Addressing the Lack of Racial Diversity in National Parks

A picture I took at Gettysburg National Military Park

A picture I took at Gettysburg National Military Park in 2014.

Over the past few years the National Park Service’s leadership has made a serious push to make its visitor base more racially and demographically diverse. A few years ago the agency established its Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion, and since then numerous studies have been conducted to better assess what can be done to make parks more diverse. In 2013 scholars Joe Weber and Selima Sultana wrote an extended study on the Civil Rights Movement and the future of the NPS; journalist Ryan Kearney wrote a piece the same year for The New Republic with a specific focus on camping and hiking; and now NPR has a piece by Nathan Rott on racial diversity that uses data from visitor use surveys. All of these works establish theories for why National Parks are mostly white and conclude that the lack of racial diversity is a problem for the agency. Few practical solutions are offered in these essays to amend the problem, however. That’s understandable, and I don’t think anyone has a good solution at this point. But in recent conversation with fellow NPS employees on our Facebook page I was struck by how many people argued that there really is no diversity problem within the agency.

A common idea suggested in our discussion attributed cultural differences as the root cause of the agency’s whiteness. One discussant made the following observation:

The NPS makes a big deal over “cultural sensitivity.” The fact is that different cultures value different things, including different ways of recreating. That’s pretty much what “culture” is. If other cultures don’t enjoy parks, it’s not because we aren’t welcoming them or closing the gates to them. The crowd at a truck pull or rap concert won’t be “representative of America” either, but nobody loses sleep over it.

We are an overwhelmingly White organization, but we need to stop thinking that Black people, Latino people, Asian people, are just like us but have different color skin. They are different. They have backgrounds, different dreams, different ideas of fun, THAT’S diversity, not thinking we are all the same inside, just different on the outside.

Another discussant suggested that the NPS and “white liberals” were engaging in “cultural imperialism” by forcing different cultural groups to patronize National Parks.

The point is taken that people of different ethnicities maintain different cultural practices and traditions, but this line of thinking is wholly inadequate for explaining the issue. Each of the aforementioned articles discuss legitimate socioeconomic factors as well: inadequate transportation methods, lack of money to take trips to National Parks, and a lack of awareness about the presence and mission of the parks. All of these factors need to be taken seriously. By framing the lack of diversity solely to culture, an assumption is made that people from all walks of life have an equal opportunity to visit a National Park, but that people of color voluntarily choose not to visit because “they are different.” By this logic the NPS is wholly absolved of any responsibility for its racial makeup (both in its workforce and visitor population) because the onus is on communities of color to take an interest in National Parks. But the data convincingly demonstrates that the NPS is at least partly to blame for its lack of diversity. While the agency’s ability to spend money to get people from disadvantaged communities to a park is fairly limited, we can at least see that the need to raise awareness about the parks to communities who have historically had little stake in them is fairly acute.

I think the agency has done a lot of good work to make parks accessible and welcoming to all people, but that hasn’t always been the case. Numerous parks like Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains maintained racially segregated and unequal facilities for a long time after their establishment in the 1930s. Some of the federal government’s efforts to acquire land for national parks has been controversial and alienating to local communities: Stephen Hirst’s book on the Havasupai people of the Grand Canyon, for example, shows how the Havasupai fought for nearly 100 years to reacquire native land that had been taken from them under dubious circumstances. And the stories of people of color have often been absent from the agency’s interpretive programs at both nature and cultural sites. As I discussed in my last post, the push to discuss slavery and the causes of the Civil War at NPS nineteenth century history sites only came about in the 1990s. On the surface it could be easy to dismiss these factors as having all taken place in the past and are therefore irrelevant. But a young person of color whose parents and grandparents who might feel alienated at National Parks because of the agency’s past will most likely not come to the park on their own volition. Again, “culture” is only one element of a more complex picture that includes other socioeconomic factors, the agency’s own behavior and actions, and perceptions of those behaviors and actions by communities of color.

Making national parks more diverse is a great challenge with no easy solutions. But we as an agency will never achieve a workable solution to the problem if we don’t first perceive that a problem exists and that we should act to solve it. If the perception among NPS employees at all levels is that the agency’s whiteness is due solely to cultural differences, then I think we will continue to see a lot of the same faces in national parks that we’ve seen for a long time. That might okay for now given that the agency broke another attendance record in 2015 with more than 305 million people visiting a park, but I believe this drive is largely attributable to Baby Boomers who are retiring from the workforce and taking more opportunities to travel. These people won’t be around forever, so we’ll have to continue working to ensure that future generations will take advantage of and appreciate our National Parks.

Cheers

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3 responses

  1. Nick, too many Civil War sites are essentially shrines for the ancestor worship of modern day descendants of “those who fought here.” The rest of America may well be left out. This post from the NCPH gives a sense of why. Only about one in 15 public historians is a person of color.

    I am guessing that some of the statements made by NPS folks that you cite would never have been made if there had been actual black or Latino people in the room.

    I think the NPS leadership is right. The parks are an amazing resource for ALL Americans, but if park personnel perceive their customer base as white, then support for the parks will decline as the country become more diverse.

    I served seven terms as the chairman of the New York Immigration Coalition and during that time NYC started a program called Immigrants in the Parks to address the very same issue at the local level. They spent money on outreach and programming to and for immigrant communities and they involved immigrants in planning, decision making, and feedback. Immigrant organizations were brought in to help through small grants and to help recruit immigrants to work for the parks department in roles beyond maintenance.

    A lot can be done to make these the People’s Parks and not just the White People’s Parks.

  2. This is really interesting to read in light of a post I just wrote based on a recent experience at an NPS site: https://museumphiles.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/the-frank-museum-confronting-difficult-histories/. Thanks for posting!

  3. If you build it they will come. I think that if a park offers something different with culture and ethnicity can relate to it would draw them to the park. I like inclusion. I think ethnicity and culture can be best interpreted by folks who live and are from those communities. Let them tell their stories. This also goes for museums. Make it a pop up or rotating exhibit, panel, talk, presentations, hands on learning. People make memories when they attend.

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