Why so White?

In a perfect world, variations in representation of ethnic minorities in different fields would carry no significance. In such a world, the near absence of black faces in the American geoscience community would be just a statistical fluke.

But we don’t live in that world.

Now, African-Americans are underrepresented in many parts of American society, but geoscience is spectacular. Only 8.1% of American graduate students in science and engineering identify as African-American, which is depressingly below the 14.9% of Americans in that age group who are black, but focus in on earth science and the number is 1.9% (data from NSF).  The only fields lower than earth science?  Ocean science is at 1%, ecology and astronomy at 0.9% and zoology at 1.1% (nuclear engineering is also low at 1.6%).  In all of the other fields, the difference could be attributed to rounding errors as the numbers of black students in those fields is well under 100 and total number of students is under 3000, but the number for earth science is depressingly low and much more robust.

When we look through graduate applications, we are always struck at the absence of African-Americans.  At Boulder, in an average year, there are between one and none who apply. We like to attribute this to broad issues in society, like the generally lower number of well-prepared minority students and the lousy way earth science is taught in K-12 schools. And Boulder is a pretty lily-white place anyways, so we don’t have a strong feeder system.  But there is something else at work here, and those other fields provide a clue.

All of these fields (well, except nuclear engineering) represent science that observes the natural world. Many of us in these fields fell in love with the idea of being able to spend our time out doing such observations, finding beauty and peace in nature while being energized by the challenge of understanding the underlying patterns. This doesn’t seem to be something profoundly ethnic to most of us (and indeed, if you go to Africa you will find plenty of African earth scientists). So what is up?

What is up is that the natural world–and, more specifically, its local inhabitants–seem to be every bit as scary for black families as a dark alley in a bad part of town for nearly everybody. This has been seen for many years in visitation statistics to national parks and membership numbers for environmental organizations.  Efforts have been underway for a long time to reverse this.  Is this just one of those things that might emerge anyways in a colorblind society?

Probably not.  Consider this comment from “A dermatologist” on a NY Times piece that (as such pieces often do) seems to discover the relatively low numbers of minorities in national parks as a new thing:

I am a black woman who grew up in a rural part of Ohio with beautiful state parks, and as a result I learned to enjoy hiking and outdoor activities. But as an adult I am very careful about where I travel to engage in these outdoor activities, because many state and national parks are in areas where black people are clearly unwelcome. And this presents challenges regarding where to stay, where to eat, etc. I am always on guard in these areas, searching for other black families for reassurance that we are not alone, and that we will be treated fairly. And despite being a very conventional mom-dad-two kids and dog family — just a black one — we often attract stares and hostile attitudes in many of the rural places we go. We choose to ignore these things because we want our children to experience nature and its bounty, but hostility from the local populace clearly is a deterrent for many families of color.

This is profoundly distressing.  There might be great black geoscientists growing up who will never enter the field because going to experience nature is stressful, not relaxing. And it is because of the undying tensions engendered by a system of slavery dead for 150 years.

We keep hoping to see black faces in our graduate classrooms. We hope that better schools, better science education will bring them to us.  Maybe that’s not enough.

Glenn Nelson, the author of that NY Times piece, thinks the burden is on the Park Service to just be more ethnically diverse and that will open the spigot of minority visitation. This feels naive and overlooks nearly a generation of attempts to do just that. Others point to economic disparities between races. Frankly, reading that comment and knowing some of the kinds of people being referred to (because as earth scientists, we get to meet lots of rural folks, and while many are really wonderful, some are scary for white folks, too), it isn’t clear how to free nature from those more likely to populate the fringe between the wild and civilization. But maybe we need to find a way.

There is always hope.  Hiking last year near Boulder, GG met an African-American man with his daughter.  They come up every year to a spot and camp in the woods just outside the designated wilderness (so they don’t need a permit); it is clearly a ritual they both have deeply enjoyed for many years. Maybe she will decide to try geology as a profession, or bring her family into the woods when she is older. We can only hope.

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