The Color Bind

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Black is Africa. Not the James Baldwin, Miles Davis, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X shade of black, but the Isak Dinesen, Joseph Conrad black. Brown is Mexico. Yellow is China. Red is indigenous. Africa is slaves, Mexico is illegals, China is the “yellow peril,” and the American Indian is “redskin.” For much of its history America had a simple palette: white, colored. White = good. Colored = bad.

Consider black in the Americas. According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World (the database has information on more than 35,000 slave voyages). For the period of active slave trade, over three and a half centuries, 10.7 million survived the Middle Passage to be slaves. Slaves disembarked in North America, the Caribbean, and South America.

Of these 10.7 million Africans, only 388,000 were shipped directly to what became the United States. Most were carried to the sugar plantations in the Caribbean and eastern South America (Suriname, Brazil). Africans came with countless languages, histories, religions, and cultures, and settled in numerous countries where they lived their short miserable lives growing a crop that rotted Europe’s teeth.

Countless landed first in the Caribbean (on islands such as Barbados), and were then shipped to the British colonies. The connection between Caribbean and American people of color is palpable.

Colin Powell is a black Jamaican-American, the son of immigrants. Tim Duncan? Virgin Islands. Harry Belafonte? Jamaica and Martinique. Sidney Poitier? Bahamas. Rihanna? Barbados. Attorney General Eric Holder? Barbados. Cicely Tyson? Nevis. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton? Nevis.

Black Jamaicans live in New York City. Black Garifuna live in Los Angeles. There are black Cubans in Miami, black Antiguans in Detroit, and black Haitians in Rhode Island. There are brown Cubans in Houston, brown Puerto Ricans in New York, and brown Dominicans in Chicago.

America is no melting pot. America is a kaleidoscope with millions of shards of colored glass contributing to an appealing yet impermanent illusion. A man of the southern planter class, Thomas Jefferson, himself a slave owner, presented this illusion in his defining rejection of British colonialism:

We hold these truths to be self –evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

Our shared immigrant past should have been the great equalizer in this country. Yet British colonialism imposed a racial hierarchy that placed a white planter class at the pinnacle, and African slaves at the bottom. The European megapoles replicated this model throughout the Americas.

The American Revolution did not lead to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all. Slavery remained the destiny of African-Americans until the Civil War. The Spanish did not free the slaves in Cuba until 1886.  Legal racism and segregation lingered in the U.S. through the 1960s.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 squeaked by Congress after the assassination of John Kennedy. President Lyndon Johnson cajoled Congress into passing the legislation as Kennedy’s legacy. In the Senate debate, Senator Richard Russell, the leader of the southern bloc of Democrat senators, declared that “we will resist to the bitter end any measure or any movement which would have a tendency to bring about social equality and intermingling and amalgamation of the races in our (Southern) states.” Senator Robert Byrd filibustered the bill for over 14 hours (he opposed it), and the Senate debated the bill for 57 days before it finally passed.

The first blacks arrived ashore near Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, brought by Dutch traders who had seized them from a captured Spanish slave ship. The Civil Rights bill that outlawed major forms of discrimination against racial, ethnic, national and religious minorities, and women passed in 1964. For 345 years blacks of every culture and ethnicity were considered either property or treated as a servant class in this country. American blacks, in all of their variety, have been free for fewer than 50 years.

The study of birds and natural history became fashionable in Britain during the Victorian Era, a pastime of a white, male, wealthy, educated class. Men of leisure collected bird eggs and skins; they shared their findings in collegial settings with other white, wealthy, educated men.

The interest in birds and nature evolved into a more egalitarian interest in this country. Alexander Wilson, the son of an illiterate distiller, emigrated from Scotland to escape the oppression in his country and to seek a better life in America. John James Audubon, the illegitimate son of a plantation owner who was involved in the slave trade, came to the U.S. at age 18 to manage his father’s farm, Mill Grove. Yet both had the freedom (if not the finances) to pursue their interests.

Black slaves toiling in Mississippi cotton fields had no such options. Chinese laborers working on the trans-Pacific railroad had no such options. The Kineros working the King Ranch in South Texas had no such options. Birdwatching began white, evolved white, and remained white.

Now a few birdwatchers  and conservationists in this country are concerned about the lack of diversity in the outdoors. Why are there not more blacks, browns, reds, and yellows to go with our white, they ask? If America is a melting pot, why is our serving so bland?

The 2010 U.S. census reported the follow color mix in the U.S.;

  • White: 63.4%
  • Black: 13.1%
  • Brown (Hispanic): 16.7%
  • Yellow (Asian): 5.0%
  • Red (Indigenous): 1.2%

The census also reported on native Hawaiian and mixed race populations, but for now the focus is on our original spectrum. Almost 40% of the American population is “colored” as opposed to “white.” As noted earlier, this 40% consists of countless cultures, ethnicities, origins, and personal histories.

Let’s consider one final set of data before we tackle the issue of increasing diversity in the outdoors. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) surveys Americans every five years to learn about what we like to do in the outdoors. Here are the participation rates for black Americans in the recreations they survey. These numbers represent the percentage of percent of recreationists by race.

  • Fishing: 7%
  • Hunting: 3%
  • Wildlife Watching (Home): 4%
  • Wildlife Watching (Away from home): 3%

Outdoor recreation’s palette, at least wildlife-related recreation, is a monotone white.

What to do? Is it important to do anything at all? Does diversity in the outdoors matter? Do hunters, anglers, and birders give a damn whether or not their fellow hunters, anglers, and birders are people of color or are they perfectly comfortable with their own white kind?

Let’s be honest. Birdwatching is not alone in this regard. Tiger Woods is still the only African-American on the PGA tour. The ATP has a handful of black tennis players on the tour. How many black professional bowlers have you seen?

Consider the American political system. In the history of the U.S. Senate there have been a total of eight black senators. This year there are more than in the history of the Senate – two. One of these holds office through appointment by the governor rather than through popular election.

Still, the concern has been expressed by at least a few birdwatchers about a lack of diversity in birding. These birders, such as those organizing the Focus on Diversity conference to be held in November, appear to sincerely care. I would suggest that a place for them to begin is by looking at the organizations that represent the recreation and the resources. Ignore the memberships for the moment (they are white). What about their boards of directors? What about their staffs? How well represented are people of color at their meetings, conventions, and outdoor activities?

Now look at the governmental agencies that are responsible for these recreations and their resources (USFWS, the National Park Service, the USDA Forest Service, for example). Ask the same questions. To what extent are people of color represented in their managerial ranks? What percent of their grant funding is directed to initiatives and programs that involve people of color? Look at the agendas for their professional meetings. Are people of color well represented in these meetings in meaningful roles?

Here is an example of how this analysis should work. One of the federal initiatives for bird conservation is Partners in Flight (PIF). Currently the initiative is focused on “full life-cycle” conservation of migrant land birds. Many of these migrants spend the majority of their lives wintering in or migrating through countries (such as the Caribbean or eastern South America) with predominantly black, brown, and creole populations. Many of these birds breed in states, such as Texas, that have “minority-majority” populations.

PIF is holding its 5th International Conference and Conservation Workshop this summer in Utah. Of the U.S. states, Utah is 43rd in black population (1.27%). The ski resort where the meeting is being held is named Snowbird. Snowbird is unincorporated, and demographic information is not available online. However, Snowbird is located in Salt Lake County, which includes Salt Lake City. Blacks account for 1.8% of the county’s population.

All of the plenary speakers are white men. The program includes no session addressing bird conservation and people of color. The session that comes closest is one titled “Understanding & Overcoming the Social Challenges of Bird Conservation.” Apparently involving people of color is not one of the social challenges of bird conservation. The panel chairing this track is white, white, white. Here is the abstract for that session;

The solutions to bird conservation challenges generally require changing human behavior, rather than bird behavior. Additionally, many of our conservation successes occur as a result of harnessing people-related opportunities. In order to effectively engage people (from private landowners to policymakers to community members to birders) in conservation, it is critical that we understand human behavior and its drivers (e.g., social context, values, attitudes, motivations). This session will provide attendees with a background on how the social sciences are advancing our understanding of human dimensions of bird conservation. Through examples, we will demonstrate how this social science information is best applied to design effective conservation strategies and projects with conservation results.

The session looks good on paper. But exactly how do PIF and its partners plan to change human behavior in a country dominated by a creolized population? How are they going to harness people-related opportunities when the people are black? How does PIF hope to have this discussion when the panel is exclusively white?

Jesse Smith, Philadelphia-based writer and curator, guest blogged on Amy Slaton’s STEM blog about the Focus on Diversity conference held October 2011. Perhaps this offers insight into how PIF (and the conference organizer, the American Bird Conservancy) could be so color blind. Smith observed;

…missing from all of this [discussion] was any reflexivity on the part of the birdwatching community. Indeed, any discussion of “barriers to birding” diverts attention away from the activity itself; such an approach assumes that problems lies not within birding, but outside it, either among the targeted audiences or in some intermediate zone between audience and activity…

Another PIF session is titled “Conservation Measures to Address Anthropogenic Causes of Bird Mortality.” According to the PIF online program;

Many human-related activities are lethal to individual birds and may affect entire populations. Many of these activities are common across the Americas. Examples include power lines, wind energy development, construction and maintenance of communication towers, design of tall buildings, and policies regarding feral cats. Fortunately, industry and government agencies in many countries have developed practices and policies that support practices to prevent the bird losses.

Note to PIF: the Americas include North and South America. North America includes the Caribbean. In fact, the Caribbean is the first of the Americas. This list of anthropogenic causes of bird mortality has little relevance in the Caribbean and much of undeveloped Meso and South America. This list is composed of factors that most interest urban white conservationists in the U.S. and Canada and their nonprofit organizations. If you would like to address an issue that impacts all of the Americas, start with climate change, particularly sea level rise (SLR), climate desiccation, and ocean acidification.

Climate change is more than an ecological issue. Climate change is also about environmental justice. Over 70% of the Caribbean population lives in the coastal zone impacted by SLR. The vast majority of this population is black and brown. The Caribbean countries emit little carbon themselves. In fact, when credited with the carbon sequestered by mangroves, most Caribbean islands are carbon sinks. Yet the Caribbean countries, their people, and our shared coastal birds are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

Look over this list of global carbon emitters. The United States is 2nd, and Canada is 8th. Now look down the list for any Caribbean nations that have any carbon emissions at all. Perhaps this is why there are no Caribbean speakers on the PIF program. There are no Caribbean or Latin American plenary speakers, and no Caribbean special session panel members. Climate change is never mentioned in the program.

The conference organizer, the American Bird Conservancy (ABC), is urging people to “be a part of the premier bird conservation strategy opportunity for all the Americas…be a part of the solution for migratory birds.” The theme of the conference is “Advancing Bird Conservation Across the Americas.” PIF itself has an expressed goal to engage “Partners in Flight’s constituencies, audiences, and partners in priority conservation actions through more effective education, outreach and communications.”

Remember the furor over the conservative attempt to showcase the “movement’s diversity” at the recent CPAC conference? Remember when an attendee from North Carolina said that “young, white, Southern males” are being disenfranchised by Republicans? The speaker went on to say that “the growth of diversity in the party and outreach to black conservatives has been “at the expense of young, white, Southern males like me.” Liberals raised hell about the CPAC convention and the racist comments made at the conference. Liberals screamed that conservatives were white, white, white.

But do we hear the same outrage when the spotlight is on conservation or birding? Can white conservationists truthfully say that people of color should look at PIF and its conference and feel welcome in Snowbird, Utah? Or should they feel disenfranchised by PIF and its sponsors? By the way, three of the PIF conference sponsors are federal agencies – the USFWS, the USDA Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. These are your American tax dollars at work.

Or what should we think about the American Birding Association (ABA), another organization that purports to represent the recreation? Again, ignore the absence of people of color in the membership. What about the board of directors and its staff? If diversity matters, shouldn’t birders lead by example? What about ABC, another organization participating in the PIF conference and active in bird conservation efforts in the Americas? White, white, white.

I know many of the people involved in these organizations, and I do not believe that they are overtly racist. But as Dr. King once said; “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

We are all immigrants. While our histories and cultures are diverse, we share two commonalities. We share in the promise of a New World, and we share a primal origin, Africa. There are no Native Americans. Some of us crossed the Bering Land Bridge 12,000 years ago from Eastern Siberia. Some of us came as indentured servants and religious refugees from Britain. Many of us came chained in the bowels of slave ships through the Middle Passage. Whatever brought us here or however we came, we all originated in Africa.

Do conservationists, birders, and agencies want diversity in substance, or one in theory? Do conservationists want to do good, or to simply look good? If substance is the goal, then start by proving it. Don’t just talk about it.

If this PIF conference is any example, American bird conservation has failed miserably. If ABA is an example of the degree to which birders will avoid both message and messenger, then diversity efforts are in desperate need of a new organization.

Second, jettison the neocolonial approach to conservation. Why not hold your PIF conference in the Caribbean or Latin America and let them run the show? Have you heard of Miami? Here is a list of places where PIF has held its conferences.

  • Estes Park, Colorado
  • Cape May, New Jersey
  • Asilomar, Pacific Grove, California
  • McAllen, Texas
  • Snowbird, Utah

Why not let people of color talk and you listen? Need plenary speakers? There are plenty of people of color from the Caribbean and Latin America to fill the program. Remember; Caribbean and Latin American programs are running on fumes while you are chumming around in the Wasatch.

Third, money is part of the proof. Here is an example. The USFWS administers the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA). Congress established the NMBCA with the following intent:

(1) To perpetuate healthy populations of neotropical migratory birds;

(2) to assist in the conservation of neotropical migratory birds by supporting conservation initiatives in the United States, Canada, Latin America, and the Caribbean;

(3) and to provide financial resources and to foster international cooperation for those initiatives.

The types of projects to be funded by the NMBCA include the following:

• Protection and management of neotropical migratory bird populations;

• maintenance, management, protection, and restoration of neotropical migratory bird habitat;

• research and monitoring;

• law enforcement; and

• community outreach and education.

The Act establishes an advisory group to assist the Secretary of the Interior in the direction of the program. According to the Act, “the Secretary may convene an advisory group consisting of individuals representing public and private organizations actively involved in the conservation of neotropical migratory birds.” The Advisory Group meets at least once a year, in conjunction with a North American Wetlands Conservation Council meeting, to discuss the NMBCA and make recommendations to the Director of the USFWS on the direction of the program.

The 17-member Advisory Group is white with the exception of two Hispanic members (one from Argentina, one from Mexico). There are no members from any Caribbean nation. There are no blacks. Other than the two Hispanics, the NMBCA Advisory Group is white, white, white.

Perhaps the Secretary could only find white people (primarily men) in “public and private organizations actively involved in the conservation of neotropical migratory birds?” The Act requires, however, that “the advisory group as a whole shall have expertise in the methods and procedures set forth in section 6103(2) of this title in each country and region of the Western Hemisphere”. Who in this group purports to have “expertise in the methods and procedures” in the Caribbean?

And what does the NMBCA fund? In 2013 over $3.5 million in grants were awarded to 23 projects. One project in the Caribbean received funding, an initiative to continue work on improving habitat for Bicknell’s thrush in the Dominican Republic. Out of the $3.5 million, $70,675 came to the Caribbean. That represents 2% of the total going to a Caribbean nation. In 2012 NMBCA funded one Caribbean project, that one in Haiti.

Here are a few additional sections of the NMBCA that are pertinent to this topic. The Act requires that “the Federal share of the cost of each project shall be not greater than 25 percent.” Such a match requirement would be virtually impossible for many organizations in the Caribbean and in Latin America. Yet the Act then states that “the non-Federal share required to be paid for a project carried out in Latin America or the Caribbean may be paid in cash or in kind.” For projects in the U.S. and Canada, the match must be paid in cash. Yet even with this special dispensation, the NMBCA could only find one project in the Caribbean that met its requirements?

Is bird conservation racist or simply color blind? Is the NMBCA (at least in its application) racially insensitive? Is conservation in general racist? Not intentionally, I believe. But as Dr. King said; “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”

The natural heritage of the New World is a patrimony shared by all in the Americas. In a world of cataclysmic change, nature is a tie that binds us together across time, culture, skin color, and boundary. America, the country that has elected the first African-American to the presidency, is the example to which other nations in the Americas aspire. For example, after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008, Antigua created the Mount Obama National Park to honor the achievement. To Americans the country may seem shrouded by partisan strife, but for the Americas our nation is a guiding light.

Conservation is one of the areas where Americans are respected for their leadership. America is not simply a leader in conservation; America is the leader. America’s examples in parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife conservation are emulated around the world. American bird conservation should be a role model for the world.

President Barack Obama has declared; “This is the moment we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands.” These words provide clear direction to the Executive Branch and its agencies. Did PIF not get the memo?

President Obama has also said that “scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models.” What about scientists who are also people of color giving plenary addresses at an international bird conservation meeting? What about the chairman of a major American conservation group being a person of color? Aren’t these the types of role models that the President has in mind?

Racism comes in many forms. I do not believe that American conservation as a whole is actively racist. But there is a passive and often unconscious racism that if not confronted still excludes. Unconscious and unrecognized beliefs, attitudes, and actions can still contribute to the maintenance of a system of racism.

As long as America is a democratic nation, one where those who set policy are chosen by the electorate, inclusion will matter. Conservation initiatives in America are determined by policy, and policy is determined by politics. Only by actively working to confront the absence of color in the American conservation movement will the passive racism that haunts it be remedied. Until then, conservation and wildlife recreations such as birding will be unable to escape the label. Until then conservation in the Americas is at risk.

Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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