American Birding Podcast



Inscrutable Whiteness


Washington Monument by TLE

The National Association for Interpretation (NAI), the professional organization for park rangers, guides, and educators, not to mention those who help you in museums, zoos, and the like, met in Hampton Roads last week. I presented, met a few friends, and caught up on the coming and goings in my profession. I hunkered with my kind.

I am white. Most of my friends are white. My profession is white. NAI is white. My recreation is white. White, white, white.

Dominican Republic July 2012 186

Nat, Cachote, Dominican Republic by TLE

I am not uncomfortable being white. I have never been otherwise. I spent childhood in the Jim Crow south. I knew separate restrooms and water fountains. As a young boy I entered the library in downtown Houston passing by a fountain installed by the Daughters of the Confederacy. My high school class included one black. We voted him “best dressed” in my senior year.

This election demonstrated, in black and white, that America isn’t. America is white, yellow, brown, black, and gray. We are old, young, Hispanic-American, African-American, Asian-American, gay, straight, male, female, and every blend of the above. America is kaleidoscopic; I am surrounded in my profession and my recreation by monotone white.

My family is white. My grandparents were white. My grandparents were racially insensitive (at best), racist at their worst. Most of my uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends were the same. My parents were not. They walled me and my sisters from the dark side.

I know white. I know hate, racism, ignorance, and indifference. I know that I will be forever grateful for being allowed to live to see this Jacob’s cloak that is becoming America.

Wednesday evening I attended the NAI awards presentation. The agencies honored their own. All had earned the honor, I am certain. All honorees were white; all attendees at the presentation were white. White, white, white.

Hunting is white. Fishing is white. Birding is white. Conservation organizations are white. The American Birding Association is white. Ducks Unlimited is white. Inscrutably white.
The American saga is filmed in Technicolor. Yet we project that story in black-and-white.

After ducking out of the NAI awards, I spent dinner at the bar. The television insisted on nonstop sports. I watched a round-table discussion among experts (Dion Sanders, Michael Irvin, Marshall Faulk) dissecting the day’s sporting events. They were passionate. They were knowledgeable. They were black. Black, black, black.

I flew home from the BWI Thurgood Marshall International Airport on Friday. From Hampton Roads I passed Petersburg, Richmond, Spotsylvania, and Manassas on my way north. The blood and gore are gone, the traces washed clean, but the ghosts remain.

Washington 112

Lincoln Memorial by TLE

Saturday night I visited another specter – Spielberg’s Lincoln.

Joining us at the theater were blacks, browns, whites, Christians, and Sikhs. I suspect that we each came with a different expectation and for different reasons. Some came to see the man. Some came to see the time. I hope that all came to find out why.

On June 30, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation granting Yosemite Valley and the nearby Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the state of California “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort, and recreation.” This grant is considered the foundation upon which national and state parks were later established. On January 31, 1865, the US House of Representatives finally passed the 13th Amendment ending slavery, presenting Lincoln with his last legislative victory. Appomattox would soon follow.

Did Lincoln see a relationship between the freedom from slavery and freedom in nature? I haven’t a clue. I doubt it. But I do know of Lincoln’s profound respect for our Constitution, and for the Declaration of Independence that preceded it.

We all understand the unambiguous declaration that “all men are created equal.” The 13th Amendment began to perfect that promise. But how do we come to understand the “pursuit of happiness?” Is to be in nature a worthy pursuit?

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Farm and ranch families now comprise just 2 percent of the U.S. population. But in Lincoln’s time most families were still on the farm. Yet already people such as Muir and Olmsted had recognized the need to set aside lands for the people who did not own it. Theodore Roosevelt would extend that recognition to millions of acres in the early 1900’s. In fact, Roosevelt directly addressed the relationship between nature and happiness in this way;

It is an incalculable added pleasure to any one’s sum of happiness if he or she grows to know, even slightly and imperfectly, how to read and enjoy the wonder-book of nature.

Without access to the outdoors, parks, sanctuaries, and recreational lands, this book is closed. Nature is not a commodity that is the exclusive property of a tiny percentage of Americans. Nature is part of the national patrimony. To share in nature is to share in America’s heritage.

If this is so, then how did those who control the gates to nature, who manage nature, who study nature, who interpret nature, who find enjoyment in nature through recreations such as hunting, fishing, and birding, remain so unlike the rest of our country? How did we miss the evolution?

President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the legislation that finally ended discriminatory practices that the Civil War and the 13th Amendment had “settled.” Perhaps we have not had enough time to integrate our recreations and our organizations. Perhaps people of color look at birding the way I look at Formula One or polo.

No. I believe that over half a century is sufficient time for progress to have been made. Given the advancements on other social fronts, I am not willing to excuse our failures because of a lack of time. Perhaps we have the will but lack the skill. Perhaps we are addicted, as Martin Luther King once said, to the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

Jerry, Holly, and Lisa

Anthony Jeremiah (Grenada Forestry), Holly Robertston and Lisa Sorenson (SCSCB) by TLE

The Focus on Diversity, an annual conference of birders hoping to “open an honest dialogue,” is an admirable and inspired effort. Honest dialogue? How about starting with “we are inscrutably white?” Park interpreters are white. Museum guides are white. Conservation organizations are white. Nature writers are white. Environmental leaders are white. Biologists are white. Game commissions are white.

I do not believe this is intentional. I believe that all are committed to offering equal employment and recreational opportunities. But with a rapidly shifting population, relying on glacial evolutionary processes to fill the gap is now and will continue to be inadequate.

How we attract more minority birders is beyond me. I suspect, though, that the emphasis needs to come from the top. This is not an issue in many of the countries where I work. In countries such as Jamaica and Grenada, the wardens, guides, and interpreters are people of color. In the Dominican Republic, environmental leaders are people of color.
For a young child in one of these countries, these role models are people of color.

Perhaps this is where we should start. We can demand that our appointed game commissioners reflect the population in general. We can insist that the boards of our environmental organizations are similarly constituted. What about the hiring practices at our local nonprofit parks or sanctuaries? Shouldn’t we voice our concerns when year after year, decade after decade, we see no people of color in positions where they can serve their respective communities as role models?

Here is one example – the Arizona Game and Fish Commission. According to the Commission’s website;

The Arizona Game and Fish Commission establishes policy for the management, preservation, and harvest of wildlife, and makes rules and regulations for managing, conserving, and protecting wildlife and fisheries resources…

The US Census Bureau estimates that 50.3% of Arizona’s population is female, with 30.1% Hispanic. Check out the commissioners themselves – five white guys.
The issue is similar in Canada. According to the Vanier Institute in Ottawa;

Canada’s visible minority population has grown steadily, now comprising
16.2% of the Canadian population or over 5 million people – a significant increase from CANADA MAPLE LEAF1.1 million people in 1981. Given current patterns of immigration, by 2017, it is forecast that the visible minority population will reach 7.1 million – or approximately one-fifth of the Canadian population…according to recent projections, by 2031, visible minority groups could comprise 63% of the population of Toronto, 59% in Vancouver and 31% in Montréal.

The Honourable Peter Kent, a Canadian white guy, is the Minister of the Environment. The CEO of the Parks Canada Agency is Mr. Alan Latourelle (another white guy), and the superintendent of Point Pelee is a white woman. The chairman and virtually all of the board of directors of the Canadian Wildlife Service are white. The President and CEO of the Nature Conservancy of Canada is white, as is his staff. White, white, white.

Before I move on from these revelations, I do need to confess that the American Birding Association, American Bird Conservancy, National Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy, Conservation Fund, Trust for Public Land, Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited, National Wildlife Refuge Association, and the Cornell Lab are led by white guys too. The NRDC and Defenders of Wildlife, I am proud to say, have progressed to being led by white women. For the record, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service, and the National Parks Service are led by white guys as well.

In comparison, currently there are 5 black head coaches in the National Football League. Two-thirds of the players are black. In the National Basketball Association, there are 13 head coaches in a league where 80% of the players are black. Exactly who would we expect young people to watch and idolize, particularly African-Americans?

I could argue that there are ways in which these professional sports, not organizations that come to mind when discussing the greening of America, are leading us in that regard as well. Here is an example from this last summer. According to an op-ed in the NY Times,

At Major League Baseball’s 83rd All-Star Game last week, the hosts, the Kansas City Royals, bought carbon offsets certified by the Environmental Protection Agency for emissions from the 120,000 kilowatt-hours of energy used during All-Star Week events and purchased credits to restore depleted watersheds for the 600,000 gallons of water used. The 120 solar panels installed at the stadium earlier this year will produce 36,000 kilowatts hours annually. Recycling containers were placed in offices, suites, concourses and parking lots at the stadium, and environmental awareness was promoted with public service announcements in stadium signage and an ad in the 2012 All-Star Game program.

I Have A Dream

Steps of the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King gave his I Have A Dream Speech by TLE

What did birders do to mitigate for carbon emissions at the most recent birding festivals? Even among the admittedly white crowds in attendance, what example did birding set that would be remotely equivalent to Major League Baseball? Shouldn’t we be expected to lead?

I should also mention that baseball became integrated with Brooklyn’s Jackie Robinson in 1947, years before the pinnacle of the nation’s civil rights movement (the Selma to Montgomery marches were in 1965). The Canadian Football League hired black players (1946) and coaches (1980) at a time when there were none in the National Football League. How many of our organizations and agencies, those involved with the conservation of and recreation in either nation’s lands, have been led by anyone other than a white man?

Martin Luther King said;

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

Nature matters. People matter. Whether or not nature is relevant to future generations matters.

What also matters is that people of color be visibly and consistently seen as being involved in the outdoors and with nature. We cannot afford another NAI convention or birding festival blinded by our inscrutable whiteness.

To remain relevant, to remain influential, we need to engage our fellow citizens as they are in the here and now. The place to begin, I believe, is the top.

During this same trip I spent a couple of days with family and friends in Washington D.C. On Veterans’ Day I decided to walk over to the Mall. From the top steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the very steps where Martin Luther King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, I thought of the words he spoke that sweltering day in 1963;

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…I have a dream that one day…little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

What can we do? First, support organizations like the ABA that are taking an active role in engaging people of color. The converse, of course, is do not support groups that are making no effort or progress. Do not become addicted to the “tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”

Second, attend the annual meeting of your parks, wildlife, and game commissions (every state is different, so you should know which to attend) and ask what the agencies are doing to employ and promote people of color. If your commission lacks diversity (such as Arizona), ask what is being done to rectify this unacceptable situation.

Third, demand that your professional organizations (such as NAI) are similar engaged in recruiting and promoting people of color. Ask what steps are being taken to insure that people of color are able to rise to positions of authority. We need more people of color representing us in the public’s eye.

Fourth, let’s reach out to organizations that are engaged with people of color. For example, I will argue that access to the outdoors is a critical part of environmental justice.

Point Pelee shuttle; Point Pelee, Canada; 3 Sep 2001

Shuttle Buses at Point Pelee by TLE

Fifth, along these same lines support organizations in other countries that are effectively engaging people of color. I have written about the SCSCB (Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds) in the past. There are dozens of examples in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Sixth, why not consider sponsoring a birding festival in an inner city location? What about Newark? Detroit? Philadelphia? Houston? St. Louis? I mean a festival where you bird in the urban area, not just stay there and then venture out into the hinterlands. A good example is the Spring Bird Festival in Toronto’s Tommy Thompson Park. I wonder how many people of color attend this urban festival?

Finally, when is the last time that the ABA or NAI met with the Secretary of the Interior, or the President, or the head of the National Parks Service, USDA Forest Service, or the US Fish and Wildlife Service? What about the BLM? The ACOE? Bureau of Reclamation? The Canadian Wildlife Service? Engaging people of color in nature should be a topic of interest for these public officials and agencies. Shouldn’t we take the lead?

I am certain that many of you have great ideas about how to address this challenge. I am assuming, of course, that we agree that this is worthwhile. What are your ideas?