This stereotype is holding back the environmental movement

Rainer Romero-Canyas

Minority groups are expected to make up a majority of young Americans in just two years, and become the nation’s new majority by 2045. That’s good news for the environmental movement – because these groups actually care more about clean air and water than your average middle-class white American does. So do low-income groups.

Surprised? So were we when we recently compiled results for a just-published study on the topic. It showed that all of us – including low-income Americans or people of color – have long stereotyped “environmentalists” as white people with a college education while overlooking the attitudes of groups that ultimately suffer the most from pollution.

Within days of a critical midterm election, this paradox suggests that more people than we thought may bring climate change and other environmental concerns to the ballot box. Importantly, our study points to a huge and untapped opportunity to reach and engage people in the fight for strong clean air and water policies – assuming we do it right.

This is what an environmentalist looks like

More than half of Latinos – 54 percent – indicated in our survey that they were “very” or “extremely’ concerned about the environment, while 39 percent of African-Americans did. The same level of concern among Whites was just 32 percent. Asians, at 37 percent, also scored higher than Whites.

Not only that: Americans earning less than $15,000 a year are more concerned than Americans with incomes above $150,000.

And still, all surveyed groups seemed to agree that people of color and poor Americans are actually less focused on the environment than their White middle-class counterparts. This belief paradox reflects deep-seated and inaccurate stereotypes that explain, at least in part, why environmental advocacy outreach to minority and low-income groups has historically fallen short.

Lack of diversity perpetuates problem

As many businesses understood a long time ago, to reach an increasingly diverse market you must employ people of different backgrounds. Advocacy groups and government agencies in the environmental space have not yet cracked that nut; to this day, people of color make up just 12 percent of their staff. Similar disparities exist within the environmental sciences.

Meanwhile, local groups that serve communities of color do great work to protect their natural spaces are often not seen as representative of environmentalism.

The lack of visible diversity in the mainstream movement helped shape and perpetuate the image of the typical American environmentalist as a white, well-educated, middle-class person – because it reflected the people inside these organizations.

We need to adjust our message

To raise public engagement and bring millions of new people into the environmental movement, we must – as we continue to diversify our ranks – break down that stereotype and adjust our message for the people we’re trying to reach.

Opinion polls and studies, including ours, have shown that rather than trying to increase awareness about environmental threats, of which these groups are already well aware, we need to start from a different vantage point.

It goes like this: We know they know, and we know there are environmental inequalities – a situation we’re working to address. We get that climate change and extreme weather affect low-income people more than the rich, as has been the case with Hurricane Harvey and Florence. And that African-Americans are exposed to more pollution than White Americans, regardless of wealth. It’s an American problem we can solve together.

Communities of color must share spotlight

All people, including minority groups, need to voice our beliefs and invite conversation that normalizes environmental interests and action. A wide range of research in social, behavioral and health sciences shows us that humans act in accordance with the behaviors and beliefs seen as valued by their communities.

We think it’s time to talk more openly about our concerns and take a rightful place in an environmental movement that has room for people from different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. Likewise, it’s important for those who have been fighting for environmental change to know they may have more support than they think.

It’s time for Americans to fight together for a cleaner and more just environment for all. We all stand to win.

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Your article rings true. This is why it is so important to get the endorsement of as many city councils and mayors of our land to the Declaration of Human Right and Climate Change.

Bill Kucha
October 31, 2018 at 8:17 pm

Fascinating and thought-provoking — thank you.

October 31, 2018 at 10:31 pm

This is great Rainer! Very relevant and timely...

Daniel Morchain
November 3, 2018 at 4:17 am

You make a mistake in the first paragraph about the environmental concerns of different racial groups. We know that partisanship plays an overwhelming role today in how people see the world.

To lump all whites together without specifying partisanship is either amateurism or intentional misleading: Whites with Republican tendencies will tend to reject many environmental dangers and draw the white averages down. If you want to be serious, you must give also the results for racial groups after sorting them according to partisanship.

It could even be that Whites have the highest environmental concerns within both partisan groups, that’s actually not ruled out by your presented numbers… Because the rest of the article is based on the first result, it stands or falls with a good analysis of the data.

Peter T
November 3, 2018 at 3:32 pm

Regardless of “partisanship,” the outreach of environmental groups to low-income folks and communities of color has always been lacking. Whether Republicans or Democrats! I know this as fact because I have been involved in environmental actions for pretty much my entire life and as a black man who has attempted to communicate this to folks from the “white“ environmentalist community.

It is beyond frustrating to continue to witness the lack of outreach and concern for the situations that low-income and folks of color communities are dealing with! It is equally troubling that current leadership in folks of color communities are missing the boat on this issue, as well as the church community waiting for their white Christian god to make everything better!

Climate change and global warming are as nonpartisan as you can get, therefore the urgency to be inclusive in the messaging and information sharing in the current environmental movement.

Furthermore, it is the financing of white supremacy gained by the environmental degradation the world has been experiencing for too long that needs to be addressed! tRump and the “old white dude money“ that is pushing the fossil fuels expansion as opposed to green renewable energy industries (not LNG!) is devastating OUR environment and it will take all of us to turn the tide of insanity that white supremacy places on our humanity!

Peace Love & Guidance

Les Pogue Jr.
November 6, 2018 at 2:18 pm

In reply to by Peter T

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