I was recently quoted in the New York Times. The article is by Alisha Haridasani Gupta and is titled “The Mental Health Benefits of an Inclusive Outdoor Escape: Amid pandemic stress and racial violence, many communities of color have turned to wilderness areas for healing.” The article covers the mental health benefits of time outdoors for people of color. It addresses these in the context of the long history of racism and violence against people of color in outdoor spaces. Gupta quotes a snippet of the conversation we had to introduce readers to the eugenicist history of the US conservation movement:
Awe-inspiring natural spaces in the U.S., like national parks, are also tarnished with racist histories, according to Tracy Perkins, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who studies social inequality and environmental justice. Many environmental conservation efforts starting in the late 1800s were led by eugenicists, like Madison Grant, to create spaces for white people to get fresh air and exercise in order “to preserve the vitality of white race,” she said.
To be abundantly clear, my quote does not describe my beliefs, but rather the beliefs of some eugenicists of the late 1800s and early 1900s in the United States. I’ve assigned this subject recently in my Environment and Justice class, as well as in my class titled The Multiracial American West. I’ve found that while some students are versed in the conversations about John Muir’s racism and ongoing symbolism within the environmental movement, none are aware of the early conservation movement’s connections to eugenics. I have used the following readings introduce the subject to them and further my own learning:
- Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation by Miles Powell (chapters 2 and 3)
- Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant by Jonathan Spiro (introduction)
I highly recommend these readings. They provide an important historical reference point for understanding ongoing racism within the environmental movement. They are also vital to understanding contemporary efforts to return access and management rights to the resources and lands within national parks to the indigenous peoples who once lived there, as well as to indigenous land-back campaigns.