National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson

Race and environmentalism

Recent events - particularly the tragic shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Florida - remind us that racism, and discrimination against African Americans, continue to affect life in the US. Does racism have anything to do with environmentalism? Are environmentalists just white liberals who care more about trees and snail darters than about other people?

Race is relevant. Work by sociologists such as Robert Bullard has been pivotal in documenting the ways in which people of color are disproportionately affected by environmental hazards. See Bullard's Environmental Justice Resource Center here.
People from minority backgrounds are more likely to be exposed to hazardous substances, for example in their jobs. Think of the pesticide exposure of migrant farmworkers. They're also more likely to live near toxic waste sites. This is related to income level, but income doesn't account for the whole effect.

Minorities are also less likely to have access to nearby green spaces. This is important not just for aesthetic reasons, but because access to green space is related to both mental and physical health. In low-income areas, neighborhood parks may be critical in encouraging physical exercise.

But do people from minority groups care? There's a stereotype that ethnic minorities in the U.S. are less environmentally oriented than Whites, spending less leisure time in natural settings and thinking less about environmental issues. It's true that they are less likely, on average, to visit national parks than are Whites. Pro-environmental attitudes and behavior also tend to be slightly lower among minority groups, although research suggests that the pattern is complicated. It differs somewhat according to minority group (are we talking about Latinos/Latinas? Koreans? Chinese?) and probably degree of acculturation.

Interestingly, the difference among ethnic groups remains even after taking proenvironmental attitudes into account. That is, the difference in participation is not just because they care less. It may be - though the research hasn't tested this - that minority groups in the US feel less a part of public life, and thus they feel less as though their actions are relevant.

So environmental problems and environmental activism are not immune from the pervasive impact of racism. Social justice is bound up with environmentalism. Something else to think about while trying to be green.

Reference: Johnson, Bowker, & Cordell (2004). Ethnic variation in environmental belief and behavior. Environment and Behavior, 36, 157-186.

You are reading

On Being Green

Therapy to Help the Environment

When our hearts are in the right place, psychology can help change behavior.

Everybody's Talking About It

Creating social norms to address environmental problems