Green activism is very, very white.
That’s the verdict of a recent report commissioned by “Green 2.0” on the composition of non-government, governmental, and grant-giving organizations that work on the environment.1 The report’s author, University of Michigan professor Dorceta E. Taylor, says this “Green Ceiling” has held minority representation in green organizations steadily at between 12 and 16 percent for decades.
This seems odd, given that many studies have found “environmental racism” to be endemic, notably in the choice of locations where toxic materials are dumped.2 The Federal Government’s Office of Minority Health, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, says Native Americans suffer from asthma at a 70 percent higher rate than whites.3 African Americans are 20 percent likelier to visit hospitals due to asthma than white folks4 and Latinos are 30 percent likelier.5 These are appalling statistics. While there are numerous causes of asthma, many correlate with environmental hazards concentrated in minority communities, such as exposure to particulate matter, high ozone levels, and nitrogen dioxide.
Environmentalism used to be a middle-class activity that provided jobs for white boys. Thankfully, gender equity has improved over the last thirty years. Women now run the majority of US environmental NGOs and get most of the junior jobs, as well. Third sector environmentalism, especially in small and medium-sized concerns, appears to be a gendered profession, as it becomes just 40% male. Being on the boards of management or working for the state are still white-guy preserves, however—so don’t panic, fellas.
But the class and race composition of scholars, activist, and officials is pretty much stuck where it has always been. Ethnic minorities comprise just 16 percent of employees in the three types of organizations studied by Taylor—and unforgivably, just 12 percent in government jobs. Promotion is tougher for them than for white women. Meanwhile, minority volunteerism in these bodies is basically non-existent—a rather damning fact given that “people of color support environmental protection at a higher rate than whites,” according to the Green 2.0 report.
The systematic failure of green organizations to involve and hire minorities is part of a wider trend excluding minorities from the new green economy: latest estimates suggest less than a fifth of the workforce in professional green technology will be Latinos.6 Almost 40 percent of our population is Latino, African American, Asian, indigenous, and so on. In science and engineering, minorities make up almost a third of graduates.
So what’s wrong with professional environmental activists? Why have they so signally failed to be democratic, active, and skillful in recruiting and learning from groups with the scholarship, the experience, and the diversity to enrich this vital work? Why are minorities clearly not addressed effectively as either potential volunteers or workers?
Brentin Mock, a justice reporter for Grist.org, answers that “it appears that too many [green movement leaders] would rather accommodate their prejudices than test their understanding of how non-white, non-hetero, non-male, non-college-educated, non-wealthy human beings relate to the environment.7" Discriminatory hiring practices are clearly a problem. But as Taylor reports, the leadership of green organizations has persistently failed to acknowledge that a “significant number of talented ethnic minorities are willing and able to work in environmental organizations.” This misperception could be corrected by a visit to the Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative, which Taylor directs,8 or by taking a peek at the staff profiles of Earth Justice, a legal group dedicated to environmental justice9. Truly diverse.
So what should be done? First, we need studies to account for the problem: ethnographic accounts of why white people perpetuate themselves and exclude others, and what it’s like to be a white person doing so, plus network analyses that indicate how this trick is managed. Second, diversity experts are needed both inside and outside relevant organizations to evaluate then guide them towards a more inclusive world. Third, recruitment needs to be undertaken through formal procedures, not word of mouth (i.e. the old whites’ network), including new programs of volunteer outreach and internship programs that appeal to those who are currently not involved. Environmental NGOs are very good at calling up people they know—who are like them. Fourth, there needs to be cluster hiring. By recruiting minorities at a stroke into many positions across the hierarchy, an organization can empower new minority hires with a sense of purpose and belonging, and avoid the burdens and isolation associated with unthinking tokenism.
And what role can media play in raising awareness about the duel problems of environmental racism and discriminatory hiring in the green movement? Don’t expect much from mainstream media, because they are whiter than green activism. Take screenwriting as an index. According to a recent report by the Writers Guild of America, minority writers held only 5 percent of film jobs from 2009 to 2102, while minority employment in TV peaked at 11 percent in 2012.10 In this context, the story of environmental justice might find its white heroes (starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon). But getting the full multicultural, multidimensional story will depend on winning the fight to expand minority ownership and employment in the media.
Green activism needs a makeover. In a hurry. And from top to bottom and in spite of white mainstream media.