Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A new study shows that the legacy of racial discrimination still looms heavily.
The Trust for Public Land has just released its annual scores and rankings on city parks across the U.S., as Laura Bliss reports. These scores claim to evaluate what the trust considers the “three important characteristics of an effective park system: acreage, facilities and investment, and access.”
While this assessment is supposed to be the gold standard for determining park quality, its criteria is severely undermined by its failure to consider the legacy of racism in the U.S. park system. This holds especially true when looking at access, which the TPL defines as “the percentage of the population living within a 10-minute (half-mile) walk of a public park.”
This is a limited definition, to say the least. We know from the many failed instances of desegregation in the U.S. that mere proximity or an open-door/floor plan doesn’t necessarily mean equal access for all. It certainly hasn’t meant that for African Americans and parks, as University of Missouri scholar KangJae Lee recently discovered. In Lee’s study, published June 1 in the journal Leisure Sciences, he attempts to answer a long-unresolved question: How come black people don’t go to the park? Or, put better: What keeps black people away from parks?
Lee, who teaches about parks, recreation and tourism at the university’s College of Agriculture, Food, and Natural Resources, took a close examination of Cedar Hill State Park in Texas to find answers. It’s an 1,826-acre park found just southwest of Dallas, and it is surrounded by communities where African Americans make up more than half the population. But black people make up only around 11 percent of the park’s visitors compared to 67 percent white visitors, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
To see why this is, Lee interviewed 13 African Americans who live near the park, using the research methods of Pierre Bourdieu, a French sociologist whose theories emphasize the role of social institutions in creating and reinforcing inequality.
“[Bourdieu’s] focus on historical power inequality may well provide insight into how historical racial discrimination has negatively affected African Americans’ access to parks,” writes Lee in his study’s report.
The people he interviewed were of varying ages and income levels. Each provided differing perspectives on why they didn’t frequent Cedar Hill State Park, and even on why they felt that black people don’t go to parks in general.
Risty*, a city government worker in his thirties spoke in the report of the racism black people encounter at the park:
It is very prevalent. I witnessed or experienced it throughout my whole professional life since I began working in the field of parks and recreation ...I can give you a perfect example. I’ve been on the Juneteenth committee for two years here ....We have a really nice park over here that has an amphitheater that seats about 2,000 people, so we decided to have a free concert, for the community, kind of celebration ....We planned for about 1,800 people, but we ended up having 6,800. Yeah, so that was the best Juneteenth celebration we ever had in the four cities [around CHSP]. It was [an] unbelievable success. Well, we were awarded a national award through the NRPA [National Recreation and Park Association] ...when it was the time to go and receive the award ...not one African American was on the trip ....Yeah, it was all White Americans. So, to the African American employees, that’s like, you know, a slap in the face.
Jennifer*, also a city government worker, in her mid-fifties said:
They don’t really say anything to encourage us to come. All we hear is that some groups went, if we hear that any people of color went there, nothing positive that they say about it, so we stay away from there. ...My kids who go everywhere ...haven’t had a desire [to visit the park] ...they just don’t go. They make it sound like it’s not for us. People talk about it, but they talk about it like it’s their [whites’] place that they go.
Sam*, a former city government employee, in his late fifties and “very familiar with the history of the community” said:
Years ago, we couldn’t stay at hotels. You couldn’t go to the diners. You have to go around. Negros only, Whites only. So it has to, you are right [about the origin of recreation culture] ...it has the root, right? So where you might have Caucasians, they can go anywhere they wanna go and enjoy whatever they wanna enjoy, Negros couldn’t ...That culture was, well, it was embedded in us, all right? Maybe that’s all we thought we can do. And we feel, well, say stay home, right? So we don’t have to deal with it [racism].
And here’s Susan, a graduate student in her late twenties, bringing it back to the issue of access and how racism distorts that concept:
We have to talk about access when we talk about the history of leisure, because there was no access to it [outdoor recreation], so how do you expect me [to] appreciate these things if my parents didn’t appreciate it, my parents’ parents couldn’t appreciate it? ....So I feel like it’s, it’s gotten passed down [from] generation to generation to where, “Oh, no we just don’t do these things. We just don’t. We don’t go camping. That’s just not what we do.” It’s something that settled in the Black community, but [a long time ago] it was like, “We can’t do that.”
What Lee learned from listening to black people share their lived experiences was that the threat of or the real presence of racism marred their ability to have an enjoyable park experience. Lee also found that the Cedar Hill park has failed to produce culturally relevant attractions for black people.
The absence of such attractions seems to reflect the erasure of African Americans from the park’s history. The land where the park exists today was claimed by John Anderson Penn in the 1850s whose family used it for farming. Penn was a slave owner. Summarizing from a report published by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department on the park’s history, Lee wrote:
The report documented that John Anderson Penn and his four sons purchased several slaves in 1857. For example, Joseph R. Penn’s property value nearly tripled, from $2,190 in 1855 to $6,100 in 1860, and the Penn brothers’ economic prosperity continued until the Civil War. However, slavery also caused serious problems for the Penn family. Family lore suggested that John Anderson Penn’s sexual promiscuity with a female slave caused a serious rift between him and his sons. John Penn Anderson’s divorce and subsequent return to Illinois in the 1860s may support this notion. Although slavery was a central element of the Penn family’s early life in Texas, this story was not displayed anywhere at [Cedar Hill State Park]. None of the interpretive exhibits at the Penn Farm or information in the brochures contained any reference about slavery, as if the Penn family never owned any slaves.
We can forgive African Americans for disregarding a park system that refuses to acknowledge the people who toiled, bled, sweat, cried, agonized, and were raped and killed on its soil. And while Lee’s sample size is small, as he admits, his sources’ views are consistent with the many other studies done on the subject of black access to park space.
That includes the research of Carolyn Finney, from her 2014 book Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors. There she writes that “parks and forests can unintentionally become sites where African Americans experience insecurity, exclusion, and fear born out of historical precedent, collective memory, and contemporary concerns.”
Lee’s findings also dovetail neatly with a recent study from Rice University, which found that black and white Houston residents hold competing views on what constitutes park quality. Meanwhile, park officials from local to national levels have historically done a poor job, even today, of coming up with ways to make parks more welcoming to African Americans. One need only recall the tragic story of the Central Park Five to understand how parks foster the unfair criminalization of black and Latino youth.
Of course, African Americans haven’t just served as the victims of park oppression throughout history. The Outdoor Afro national network proves that there is tremendous agency among African Americans in ensuring that the black experience isn’t erased from the U.S. park experience. But neither do its members shy away from the trails of racism lining their outdoor journeys. As Outdoor Afro member Pamela Slaughter told the Portland Mercury in a recent profile:
We've grown up hearing things that have happened to black people in the woods… . Historically, we've disappeared in the woods. We've been lynched. We feel safer in cities. We still enjoy nature, but in a safer, easier way. People want to get out more, but they don't know what to do or where to start.
The responsibility of creating a fair and just starting point falls largely on park authorities. But it’s a non-starter to talk about “access” without respecting the concerns that Slaughter raises. Today’s segregated spaces and activities are the direct result of a certain kind of place-based conditioning: Black people constantly being told—often through violence—that the price of admission to certain places is your dignity, and possibly your life. There can be no scoring or discussion of park access without park authorities compensating for that conditioning.
*NOTE: Lee used pseudonyms for his interviewees in the study.