As rare as hen's teeth
Christian Cooper’s racist experience in Central Park wasn’t an anomaly, but black birdwatchers are—and that's not a coincidence.
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“I don’t think black people have ever not noticed birds, really,” said J. Drew Lanham. “Birds are allegories for freedom. Birds do things black people can’t.”
The lifelong birder was audibly exhausted when we spoke on Tuesday. For a person who usually spends most days “somewhere out in the wild beyond,” as his voicemail politely notes, Lanham had spent a considerable amount of time on the phone and the internet, talking about the same thing everyone else was talking about: a black man experiencing racism while birding.
It’s a subject on which Lanham is, begrudgingly, an expert.
Lanham, a distinguished professor of wildlife biology at Clemson University, has already recounted his painful experiences with racism while exercising his passion for birding in his 2016 essay, “Birding While Black.” I encourage you to read it before moving on.
Seriously, just take the five minutes. It’s wonderfully written, and crucial to understanding what non-white people often go through when they attempt to experience the fundamental right to nature; and the terror of being a black man alone in wild places where humans tend to be sparse but predominantly white.
Lanham’s 2016 essay is crucial, too, to understanding that Christian Cooper’s now-infamous experience in Central Park’s Ramble over the weekend wasn’t an anomaly. Black birdwatchers, black hikers, and black environmentalists are the anomaly. And that’s not a coincidence.
“The most fear I’ve felt has never been from a quadriped, or something with fangs, or paws,” Lanham said. “It’s been from someone waving a Confederate flag at me, looking at me as if they’d rather me be dead than alive.”
The bigger the chance is that a space might be full of racist people, he said, the bigger the reservation people of color will feel about being part of it.
“People of color, certainly black people, we are constantly having mock trials in our heads,” Lanham said. “The trial is for our own survival. So if we see that A led to B, which resulted in C that was bad—then I’m not going to do what A was doing. I can change what I am doing, but I can’t control what someone else might do.”
His comment reminded me of a conversation I overheard in the park earlier that day. A group of black women were talking about the racist Central Park incident, when one said: “See, this is why I don’t fuck with birds. Any type of bird, I don’t do.”
Her friends laughed, and so did I—But Lanham said it spoke it a broader, more painful truth: that black people often avoid nature not because they don’t value it, but because they don’t think it’s for them.
“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “We shrink who we are, and limit the possibilities of what we can or should do. And I don’t dig that.”
Racial minorities consistently report higher concern for the environment and the climate than white people. And yet, they are severely underrepresented in mainstream environmental groups, are less likely to identify as “environmentalists,” and less likely to participate in outdoor recreation.
Clearly, black and brown peoples’ aversion to environmentalism and conservation is about something other than simple disinterest.
For this to change, Lanham argues, minorities need to see more of themselves in the environmental and conservation movements. “Turn oddities into commonplace,” he writes in “Birding While Black.”
“The presence of more black birders, wildlife biologists, hunters, hikers, and fisherfolk will say to others that we, too, appreciate the warble of a summer tanager, the incredible instincts of a whitetail buck, and the sound of wind in the tall pines.”
But Lanham is talking about a real presence—not just a visual one, or a superficial one. “I don’t mean go to a black church, give out binoculars, take a bunch of pictures of them and jet,” he said. He also doesn’t mean simply adding minorities to the lower ranks of environmental organizations. “They want black and brown people to show up so they can count the numbers and say, ‘See, they’re here,’” he said. “But if you want to be truly inclusive, then you have to be intentional in a deep way to pull them in.”
Christian Cooper’s viral racial confrontation while birding should thus be a lesson to the environmental movement, Lanham said. “When stuff like this happens, I tell people, this is why you have to engage the conservation conversation in a different way. People say it’s about going grassroots, but you have to deal with soil before you deal with roots. And the soil we’re trying to grow stuff in is kinda messed up.
“If you’re not dealing with the reason why things are going wrong—if the soil you’re trying to grow these grassroots in is racist—then nothing is going to grow,” he added. “That’s dirt, not soil.”
As for the birding community, about 93 percent of participants are white. When Lanham wrote “Birding While Black,” he noted in the essay that despite over 40 years of birdwatching, he had only met about 10 other black birders.
I asked if that had changed in the last four years. “Yeah, I might be up to 15,” he said. “There are people out there, but they’re still rare as hen’s teeth.”
One of those rare people happens to be Christian Cooper, the man who was racially threatened by a white woman in Central Park after asking her to leash her dog. And one side-effect of the incident happens to be that people are taking notice of his passion.
Cooper is a board member at the Audubon Society’s New York City Chapter, said Rebeccah Sanders, Audubon’s senior vice president of states. “He’s a well-recognized birder in the New York community,” she said. “He’s part of the Audubon family.”
Cooper and Audubon have historically been involved in trying to get more people of all races to join the birding community—and that’s been happening during the pandemic, Sanders said. Installs of the Audubon Bird Guide increased more than 100 percent from February to March; total app installs nearly doubled from last year; and the Audubon.org has seen a 23 percent increase in website traffic.
I asked Sanders why she thinks people are more interested in birding right now, during a pandemic. Is it just because they’re bored of staying inside?
“No—I think it’s because the world is quieter now,” she replied. “You can hear bird songs when you couldn’t before. There’s just less noise.”
For some of us, at least.
—9 RULES FOR THE BLACK BIRDWATCHER. Lanham’s essay in Orion Magazine. Rule number 3: “Don’t bird in a hoodie. Ever.”
—GREEN SPACE’S RACE PROBLEM. “For black men like Christian Cooper, the threat of a call to police casts a cloud of fear over parks and public spaces that others associate with safety,” Brentin Mock writes in CityLab.
—AUDUBON’S STATEMENT. “The outdoors—and the joy of birds—should be safe and welcoming for all people. That’s the reality Audubon and our partners are working hard to achieve. We unequivocally condemn racist sentiments, behavior, and systems that undermine the humanity, rights, and freedom of Black people.”
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