‘Environmentalist’ Doesn’t Just Mean White and Wealthy: National Academies Study Refutes Stereotypes

“[P]art of the conversation has led to the environmental justice movement, which is often led by people of color and by women—but still, that’s remained separate from the mainstream movement.”
Diversifying white mainstream enviros is not enough. The most important thing grant makers can do is to provide unrestricted, long-term support to grassroots organizing groups that are pushing for racial, ethnic, and economic justiceThe most important thing mainstream agencies and  nonprofits can do is to comply with civil rights and environmental justice laws. “Stereotypes about others’ environmental attitudes may pose a barrier to broadening public engagement with environmental initiatives, particularly among populations most vulnerable to negative environmental impacts.”– National Academies study.

Picture an environmentalist.

For many Americans, that prompts an image of someone who’s white, well-educated, and in the middle class. That’s what researchers found when they surveyed more than 1,200 U.S. adults of different ethnic, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet in that same survey, nonwhite participants on average reported higher levels of concern for the environment than whites.The survey is part of a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlighting the tendency among all Americans to underestimate how much minority groups (Blacks, Latinos, and Asians, in particular) and low-income groups care about the environment and the more politically charged issue of climate change. This is despite the fact that these issues disproportionally affect communities of color and the poor. As CityLab has reported, they are more vulnerable to flooding when hurricanes strike, and more likely to live in areas with dangerous air pollution or with little relief from the effects of global warming. The public misperception about who cares and who doesn’t partly explains why policies and nonprofit efforts often stop short of reaching the most vulnerable communities.
When researchers asked participants in the study to rate their own environmental concern on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being “extremely concerned,” minority and poorer groups rated themselves on average above a 3 (moderately concerned). Latinos reported the highest level of concern, about 3.5. The averages for white and wealthy groups, meanwhile, hovered just around 3. And when researchers asked whether they considered themselves environmentalists, roughly two-thirds of Latino and Asian respondents responded positively, compared to only half of white respondents. (Only a third of black respondents associated themselves with that term.) Yet when asked to rate other groups, participants strongly underestimated the level of concern of all demographics except whites, women, and young Americans. The publicly perceived rate for Latinos, for example, fell around 2.5, while respondents rated whites’ concern above 3.

The level of concern reported by minority and poor groups are generally much higher than the public perception. Pearson et al., “Diverse segments of the US public underestimate the environmental concerns of minority and low-income Americans.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2018.
Read the complete CityLab article ‘Environmentalist’ Doesn’t Just Mean White and Wealthy. A new study refutes some common stereotypes of who cares most about the environment.

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