It’s the National Park Service Centennial this year, and while thousands will flock to these outdoor spaces over the vacation season, there are lots more who won’t go. It’s been widely documented that U.S. national and state parks attract a disproportionate number of white visitors compared to minorities – especially African-Americans. What’s not as well known, perhaps, is why.
Dr. KangJae Lee wanted to learn more when he was a graduate student at Texas A&M. He talked to residents of a predominantly middle-class, African-American community just south of Dallas-Fort Worth called Cedar Hill. It’s near Cedar Hill State Park – a place few African-Americans visit.
Lee, now an assistant teaching professor at the University of Missouri, studies parks, recreation and tourism. He says he focused on this community in particular because this city is 65 percent African-American, much higher than the nationwide average of 12.6 percent of the total population, as of the 2010 Census.
“If you look at the visitor demographics, it’s heavily white Americans,” he says. “So, the local African-Americans do not use this park.”
Lee says he conducted this qualitative research by interviewing 15 local African-Americans. Many of them pointed to “white flight,” when white residents move out after African-American residents move in, as a reason they felt uncomfortable in their neighborhood and, by extension, the park surrounding it.
“Because of this transitional history, they had a sharp racial conflict between the two groups,” Lee says. “African-American newcomers (in this neighborhood) experience racial discrimination on a daily basis.”
One interviewee, when discussing these kinds of racial profiling experiences, told Lee that a local pastor said to him, an African-American churchgoer new to the area, “I love you, but I can’t have black folks coming into my church.”
“That negative perception sort of spilled over to the specific park,” he says. “So without visiting that park, African-American residents had this negative perception that they will not be treated nicely if they visit there.”
In a historical perspective, the Great Outdoors here in America are mostly visited by whites. African-Americans weren’t allowed to visit state parks or any parks without segregated facilities.
“How do you expect today’s African-Americans to appreciate them if their parents couldn’t appreciate them, their grandparents were not able to appreciate them,” he says. “It’s a socialization process. African-Americans have had limited opportunity to develop a recreational culture. It’s sort of a legacy of racial discrimination.”
Lee says some parks are developing programming to instill a culture of appreciation for outdoor parks. “It’s important that we educate the younger generations that parks are something beneficial for their lives,” he says.