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Whose Commons? National Parks as White Public Space

US National Parks operate as white public space, upholding white supremacy and excluding people of color.

The emergence of “rogue” Twitter accounts by National Parks employees has attracted widespread positive attention, with many onlookers celebrating the accounts’ tweets about climate change and efforts to resist the new president’s administration.

As noble as the current resistance by parks employees may be, however, ignoring the violent and racist history of the National Parks is part of a dangerous de-historicizing of natural space that is all too common in white perceptions and use of such spaces. The erasure of people of color within the history of the parks is not a long-gone phenomenon irrelevant to the use of National Parks today; it is an erasure that continues to permeate contemporary parks and their use by the public. If the resistance of the National Park Service under Trump is bringing new power to the commons, we need to ask: Whose commons are they?

National Parks Visitors Today

The New York-based collective known as “Not an Alternative” recently waded into this debate by publishing an article titled “The National Park Service Goes Rogue” in Jacobin. The article celebrates the rogue Twitter feeds as a new symbol of support for the commons and as a new tactic of government resistance from within. The article rightly elaborates on the violent colonial history of the National Parks System, but argues that this bloody history should be left behind in favor of a new National Parks System that “stands up for a concept of nature as common.” As evidence that there is “mass desire” for protecting nature in National Parks, Not An Alternative cites recent data on parks visits: “In 2015, over three hundred million people visited US national parks.”

Such numbers do indicate that a large number of people have a stake in National Parks but, when viewing racial demographic data of National Park visitors, another story appears. A survey by the National Parks Service in 2009 found that of National Parks visitors, approximately 80 percent were white, while around 9 percent of visitors were Latino or Latina, 7 percent were African American, 3 percent were Asian American and just 1 percent were American Indian or Native Alaskan. This puts the total population of non-white visitors at 20 percent, whereas minority representation in the US population as a whole is approximately 40 percent. The demographic makeup of park employees and volunteers is no different, with around 80 percent of employees, board members and volunteers made up of white people.

There are myriad reasons for such racial discrepancies in parks visitation. Visiting the parks can be expensive when you factor in travel, lodging, food costs and entrance fees, a factor cited by people of all races who participated in the survey. This survey also found that a lack of knowledge or familiarity with theNational Parks System significantly influenced people’s decision to not visit the parks. This explanation was most often cited by minority groups. Discussion in the media (NPR, Al Jazeera, New York Times) following the survey tends to gravitate toward these explanations, which can provide important context for improving accessibility to the parks. But, what is left out of this analysis is the social and cultural production of the space itself. Through its violent history and continued perpetuation of frontier discourse, the space of the National Parks has been shaped to most often meet the interests of white visitors, while making some visitors of color feel unwelcome.

White Public Space

While the violent history of the parks may not have a direct causal relationship on visitation today and certainly does not universally prevent people of color from using and enjoying the National Parks, this history does play a role in the shaping of National Parks as white public space, a term used by anthropologists Helán Page and R. Brooke Thomas to describe a space where “racism is reproduced by the professional class.”

According to Page and Thomas, white public space “may entail particular or generalized locations, sites, patterns, configurations, tactics, or devices that routinely, discursively, and sometimes coercively privilege Euro-Americans over nonwhites.” The violent displacement of Native Americans from park land, the manipulation and violation of treaties with Indigenous people, the powerful profit interests of railroad and tourism moguls and the discourse of conservationists all served to historically uphold National Parks as White Parks. This historical construction permeates discourse on and use of National Parks today.

Not An Alternative’s own description of contemporary parks visitation reveals some of these underlying race and class assumptions about park use. “NationalParks stand as a reminder that there is more to life than work and consumption.” This may be true, but such a statement must be interrogated further. Who experiences the “more to life” offered by the sublime landscape? Who feels relaxed and at ease in the parks? The answer to these questions is often white people.

Race and Nature

William Cronon writes extensively on the ways that race and class hierarchies, as well as urban/rural cultural differences, are reinforced in the construction of wilderness spaces such as the National Parks. Cronon notes, “Country people generally know far too much about working the land to regard unworked land as their ideal. In contrast, elite urban tourists and wealthy sportsmen projected their leisure-time frontier fantasies onto the American landscape and so created wilderness in their own image.” The mythology of the frontier in conjunction with the concept of the sublime experience of nature have shaped National Park space as the locale for adventures of the brave frontiersman.

The myth of the “frontier” has close ties with the rhetoric and formation of the first parks. After the Homestead Act of 1862, white settlers rushed westward in search of new resources, new jobs, and new homes. This rush to conquer and claim land to the west often resulted in violent clashes with Native people and government-sanctioned removal of Indigenous people from their land. Despite regular conflict between white settlers and Indigenous people, the existence of Indigenous people is almost entirely absent from most frontier narratives. The myth of the frontier shaped the creation of a frontiersman character whose” determined nature to act alone in the uncharted wilderness made them worthy of respect,” according to Leroy G. Dorsey. What is hidden in this common narrative is the assumption that the brave settler is a white man and the “uncharted wilderness” is actually home to many Indigenous peoples. Today the frontier myth is employed in contemporary narratives from justifications for gentrification to neocolonialism.

The discourse of the frontier is present in much of the advertising and discussion about National Parks visits today. Camping and hiking contain elements of the frontier: a notion that one must “defeat” a mountain by climbing it or “survive” by protecting oneself with elaborate camping gear. The frontier myth serves to grant entitlement to white people for their use or conquering of space, while erasing any violent or racist outcomes of this claim.

The notion of sublime or pure nature developed in the discourse of transcendentalist and conservationist writers of the mid-1800s from Henry David Thoreau to Sierra Club founder John Muir. While praising the near divine experience of visiting nature, Muir is well known for his hatred and blatantly racist views of Native Americans. About the Native people living on Yosemite land, Muir wrote, “The worst thing about them is their uncleanliness … nothing truly wild is unclean.” This notion of cleanliness has been upheld in racist ideologies for centuries: white equals pure, black and brown are dirty. This binary is further naturalized in the construct of nature, where the “interference” of Native hunters or a reminder of slavery disrupts what “should” be a pure white landscape.

Erasure and Trauma

Mythologies of the frontier and of sublime wilderness maintain the social construction of natural space as pure, white, and truly natural and an important part of this mythology is erasing the violence and trauma in these spaces. Pilgrim settlers of the United States disregarded the well-developed infrastructure built by Native people that they discovered upon settling the East Coast. White settlers during Westward expansion erased the existence of Native people who first lived on the land. Conservationists around the world deny and obfuscate the presence of Indigenous people in order to create wildlife refuges. Transcendentalist authors shifted the sublime landscape from the pastoral to the wild to remove traces of slavery in the landscape. Time and time again, natural space has been scrubbed clean of the atrocious acts of violence committed by whites against Black and Native people.

Scholar Paul Outka writes about this relationship of trauma and the sublime and notes that while whites have the privilege of experiencing the sublime, many people of color are excluded from this wilderness experience because of reminders of trauma. Even those who did not directly experience trauma feel its generational effects. One group of African Americans interviewed while visiting aNational Park for the first time, made nervous jokes about lynching and “Whites Only” signs at the parks. Other parks visitors indicated fears of being harassed or unwelcomed by white visitors and staff. On the whole, people of color surveyed were much more likely to cite feeling unsafe in the parks as a reason for not visiting or not visiting more often.

Economic Interests

Discursive constructs of conservation and natural experiences work in tandem with economic interests to enforce whiteness in National Parks. While fossil fuel industries may be barred from developing on protected land, the tourism industry is thriving. As is revealed in demographic information on the service industry around the country, people of color fill a disproportionate number of the low-wage service positions in the parks’ hotels and restaurants. While whites visit the parks as guests, many people of color are working in food service and housekeeping.

White economic and social interests were apparent from the start of the NationalParks as well. The railroad industry was particularly influential in lobbying for the creation of the parks and the massive increase in rail usage greatly benefited white railroad tycoons. The Organic Act of 1916, which established the NationalPark System, even makes special exceptions for the development of certain industries, while it specifically criminalized Native uses of the land for hunting and grazing. The same regulation of behaviors can be seen today in the way that quiet contemplation or solitary hiking are condoned behaviors in the NationalParks, while large, loud groups are often seen as “ruining” the experience.

The historical and social production of National Parks space overlaps quite differently with different subject positions and in different parts of the country. The Black, Latinx, Native, or Asian experiences of National Parks vary greatly within and among each racial group, influenced by factors of economics, education, mobility, language and geography. Violence in the early days of the park resonates quite differently for each person. Rather than project a universal experience of exclusion felt by diverse people in National Parks, this historical analysis reveals that the space itself has been constructed through discourses and practices that privilege whiteness over other races. Such construction may influence the way that non-whites interact, or avoid interacting with these spaces.

So, while we can applaud the National Parks Service’s demonstrated commitment to increase diversity and their pursuance of the valiant mission of resisting climate change and the Trump administration, we must do so because of and not in spite of its racist history. Though, as Not An Alternative writes, the National Park System “is not only an agency historically linked to settler colonialism,” it does have inextricable ties to structures of racial oppression that should not be erased again. May this moment of political crisis and this act of resistance by the parks be challenged to not only fight against fascism and climate change, but to do so with the intention of building a new and inclusive space in the National Parks.

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