Opinion: No Going Back

Opinion: No Going Back

As a journalist who specializes in issues surrounding outdoor recreation and environmental conservation, I tend to stay clear of politics. But in light of recent statements made by the President of the United States I am prompted to speak up or, in this case, write. I know that most  of my readers enjoy the false notion that the natural world is a culturally neutral landscape void of partisan rancor. And for the most part it is. I am reminded, however, of a note sent to a friend and colleague Bill Gwaltney back at the turn of the century.

“Let them stay in their ghettos,” it read. “They will only bring their loud music, graffiti, drugs and crime. We go to the parks to get away from all that.”

In the days before email and social media, trolls sent their hateful messages as hand-written letters by way of the United States Postal Service. This particular note was delivered in response to efforts that aimed to deliberately improve rates of visitation among people of color in our National Parks during the late 1990s. Bill, then an interpretive ranger at the National Park Service office in Denver, read this letter in his remarks at an event I attended in 2009 at the Presidio in San Francisco called Parks For All. 

“I am not surprised by statements like these,” Bill had said. “This is what people believe so sincerely they are willing to sign their names.”

For more than a decade I’ve written much about the racial divide between those who spend time in the outdoors and those who do not.  Taking a look back through time I’ve seen many instances of people being told “they should go back where they came from”. At the core of this belief is the opinion that not everyone belongs. Whether we’re taking about redlined neighborhoods, segregated schools, lunch counters, drinking fountains or our public lands there are those who believe that these places are for some and not others. Despite the many cultural advancements we’ve made since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, however, our nation is still unprepared to judge people on the content of their character and not the color of their skin.

We give voice to this understanding by demanding that, as the president said in a tweet on July 14, “IF YOU ARE NOT HAPPY HERE, YOU CAN LEAVE!” As a point of fact, this statement is racially benign. There is nothing in it to suggest that it applies to a particular ethnic identity. But in the context of berating the social justice efforts of four female members of Congress who are also women of color the implicit message is “you do not belong here.”

Rhetorical tropes of “America: Love it or leave it” have a long and tragic history in our country. Those who don’t share the beliefs of the dominant culture are typically ostracized, marginalized, deprived of basic freedoms and then forcibly removed, sometimes even killed. From the European invasion of North and South America in 1492 that displaced more than 112 million aboriginal inhabitants, through the beginning of the transatlantic African slave trade in 1619 and well into the contradictions of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, life in the New World has always been defined by divisions of race. Despite the heroism of black and brown Americans who gave their lives for the cause freedom our nation has always denigrated or simply ignored their courageous sacrifices as patriots. History forgets.

Crispus Attucks, a free black man was the first person to die in the Boston Massacre of 1770. Therefore he was the first person to give his life in the Revolutionary War. But history forgets. At the Battle of Yorktown, the decisive victory of that war, almost 15 percent of the soldiers in the Continental Army were black. But history forgets. As soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War black men fought to keep our nation together and dismantle the institution of slavery. But despite their emancipation in 1865 black men and women were deprived of equal protection under the law. As second class citizens they were subjected instead to racial discrimination through the Jim Crow era that would last for more than a century. And history forgets. 

Black men served their country in a segregated army through World War I only to be denied the freedoms they fought for overseas. The rise of white supremacy, encouraged by then President Woodrow Wilson, a sympathizer of the Ku Klux Klan, prompted racially motivated violence against black Americans. In 1921, for example, more than 300 people were killed in an incident commonly known as the Tulsa Oklahoma Race Riot. Better described as a massacre the economically prosperous enclave, called Black Wall Street, was fire bombed from the air using biplanes and leveled to the ground. But history forgets.

The neglect and mistreatment of black Americans continued through much of the 20th century. During the Great Depression many communities were denied access to government assistance under the New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt.  Black Americans were not allowed to take advantage of low interest home loans and economic development resources made available to white people. Neighborhoods populated by black and brown people were designated as “undesirable” for secure financial investment. Under the practice known as redlining, people of color weren’t just deprived of the ability to purchase and maintain a nice house, they were prevented from accruing the equity of home ownership from which most middle class families built inter-generational wealth to achieve the so called American Dream. But history forgets.

As most public schools in the U.S. are funded by local property taxes the resident children of these communities still receive a substandard education. Without the benefit of a college degree or in some cases even a high school diploma people in these targeted neighborhoods still have great difficulty in exceeding the social mobility of their parents. Because there was virtually no economic investment for the creation of small businesses or providing advanced industrial skills training, most black communities across the U.S. were plunged into a downward spiral of poverty where they are relegated to this day. But history forgets.

It’s important to understand that the ability to enjoy the outdoors and the luxury of environmental stewardship is contingent upon a certain amount of social mobility and economic security. Without the disposable income and leisure time made possible by home ownership and/or stable financial resources few people can afford to indulge the notion of a weekend get away to a National Park. And when regular visitors openly express their contempt for people of color coming into spaces they’ve designated as their own the common perception is simply “you are not welcome here”.

When the president of the United States tells four sitting members of Congress to go back to the  countries they “originally came from” these words imply that they don’t belong. Despite their status as U.S. citizens Mr. Trump seems to believe they have little to contribute  to the formation a more perfect union or to insure our domestic tranquillity. When he describes a predominately black congressional district as a place where “no human being would want to live“, he seems to forget, as we have throughout history, that American cities were made to be the places they are today through the systematic and deliberate neglect and abuse of human beings.  From every branch of government, from the White House, through the Supreme Court and along the Halls of Congress, to every State House and City Halls across the nation black and brown people have been targeted. Whether it’s racial profiling, voter ID laws, mass incarceration or political attacks from a racist president when we forget the lessons of the past we are doomed to repeat them. We have to understand that the disparities that we see today exist because we have created them. If people of color are not welcome as full members of society in our cities how can we possibly expect to feel that we belong in the outdoors?

In a nation that values the heritage and legacy of our public land we cannot abide rhetoric that suggests that not everyone belongs. Whether we’re talking about the streets of densely populated cities or the hiking trails of a national park we must acknowledge the countless men and women who fought and died for our right to live free. And while we’re at it we should also recognize the 112 million native people whose stolen land we now occupy. Before we tell someone to go back to where they came from maybe we should first think about how we got here in the first place.

I’m not a fan of wading into these politically charged debates with underpinnings of racist ideology. But I refuse to stand idly by while this president and his supporters ignore more than 500 years of oppression on this continent and the efforts of those who sacrificed so much to correct it. Those who demand that “they should go back to where they came from” aren’t talking about some distant land or a foreign country. They want us to go back in time to a place in our history not so long ago when white supremacy was the rule of law. They want us to forget. But we must remember.  I insist that we learn from the mistakes of our past to create a better future. There is no going back. I will not go back.