations for these indignities have yet to be made. Today, many Indigenous communities are at the front lines of the climate crisis in the U.S.: For example, many members of the Navajo Nation have been affected by uranium contamination from over 500 now-abandoned uranium mines located within Navajo territory. Studies have shown that more than 400,000 Native Americans are currently living within 3 miles of an EPA Superfund site or other large-scale contamination.

I’m also acutely aware that I’m often one of few Black people in the parks where I recreate. The Census Bureau reports that the U.S. population has significantly diversified since 2010, but research shows that people of color lack access to outdoor places for health and recreation. Government data has shown that 23% of visitors to the country’s national parks are people of color, even though nonwhites make up 42% of the U.S. population. On a more local level, some 100 million people, including a disproportionate number of nonwhites, lack access to a park within a 10-minute walk from home, according to the Trust for Public Land.

Leaders, including the current administration, agree that there is work to be done to advance environmental justice across all parts of United States society. Within the outdoor community, there’s a growing consensus that the first steps include increasing access to the outdoors and ensuring that communities of color have a voice in decisions being made about where they reside and recreate.

This piece aims to encourage action through education, because these issues can be tackled. The first step toward equalizing the imbalance in our outdoor lives is acknowledging that there is a problem. After that vision comes action—so let’s get to work understanding the problem.

What is environmental racism?

“A common perception is that environmental racism is simply just hearing someone yell a racial slur while hiking or biking,” says Amali Tower, founder and executive director of Climate Refugees, a human rights organization that advocates for people who are displaced by climate change. However, environmental racism is more than being made to feel unwelcome: It’s about facing significant environmental threats, including a lack of clean water to drink and air to breathe, that disproportionately affect communities of color.

“Environmental racism is the disproportionate exposure of aggrieved communities of color to health damaging hazards in the places where they live, work and play,” says George Lipsitz, an American Studies scholar and professor in the department of Black studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

These disproportionate environmental hazards impact quality of life and can lead to disease and other health risks. Study after study reveal that people of color are exposed to higher levels of pollution and toxins than white communities. Research also shows that people of color are inordinately impacted by climate change, including natural disasters like flooding and hurricanes—especially in the Southern states, where over half of the Black population in this country resides.

Environmental racism also refers to “the disproportionate exclusion of members of those groups from clean air, water and land, from accessible and affordable healthful foods and from opportunities for play and recreation,” according to Lipsitz.

Dr. Ingrid Waldron, a sociologist and author of There’s Something in the Water, believes that lawmaking has contributed to the ongoing environmental inequity that Black, Indigenous and other communities of color experience. “It happens through environmental policy and decision-making that then enables that racism to manifest intergenerationally throughout many decades,” she says.

The roots of environmental racism go back even further than our own lifetimes, according to Dr. Waldron. “These inequities are embedded in our places,” she says. Our national parks, state recreation areas, ski resorts—almost all were developed on land that was claimed from Indigenous groups by white settlers, and many of which remain inaccessible to communities of color.

“When I was a kid, to travel to the nearest town of Cortez, Colorado, took three days by horseback. Slowly but surely, roads started to get built, which brought in the hikers,” remembers Manuel Morgan. Morgan, who is Navajo, is a former county commissioner and a potter who re-creates Navajo artifacts. Morgan also recalls how those tourists began encroaching on his family, their land and their lives—first by taking pictures, then by camping out and finally by claiming control over assessing the value of the land.

“They’d just pull off the road and just camp and explore our area,” he says. “And so, the land that was once of no value was now the land that people wanted to explore. Some of my people didn’t like that. ‘What are you doing on land you didn’t want in the first place?’ they say.”

Photo credit: Ali Vagnini

As I spoke with more experts on this issue, I couldn’t help but make connections to my own experiences, even before I had put a name, definition or solution to them. What Morgan witnessed on his land is not unrelated to what occurs in neighborhoods where unsafe drinking water or delayed emergency responses are common: They are examples of inequality based on locale. Not only that, but if you were raised in or live in these places, these conditions may be all you know, making them seem normal to you rather than signs of a problem that could potentially have a solution.

Once you recognize the problem facing both land and people, a natural consequence is to seek laws, regulations and good practices that bring healing to the space and those who occupy it—and which need to be inclusive of all of us, not just those who are well-off.

The pursuit of environmental justice means seeking to address these inequities by prioritizing policies that treat all people fairly, regardless of race, socioeconomic background or other identifying aspects. To achieve true equality and justice, historically underrepresented groups must also have a seat at the decision-making table.

The environmental justice movement has roots in several movements, but many say that it began gaining widespread notice in the 1980s, when a predominantly Black community in Warren County, North Carolina, banded together to protest the establishment of a toxic waste facility nearby. The citizens engaged in a weeks-long nonviolent protest with origins in the actions and organizing of the civil rights movement. Activists wrote a paper detailing the incident and establishing a correlation between race and toxic waste sites around the country. This sparked a broader discourse about environmental racism—a term coined by Dr. Benjamin Chavis, then-director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ) in response to the Warren Country residents’ experience and protests.

Since then, support for the environmental justice movement has grown both in the U.S. and worldwide, with legislation passed on the local and national level, and awareness and advocacy spreading globally through grassroots and NGO activism. The First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 is considered one of the first landmark events, with more than 1,000 people gathering to develop the 17 principles of environmental justice. The following year, President George H.W. Bush developed the first-ever Environmental Equity Working Group within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the University of Michigan introduced the first environmental justice program for undergraduate and graduate students.

Currently, the movement for environmental justice includes continued legislative planning and implementation to ensure that the basics needs for communities of color, Native and low-income communities—hit harder by these toxic environmental factors—are being met and considered in future policy. To that end, in 2021 President Joe Biden signed executive order 14008, creating a variety of new environmental justice initiatives including the first White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the establishment of an Environmental Justice Scorecard.

According to the EPA, identifying and remedying lead-affected areas, providing clean drinking water, researching better air quality practices and reducing exposure to hazardous waste sites remain top concerns to the agency. Of course, there are other concerns to face in the future as well: air pollution, the impacts of pesticides, climate change and more.

It’s apparent that the transition from recognizing problems to identifying solutions is a long and slow process. That’s why the large-scale environmental initiatives must be met and matched by a people-driven and grassroots effort in our communities, and in the outdoors.

What can the outdoor recreation sector do?

Achieving consensus about calls to action on an innumerable set of problems like this can be a daunting task, but many in the outdoor industry believe that in order to address environmental justice within the recreation sector, the voices of people of color must be centered in the conversation.

“The outdoor industry has to consider how they are excluding people,” says Dr. Waldron. “They must interrogate themselves and ask intentional questions that they may never have done before.”

Participation and representation in the outdoors is key to this understanding and to creating increased equity, says Luis Villa, executive director of Latinos Outdoors, an organization working to create a national community of leaders in conservation and outdoor education. “The more diverse participation we have in open lands and national parks, the longer protection we have for the land and its people in the future.”

The diversity won’t appear out of nowhere: Angelou Ezeilo, founder of Greening Youth Foundation, says that if the industry wants to change the way the outdoors looks, we must first look within our organizations and evaluate who is being hired, who is being overlooked and what resources are being ordered to incentivize folks in getting outside? “Having new types of programing, engaging with students from historically Black colleges and bringing in interns of color to connect them to the field and get experiences with the culture of outdoors are necessary for this type of change,” Ezeilo says.

Building sustainably diverse outdoor businesses and organizations isn’t a gimmick: Research has shown that companies with greater diversity not only are more successful, but can also create more effective and creative teams. Ezeilo believes in an empathetic connection between employer and employee, business and customer and market and customer that goes beyond just profit margin and business sense. It can also make social change possible.

What can individuals do?

Chelsea Murphy is an activist, creator and the outdoorsperson behind She Colors Nature. She knows the impact of turning personal responsibility into the pursuit of solutions.

“We must put everything into the perspective that we’re all connected,” she says, offering a reminder that people and nature are not separate from one another.

Likewise, increased awareness of the need for environmental justice—to afford basic needs and protections in all places to all people—should lead to a greater collective movement toward the regeneration and restoration of those communities that continue to disproportionately suffer from inequitable environmental policy and practices.

“There is deep knowledge about environmental racism, but it is held unevenly,” says Professor Lipsitz from the University of California. “We cannot expect journalistic or educational channels indebted to and controlled by the polluters to spread this knowledge: We have to do so from the bottom up.”

Taking personal responsibility for our surroundings is paramount for the collective whole. One single person’s decisions and pursuits can have substantial effects to a land and its inhabitants—and combined, this impact increases exponentially. Small, enduring personal contributions such as picking up trash in your community, volunteering in a park or voting in local elections can help move the needle of justice. Sharing those actions with friends, family and community members can create even more progress.

Being educated is always the first step to empowerment, both for yourself and those whom you influence. But having the knowledge only equips you to see the solution: We must now mingle effort and persistence to make these changes a reality for all our neighbors.

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