State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


This ‘Green’ Space Shouldn’t Be So White

man walking through a forest
Photo: François Genon on Unsplash

The confluence of two pandemics — the novel coronavirus and the longstanding racist police violence, particularly against Black people —  exposes the brutal realities of health and mortality disparities for people of color due to historical and systemic racism and discrimination. We know that communities of color are being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. We also know that deaths from police violence disproportionately affect people of color, and that this is not a new crisis.

What many people may not recognize is how closely these issues are related to the environment, in the form of environmental racism. The same racist policies, practices, and institutions that create economic, social, and health disparities by race also predicate how people of color are unduly impacted by environmental hazards. We do not have to look very hard for examples that display how people of color are more likely to be impacted by environmental issues in the U.S. (See: Flint, Michigan; the newly shutdown, pending review Dakota Access Pipeline; the impact of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico; and many more examples.) More research is showing that areas which experience environmental injustices are also disproportionately impacted by coronavirus. Examples include “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana and its high COVID-19 rates, and New York City and its inter-borough differences in vulnerability to COVID-19. It is clear that the occurrences of environmental injustices are inextricably linked to race in this country.

Disappointingly, the institutional settings and professional workplaces that house and advance environmental work in some ways mirror the environmental injustices that unfold in our society. Just as environmental racism discriminately excludes people of color from access to clean water, clean air, and other aspects of the natural world that can determine health outcomes, the professional sphere of environmental studies and sciences often excludes people of color on numerous levels, including in research, job opportunities, and work/university culture.

As a white person in the environmental sciences field, I acknowledge that I have a position of power, privilege, and profit in this space. I benefit from the racist white supremacist system that perpetuates environmental racism and inequities, among other terrible injustices. In my field, I see mostly people that look like myself. In my program, I am taught by mostly white professors. In my future career, the color of my skin will probably allow me opportunities and freedoms that my fellow colleagues of color could perhaps not access.

We have made this “green” space white. Professional interest in the environment is largely synonymous with white interest. The environmental movement is rooted in the protection and conservation of nature, which has a history of exclusion and racism. From the get-go, many of the representations of environmental science have portrayed a focus solely on environmental conservation and not on social justice issues, potentially disconnecting students of color from the field. Black or African American students received only about 3 percent of the nation’s environmental science degrees in 2017. White students received nearly 69 percent of those degrees, with Hispanics or Latinos receiving the next highest share, at around 10 percent. Native Hawaiians or other Pacific Islanders had the lowest share at 0.2 percent. These demographics make environmental sciences among the least diverse fields of scientific study.

In her 2019 ‘Letter to the Stanford Earth Community: #StanfordEarthSoWhite’, then-student  Whitney Francis wrote, “the culture within the School of Earth perpetuates mainstream environmentalism — a movement that has been and continues to be a predominantly white movement from which communities of color have historically been excluded from. Part of the problem lies in the lack of faculty of color. And all of this contributes to the marginalization of students of color in environmental spaces at Stanford.” This trend is not at all unique to Stanford.

When looking at who is teaching the content, a 2016 report from the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America Institute found that African American, Hispanic, and Asian Americans made up 10 percent of tenured faculty positions across all disciplines in the U.S. in 2013.

Esther Ngumbi, an assistant professor in food security and entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told the New York Times, “I go to conferences, and I’m often the only person of color in the room. You sit in a classroom and all the scientists that are being introduced are white, white, white. And then you sit there as a black student, and you ask, ‘Do I even have a place in science?”

A 2014 Green 2.0 report by Dorceta Taylor, a professor of environmental sociology at the University of Michigan, showcases the lack of racial diversity in major U.S. environmental organizations and agencies. One statistic: 88 percent of staff and 95 percent of boards of environmental NGOs were white.

Even before people of color have the opportunity to enter the professional sphere of environmental sciences and studies, they experience barriers that white counterparts most likely do not. Many people of color have been confronted with barriers of access to the natural world. A history of racial discrimination in U.S. housing policies combined with the racial wealth gap has, in many cases, placed Black and Brown communities in areas without safe, healthful, or easily accessible green space or nature. This makes developing the ability to dedicate a professional career to the environment difficult, to say the least. There is also the simple fact that people of color do not have the luxury to dedicate all their energy and brain power solely to the environment. Racism experienced daily makes focusing on environmental issues arduous when one’s life and the lives of their community members are threatened — see: “I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.” In this piece, marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson asks, “How can we expect black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and even within our own homes? How can people of color effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?”

By not addressing these issues, we have created an exclusionary professional field and culture in which people of color — if they are able to surpass immediate barriers to the field — must balance protection of the environment with protection of their own wellbeing, which is constantly under attack.

I recognize that I cannot speak for the professionals and students of color or to their experiences in the field of environmental sciences and studies. But I can take action.

What can white representatives of the field of environmental studies and sciences do for people of color in this field? Here are a few actions to get you started:

  • Educate yourself and others about the lack of diversity in environmental studies and sciences. Why is it that so few Black students and students of color pursue environmental science degrees? Educate yourself on how professional spaces can be alienating and how to make your professional space more inclusive (see: “Subtle Acts of Exclusion”; “Inclusify”; Dismantling Racism Works Web Workbook). Recognize your own inherent biases toward persons of color in your field. Discuss these issues with your fellow colleagues and classmates, and talk about what you collectively can do about it. Read more environmental pieces written by people of color (see: “Climate Change isn’t Racist – People Are”) and about environmental racism (“Read Up on Links Between Racism and the Environment”).
  • Advocate for more equitable opportunities and programs, for using resources to recruit minority students or job applicants, and for centering and elevating the viewpoints of people of color. Advocate for the requirement that schools/departments and workplaces discuss environmental justice issues and disparities in the field. Advocate for direct actions to improve diversity in the field; institutions like universities can revamp their diversity, equity, and inclusion plans and increase inclusivity in their programs through the hiring of diverse staff and the creation of a curriculum that identifies environmental injustices and disparities and fosters interest in a broad group of students. Advocate for the creation of long-term diversity and bias trainings and for support groups to aid marginalized groups. Actively create a culture of inclusion and antiracism.
  • The lack of diversity in environmental studies and sciences ultimately stems from systemic and historical racism in all parts of society. Identifying these root causes of disparities is important in order to actively work toward making the field more equitable. This requires commitment to being actively antiracist outside the workplace or classroom, and further, outside environmentalism. Engage in other social justice movements that affect people of color.
  • Ask your colleagues, employees, students, classmates of color – how can I best support you in this professional sphere? It’s important to give people of color the platform and space to be heard. At the same time, it’s also important to not ask too much from your fellow colleagues and classmates of color when fighting for change in the workplace and classroom, as they may not feel comfortable or safe doing so.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all that can and should be done. This is also by no means a discussion to be had without the voices of color within our field, as I recognize this post does. It’s up to all of us to identify and recognize our positions of power within our professional spheres, the inequities that are happening around and through us, and how we can help make a difference.

More diversity and inclusion in the environmental field means enhanced problem-solving and innovation, exposure to diverse world views, and intersectional solutions. More inclusion in the field means more inclusion in research and projects, as environmental professionals of color are more likely to study and conduct research with communities of color. Reaching these communities means creating a more comprehensive and equitable understanding of and approach to environmental issues.

The rampant whitewashing and lack of diversity in environmental professional fields, as well as the persistent prevalence of environmental racism within our society, is why approaches to environmentalism must include considerations of environmental justice. Without doing so, the environmental community as a whole is woefully neglecting its responsibilities and discrediting the field by not considering the multi-faceted, intersectional, and complex relationship between social justice and the environment. We must hold the environmental field accountable and continue to demand change. If we do not address environmental racism, and if the field continues to exclude people of color, we lack significant understanding of the health and well-being of important populations in our country, and ultimately, dilute the purpose and significance of our efforts.

“[T]o white people who care about maintaining a habitable planet, I need you to become actively anti-racist,” writes Johnson. “I need you to understand that our racial inequality crisis is intertwined with our climate crisis. If we don’t work on both, we will succeed at neither. I need you to step up. Please. Because I am exhausted.”

Victoria Bortfeld is an MPH candidate in the Environmental Health Sciences Department at the Mailman School of Public Health, and an intern with the Earth Institute Director’s Office. Her study interests include environmental and climate action policy, environmental justice advocacy, and sustainable development.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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