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From the archives: Why aren’t there more Black park rangers?

March 11, 2020, 9:06 PM UTC

This is the web version of raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

Ellen is out sick today, but wishes she was fishing. So today, we’re sharing a special mid-week pick-me-up: a gem from the archives. We’ve unearthed one of Ellen’s most classic raceAhead essays for older readers to reminisce and new readers to get acquainted with the newsletter’s history. Also, the world is crazy today. This essay is about doing something that makes you happy if you can.

This is a column about fly-fishing. Sort of.

It’s an impossibly beautiful activity, a ribbon in the sky to catch some fish down below. I came to it late in life, and I wish I hadn’t. It is joy to me.

The purpose of fly-fishing is to trick trout by presenting an imitation of an insect that looks both real and delicious, and is precisely what they want to eat at that moment in time. Now, trout have only one job, and that’s to be the most excellent trout as they can be. And the bigger they are, they better they are at it. It’s humbling.

(Stay with me here, the race part is coming.)

Here’s the thing about fly-fishing: It’s a nerd’s game and an endless puzzle trying to figure out what the trout are taking and why, and how the water temperature and air pressure is affecting their appetites, and if they’ll believe that the wind just blew this beautiful grasshopper into their food lane and are tempted to come up from the bottom to take a look. 

You learn about knots and water flow and snowmelt and follow the mating habits of bugs like paparazzi chasing Kardashians—and how climate change means bark beetles are surviving the warming winters, killing off unprecedented acres of Ponderosa pines across the West. Ponderosa pines smell like vanilla cake. Not just vanilla and not just cake, but vanilla cake. I love knowing that, and I love knowing that you practically have to hug them to smell it. But every year I go back to Montana, I see more dying off and know the world is changing and it makes me sad.

This cynical girl from Harlem, USA, didn’t grow up with anyone who fished this way. But it has changed my life more than I could have thought possible. It is a transformational experience to stand in a river and join an ecosystem already in progress.

But I almost missed it all.

Here’s the other thing about fly-fishing. In the now hundreds of days I’ve spent casting over the years, I’ve never met a person of color on or associated with the river. Not once. Not in a fly-shop. Occasionally, I run into another woman, but it’s not like there’s a sisterhood of the traveling waders out there. Not one guide, not a park ranger, nobody who works for a rafting company. No expert on YouTube where I get most of my tips. 

Once, ONCE, I saw a Black man working in a little brew pub in a tiny Montana town. We met eyes, and I’m 100% sure we both thought the other was in witness protection.

On one level, this is normal to me. I’m used to being the only one or close to it, in my family, at my predominantly white college, and yes, in the many phases of my career.

Like many people like me, I’ve gotten good at reading cultures and making the best possible moves over the years as the quota-filler, the checked box, while dodging microaggressions.

But being the only one is lonely bit of business even in a place like a national park where solitude is the point. 

So, here’s the real thing about fly-fishing: People of color are lonely by design. 

Let’s stick with nature for a second. When you first wake up to the beauty of the American outdoors, the ghost of John Muir, the romantic naturalist and conservation advocate, is the first person you inherit. His spirit still animates the Sierra Club, which he founded in 1892.

But the National Park system, which turned one hundred in 2016, was also influenced by another person—a conservationist, zoologist, and white supremacist named Madison Grant.

Grant wrote a book called The Passing of The Great Race, a breathtakingly racist work that was immensely popular when it was published in 1916. It armed generations of leaders with enough pseudoscience to justify segregation, eugenics, race war, workplace discrimination and the violent oppression of “inferior” races, particularly immigrants. Adolph Hitler cherished the slim volume, quoted from it in his speeches and apparently wrote a letter to Grant calling it “his bible.”

The Yale and Columbia educated Grant traveled in high-tone circles, and his flattering notions of “Nordic” superiority was embraced by the Manhattan elite, including former president Teddy Roosevelt, who so loved Grant’s work that he wrote a letter that was turned into a blurb for the book.

Grant was the real deal. If you like the Bronx Zoo, you can thank him. If you like Yellowstone Park, tip your cap to Grant. And if you suspect that immigrants are sub-human criminals bringing disease and disorder, then the ghost of Grant may be whispering in your ear.

At the time of Grant’s greatest influence, Jim Crow was in full swing and along with it, the Great Migration, as desperate people moved to escape the caste system of racial segregation. 

Grant and his cronies envisioned the National Parks as a respite for white men who needed to refresh their spirits in the face of this threat; their refreshment came at the expense of indigenous people yet again, whose land was ripped away, destroying treaties along with their lives.

Now, the National Park Service has been working to reckon with their own complicated past, and I acknowledge this work. Their diversity report is not good. The vast majority of their employees have always been white, as is the Park Foundation board. Park visitors are primarily white, and numerous surveys show that people of color feel unwelcome in these natural spaces—citing racist treatment from park police and rangers.

Part of the reckoning has been a welcome debate about whether or not to fully acknowledge the influence of Grant, America’s racist uncle.

“The way we navigate that history is by not flinching,” Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s executive director told CityLab. “It is true that there were a lot of individuals who were white supremacists or eugenicists or who were making racist comments who were part of the beginning of the conservation movement, or who fought successfully to create national parks. So it’s important to understand our history as a movement, and, as a country, learn from it.”

Grant and his ilk are part of the reason why there isn’t a legacy of park rangers of color, or for that matter, conservationists, fly shop owners, hiking guides and people of every hue refreshing their spirits and enjoying the trout the Lord made. 

Their pipeline problem is pretty clear. That nobody in subsequent leadership sought to excise his influence made it systemic. 

And a hundred years later, people of color often still feel unwelcome in even the cultivated outdoors, like the golf courses and tennis clubs where business traditionally has been done. 

So when we ignore the business case for diversity, wonder why Black lives should specifically matter, or fret about “lowering the bar” when we diversify slates of candidates, Madison Grant still has a seat at the table.

That’s everybody’s pipeline problem, and we need to talk about it.

And then go fishing. Tight lines, good people.

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

On Point

Amid the call to self-quarantine, where do the homeless go? The World Health Organization has now declared COVID-19 a pandemic. And for the 550,000 (often overlooked) homeless people in the U.S., coronavirus poses a specific threat. “They are more susceptible to contracting the disease caused by the virus because of the cramped quarters in shelters," says the New York Times. As one homelessness policy analyst told The Guardian: “We have many older adults with compromised immune systems living in the shelters, sharing living spaces, restrooms, showers and eating areas. It’s almost impossible to think this wouldn’t create a reservoir for the transmission of highly infectious viruses.” And that's if they can even find space in a shelter. There's also the matter of how living on the streets makes the wash-your-hands-constantly mandate near impossible to follow. The homeless also don’t have consistent access to health care, meaning many suffer from medical conditions that put them at greater risk if they contract the virus. Take this example: Of those who had a respiratory illness in a Seattle hospital, prior to the coronavirus outbreak, 32% were homeless. 
New York Times

On Background

Reminder: Diversity quotas are not enough "[M]eritocracy does not exist," starts Yomi Adegoke in this opinion piece, as one of the reasons she defends the use of quotas. But that position does not come without "reservations," especially when quotas are used as an excuse to not do the real work required for not just diversity, but inclusion in the workplace. In her words: "[I]nstitutions that establish quotas are usually far too busy congratulating themselves for their surface-level changes to worry about the finer details, such as retention rates or the roles into which they are recruiting minority staff." And for those who try to claim recent missteps (think the Gucci blackface sweater) could have been avoided by having more diverse staff, well, she has a response for you, too. (And yes, it all centers around the difference between hiring and empowering.)
The Guardian

Tamara El-Waylly wrote the blurbs in this edition. She produces raceAhead and manages the op-ed program.

Quote

“The colored man who fails to condemn crime in another colored man, who fails to cooperate in all lawful ways in bringing colored criminals to justice, is the worst enemy of his own people, as well as an enemy to all the people. Law-abiding black men should, for the sake of their race, be foremost in relentless and unceasing warfare against lawbreaking black men. If the standards of private morality and industrial efficiency can be raised high enough among the black race, then its future on this continent is secure. The stability and purity of the home are vital to the welfare of the black race as they are to the welfare of every race. In the next place, the white man, who, if only he is willing, can help the colored man more than all other white men put together, is the white man who is his neighbor. North or South.”

—Theodore Roosevelt, "Address at the Lincoln Dinner," New York City, February 13, 1905.