Charges of racial insensitivity beset environmentalists

Two recent slurs have brought charges of bigotry, even as 'green'

For American environmentalists committed to giving all creatures great and small a voice, few things make green activists more uncomfortable than charges that racism exists within their ranks.

Yet after two inflammatory incidents in the past month, those are exactly the charges that some minorities have been leveled at the movement.

Last week, Amos Eno, executive director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in Washington, stepped down after causing a furor by repeating a slur in a speech last month about Manuel Lujan, a Hispanic who served in the Bush administration.

Also recently, David Simon, a respected regional director of the National Parks and Conservation Association in Washington, was temporarily suspended for criticizing a Hispanic national parks official. Mr. Simon described the official as "an [Equal Opportunity Employment] experiment gone haywire." The comments have added to the perception among some civil rights activists that the Caucasian-dominated conservation movement has been slow to integrate people of color, despite years of championing environmental-justice issues involving industrial pollution.

Given the country's rapidly shifting demographics, a failure to embrace ethnic groups who feel disenfranchised could have profound repercussions for environmental causes in the future. To neglect that reality - or, worse, to alienate minorities through actions viewed as hostile or indifferent - could result in the movement losing its effectiveness in the new America.

"Together, these recent episodes are evidence of a systemic pattern of intolerance for minorities that exists in the environmental movement, and it is an issue that few people are willing to talk about," says Roger Rivera of the National Hispanic Environmental Council in Virginia.

Both incidents caused an instant uproar and resulted in heartfelt personal apologies from the conservationists. Yet Mr. Rivera and others say environmental groups must go beyond words to promote greater minority involvement. After all, the composition of many groups is disproportionately white compared with the rest of the population. Not as green as it seems

"Let's admit it, this is one part of society that is not nearly as green - and by that I mean accepting of the broad spectrum of humanity - as it portrays itself to be," says Bill Redding, Midwest regional representative for the Sierra Club and an African-American. Some groups are indeed taking steps to diversify themselves. And ironically, the very groups that Rivera and others have attacked because their representatives made offensive statements have been at the forefront of embracing racial diversity and minorities' agendas.

Under Mr. Eno's tutelage, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation earmarked millions of dollars to Hispanic conservation causes, including protecting songbirds in Central America and migratory waterfowl in Mexico.

Similarly, the National Parks and Conservation Association has tried to expand minority involvement in national parks, spurred by Iantha Gantt-Wright, an African-American staff member. For his part, Simon has tried to protect cultural sites important to native Americans and Hispanics in the Southwest. Still, race is a prickly issue.

"No one segment of society should have propriety over how the natural treasures of our nation are stewarded," says Mr. Redding. "Race isn't supposed to matter, but it does."

Race entered into a discussion two years ago when the Sierra Club considered advocating the restriction of immigration on environmental grounds. Although the initiative was soundly rejected, the tenor of the debate led a number of civil-rights groups to say initiative proponents came across as racists.

And again in Florida, some measures to restore the Everglades have been turned back by African-American and Hispanic sugar-cane workers, who say insensitivity to the impact of conservation on their jobs demonstrates a cultural ignorance. It is exacerbated, observers say, by the fact that environmentalists have done a poor job of building a minority constituency.

Clearly, many minority conservationists feel that not enough is being done. Yet federal officials say the task of recruiting minorities is hard - even with aggressive outreach programs.

Progress on the horizon

Moreover, progress is being made, say others. "The environmental movement is broadening its base and broadening its mission," says Timothy Wirth, a former US senator who oversees the United Nations Foundation. "By that, I mean it is including in its focus issues relating to race and racial justice, which are integral to a lot of environmental problems."

From fighting toxic dumps that are sited in minority areas to banning pesticides that could be harmful to migrant farm workers, minority communities are finding that environmentalism can play a positive role, he says.

As for an urgency to bring more minorities under the tent of the environmental movement, Mr. Wirth says that will evolve naturally as global warming, overcrowding, and clean-air issues touch everyone.

"Environmental issues will be overwhelming by ... the year 2050, when there is a different face to America. Everybody will be engaged with a greater sense of urgency...."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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