The George Wright Forum • vol. 35 no. 1 (2018) • 73
People of Color and
Their Constraints to National Parks Visitation
David Scott and Kang Jae Jerry Lee
The United States population is becoming more ethnically and racially diverse than in
the past. More than one-third of all Americans can be classiﬁed as a person of color (Black,
Hispanic, Asian, or Native American), and the proportion of ethnic and racial minorities is
projected to increase in the future (US Census Bureau 2012). Hispanics are now the largest
minority group in the United States, followed by African Americans, Asian Americans, and
Native Americans. Demographers predict that the White population will become a numerical
minority by 2050 (Colby and Ortman 2015).
Despite this population change, existing data suggests that people of color visit national
parks far less than Whites. Using data from a national survey, Taylor, Grandjean, and Anatc-
hkova (2011) reported that 53% of non-Hispanic Whites polled could name a national park
they had visited in the last two years. In contrast, only 32% of Hispanics and 28% of Blacks
reported they could do so. Data collected by the National Park Service (NPS) Visitor Ser-
vices Project (VSP) substantiate that people of color represent a comparatively small fraction
of national park visitors.1 Hispanics and Asian Americans each comprised less than 5% of
visitors to national park sites surveyed, while less than 2% of visitors were African Americans.
Critics within and outside NPS recognize that its long-term survival depends on making its
parks more welcoming and relevant to constituents and a changing population (Wilkinson
Our goal in the remainder of this paper is to identify key factors that constrain national
park visitation among people of color. We believe a constraints perspective will illuminate
why people of color do not make greater use of NPS areas, particularly those parks that are
remote and where outdoor recreation and scenery are major attractions. This brief review
The George Wright Forum, vol. 35, no. 1, pp. 73–82 (2018).
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(No copyright is claimed for previously published material reprinted herein.)
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74 • The George Wright Forum • vol. 35 no. 1 (2018)
will aid NPS staff and its partners as they continue to diversify the park service and create
programs and offerings that are relevant to a broader spectrum of Americans.
We begin by deﬁning leisure constraints and provide some principles about how constraints
operate. Leisure constraints are those factors that limit people’s participation in leisure ac-
tivities, people’s use of leisure services (e.g., visitation of national parks), and/or people’s
enjoyment of current activities or services (Scott 2005). This deﬁnition casts a wide net and
suggests that constraints impact different facets of leisure participation and outdoor recre-
ation. A key principle to understand is that leisure constraints inﬂuence both participation
and preferences. Historically, most constraints studies have sought to explain non-participa-
tion in leisure activities or non-use of leisure services. The underlying assumption in these
studies is that people have leisure preferences, but various factors (e.g., lack of time, access,
resources) constrain their ability to act upon those preferences. These constraints were de-
ﬁned by Crawford and Godbey (1987) as structural and are assumed to be external and
outside people’s control. Crawford and Godbey advanced our understanding of leisure con-
straints when they postulated that there are also various factors that inhibit the development
of leisure preferences. They deﬁned these constraints as intrapersonal; they include person-
ality needs, religiosity, reference group attitudes, prior socialization, and perceived skills and
abilities (Scott 2005). Importantly, intrapersonal constraints result in people deﬁning some
leisure activities, services, and locales as inappropriate, uninteresting, or unavailable. It is
highly likely that both structural and intrapersonal constraints ﬁgure prominently as to why
people of color do not visit national parks as often as do Whites.
Another important principle is that leisure constraints are not insurmountable. Research
indicates that many people participate in leisure activities or visit parks despite encountering
constraints. Hubbard and Mannell (2001) documented that the presence of a constraint may
trigger negotiation efforts. Research also shows that individuals who are highly motivated to
participate in outdoor recreation activities are likely to work hard at negotiating constraints
(White 2008). An important implication of this line of inquiry is that national park employ-
ees and their allies can create strategies to assist would-be visitors in their efforts to negotiate
Although a great deal of research has been conducted on constraints to leisure and out-
door recreation, relatively little has been done on factors that prevent people’s use of national
parks. Nevertheless, we believe that the corpus of knowledge on leisure constraints is readily
applicable as to why people of color are less likely than other Americans to visit national
parks. We argue that non-visitation can be boiled down to three sets of factors, discussed
below: (1) limited socioeconomic resources, (2) cultural factors and boundary maintenance,
and (3) discrimination and White racial frames. Scholars have explained that these factors
are related to people’s use of national parks (e.g., Weber and Sultana 2013), but they stop
short of explaining how they actually constrain participation and the development of leisure
preferences. By understanding leisure constraints, park managers will be in a better position
to develop strategies for allaying the conditions that inhibit visitation (Scott 2013). Doing so
The George Wright Forum • vol. 35 no. 1 (2018) • 75
will mean that the beneﬁts of visiting national parks will accrue to a broader cross-section of
There seems little doubt that these three factors work separately or in tandem to stymie
national park visitation among people of color who express interest in national parks. They
also impair the acquisition of early formative experiences that carry over into adulthood.
White Americans, particularly those who are afﬂuent, routinely pass on to their children
skills, knowledge, and appreciation of the outdoors. They do this by providing them en-
couragement, instruction and equipment, and vacationing with them in national parks and
other exotic destinations. Without formative experiences, people lack skills, knowledge, and
appreciation of the great outdoors in general and national parks speciﬁcally. The absence of
these skills often means that many people of color come to equate national parks and other
outdoor areas as White spaces and off limits to them. Parenthetically, the last few decades
have seen a general societal trend wherein children are increasingly disconnected from nature
(Louv 2005). This situation is fueled, in part, by growing parental fears of strangers and the
rise of electronic media. This growing trend may hit people of color the hardest as constraints
to outdoor recreation have been most acute among them.
Limited socioeconomic resources. Low national park visitation and constraints to visi-
tation among people of color in the United States can be attributed, in part, to limited access
to socioeconomic resources (Floyd and Stodolska 2014). According to Taylor et al. (2011),
afﬂuent Americans are three times more likely to visit national parks compared with poor
Americans. They also reported that 69% of Americans with household incomes of over
$150,000 said they visited one or more national parks in the past two years, compared with
only 22% of Americans with household incomes of less than $10,000. Studies also show that
regardless of race or ethnicity, low-income Americans are far more constrained in their leisure
compared with other Americans (Scott 2013). They are more likely to lack information about
park resources, worry about safety, lack reliable transportation, and lack sufﬁcient discretion-
ary income to travel. Simultaneously, poorer Americans are often made to feel loathsome and
inadequate by more afﬂuent citizens and park and recreation employees (McCarville 2008).
Racial and ethnic discrepancies in income, education, and employment persist in the US
(Shinew and Floyd 2005). Blacks earn far less income than Whites, even when two groups
have the same educational level (Bowser 2007). The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2011)
showed that Blacks have the lowest labor force participation rate (68%) and the highest un-
employment rate (16%) among any racial groups in 2010. Similar patterns are evident among
Latino Americans (Stodolska and Shinew 2014). In sum, constraints to national park visita-
tion among people of color stem in part from comparatively limited economic resources at
Despite the presence of afﬁrmative action efforts and antidiscrimination policies, the
last few decades have actually witnessed increased economic inequality between Whites and
people of color (Scott 2013). Moreover, many people of color, particularly African Americans
and Hispanics, now live in chronic poverty and tend to reside in central cities and poorer
suburbs where mobility is restricted (Massey 2007). Leisure and recreation opportunities
in these areas are not only limited, but crime is a pervasive threat. Parents often conﬁne and
76 • The George Wright Forum • vol. 35 no. 1 (2018)
restrict their children’s freedom of movement and play to protect them from crime and neg-
ative peer inﬂuences (Outley and Floyd 2002). Not surprisingly, children who grow up in
persistent poverty are often unable to acquire skills, knowledge, and appreciation of outdoor
recreation activities and national parks (Erickson, Johnson, and Kivel 2009).
Cultural factors and boundary maintenance. Cultural factors also account for low-
er levels of national park visitation among people of color. Sometimes called the ethnicity
hypothesis, the idea here is that differences in leisure participation and outdoor recreation
preferences among ethnic and racial groups stem from differences in cultural norms, value
systems, and socialization practices (Floyd and Stodolska 2014). Cultural factors provide
group members a template about the kinds of leisure and outdoor recreation behaviors to
which they ought to conform. In this regard, cultural factors both facilitate and constrain
participation in different leisure activities. Indeed, outdoor recreation activities and environ-
ments have varying cultural relevance to different groups of Americans. Washburne (1978)
is credited with introducing the ethnicity hypothesis to the literature in an effort to explain
what he called “under-utilization” of outdoor recreation areas among African Americans. He
observed that there may be “powerful forces within the community that discourage partici-
pation in ‘white’ activities” (p. 178). Central to this thesis is the idea that people participate
in leisure activities, at least in part, to sustain their ethnic and racial identity. To the extent
that members adhere to cultural norms, they engage in boundary maintenance, which is the
process of actively constructing and highlighting ethnic and/or racial differences (Gramann
and Allison 1999). Boundary maintenance insulates group members and prescribes which
leisure activities and venues are culturally relevant. People of color might not participate in
some outdoor recreation activities and avoid outdoor settings “because they do not reinforce
an ethnic group’s collective identity” (Floyd and Stodolska 2014: 13). Johnson and Bowker
(2004) noted that, unlike Whites, many African Americans do not view wildlands as “ther-
apeutic landscapes” that provide a respite from society ills. They went on to note, “for Afri-
can Americans these same terrains may be what cultural geographers refer to as ‘sick places’
which evoke horrible memories of toil, torture, and death” (p. 60). In sum, while cultural
factors provide opportunities for action, they also constrain outdoor recreation participation
and national park visitation by thwarting the development of leisure preferences that deﬁne
national park areas as relevant, appropriate, interesting, or available.
Discrimination and White racial frames. Lack of formative experience with outdoor
recreation activities and national parks reinforces the belief that these recreation amenities
and destinations are culturally irrelevant to people of color. The procurement of this belief is
linked to discriminatory and exclusionary practices in the past and present. Indeed, members
of dominant groups engage in boundary maintenance of their own which often results in their
resisting the inclusion or assimilation of outsiders.
Discriminatory and exclusionary practices go back generations and have long con-
strained people of color in their efforts to visit parks or engage in various forms of public
recreation. Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, many people of color were legally barred
from, or segregated at, public recreational sites, including national and state parks (Shumaker
2009; Lee and Scott 2016). Efforts to integrate recreation areas often resulted in physical
The George Wright Forum • vol. 35 no. 1 (2018) • 77
violence. Simultaneously, many conservationists who were instrumental in the establishment
of national parks expressed little interest in encouraging minority citizens’ visitation (Jordan
and Snow 1992).
The impact of racial discrimination on leisure and outdoor recreation participation in
contemporary America is well documented. Many people of color have noted that they rou-
tinely encounter acts of discrimination onsite or during their travels, which negatively impact
their enjoyment and subsequent behavior (Lee and Scott 2017). Discrimination by other
visitors is among the most frequently cited form of mistreatment, and may range from hostile
stares to physical attacks (Sharaievska, Stodolska, and Floyd 2014). People of color also note
that they have been the victims of discrimination from park and recreation workers. Profes-
sional staff may simply be inattentive to the needs and interests of people of color, which may
embolden other visitors to engage in acts of hostility (Fernandez and Witt 2013).
Other researchers have acknowledged a more nuanced relationship between discrimina-
tion and outdoor recreation among people of color. Discrimination may actually stem from a
variety of everyday interactions and unconscious assumptions (Young 1990) that are regard-
ed by employees and stakeholders as legitimate and fair. Inequality is perpetuated over time,
according to Scott (2014), by a variety of “practices and beliefs that are ﬁrmly embedded in
the normal, everyday functioning” of how park and recreation services do business (p. 47).
Although these practices are outwardly neutral, they “systematically reﬂect or perpetuate the
effects of preferential treatment in the past” (p. 48). For example, researchers have document-
ed that White managers of parks, forests, and wilderness areas often assume that the majority
of visitors are Whites, so interpretive exhibits and stories in these areas tend to predominant-
ly celebrate White Americans’ history and heritages (Taylor 2000). Stories and contributions
of people of color are often ignored or distorted (Loewen 1999; Lockhart 2006).
Central to the perpetuation of institutional bias is what Feagin (2013) called a White ra-
cial frame, which he deﬁned as “an overarching white worldview that encompasses a broad
and persisting set of racial stereotypes, prejudices, ideologies, images, interpretations and
narratives, emotions, and reactions to language accents, as well as racialized inclinations to
discriminate” (p. 3). The idea here is that Americans routinely and often unconsciously view
White people and their behavior positively and represent the standard for evaluating what
is good and moral. In contrast, people of color and their behavior are regarded with suspi-
cion, stereotypes, and notoriety. A White racial frame permeates how Americans institutions
operate, including park and recreation delivery. Since its inception, the NPS has codiﬁed
appropriate behavior and ways of experiencing national parks that are rooted in 19th-centu-
ry White middle- and upper-class ideas about respectability and decorum (Cosgrove 1995;
Byrne and Wolch 2009). In a nutshell, national parks are to be used for education and in-
spiration. This view is reinforced by the media, including nature documentaries. Among
staff and many visitors, this translates into a form of enjoyment that gives primacy to quiet
contemplation of nature rather than noisy, active use of nature.
Throughout the United States, many public spaces are equated as White spaces. De-
spite civil rights laws that legally forbid the exclusion of people of color from public facilities,
many parks and public areas remain the province of Whites and off-limits, at least unofﬁ-
78 • The George Wright Forum • vol. 35 no. 1 (2018)
cially, to people of color. Austin (1997–1998) observed that many White Americans have a
proprietary attitude about the public places they occupy and rules for appropriate behavior.
People of color who venture into White spaces, including national parks, may be treated
rather coolly and, not surprisingly, feel unwelcome and remain on their guard (Carter 2008).
Moreover, their behavior in White spaces often comes under severe scrutiny. Leisure among
young African American males, in particular, is often viewed as pathological, disruptive, and
a major source of disturbance in public settings (Austin 1997–1998). This has led to no
small amount of racial proﬁling and monitoring in public parks and recreation areas. It can be
surmised that many people of color in the United States are constrained from more fully ac-
cessing a wider range of outdoor recreation activities and NPS areas because of the existence
of a ﬁrmly entrenched White racial frame.
A White racial frame makes it daunting for people of color to participate in outdoor
recreation activities and visit parks where they are in the minority. Mikhail Martin, a young
African American from Queens and co-founder of Brothers of Climbing, explained why so
few Blacks participate in rock climbing: “In the black community, there’s this misconception
that, ‘Oh, Black people don’t do that. Only White people do this.’ And they have every right
to believe that, because their outlet to the world is what you see on the TV and internet, and if
you don’t see any Black people, or any people of color climbing, you’re not going to think you
can do it” (REI 2017). J. Drew Lanham (2013), a serious birdwatcher and African American,
offered nine “rules” for African American birdwatchers. An abbreviated list is as follows:
• Be prepared to be confused with the other black birdwatcher.
• Carry your binoculars—and three forms of identiﬁcation—at all times.
• Don’t bird in a hoodie.
• Nocturnal birding is a no-no.
Some White visitors are vociferous in their opposition to the NPS’s efforts to promote
ethnic and racial diversity in the national parks. The following letter to the editor, published
in National Parks magazine, blasted the NPS for what the writer regarded as a misguided
initiative: “Your recent article ... was way off target. To modify the National Park System to
lure ethnic minorities would be a disaster and one more facet of our country that would be
changed to please a few, ignoring the desires of the majority…. If minorities do not like going
to the parks, it is their loss. But please don’t let us be duped into thinking it is our loss. Many
of us look to the parks as an escape from the problems ethnic minorities create. Please don’t
modify our parks to destroy our oasis” (Lucier 1994: 6). Three other letters were published
along with this one and they too were critical of the NPS in its diversity efforts.
Despite NPS’s efforts to diversify its staff and create sites that reﬂect the history of all Amer-
icans, people of color are far less likely to visit many national parks compared with Whites
and they face formidable constraints to visitation. We have argued that non-visitation can be
boiled down to limited socioeconomic resources, cultural factors and boundary maintenance,
The George Wright Forum • vol. 35 no. 1 (2018) • 79
and discrimination and a White racial frame. These constraints limit visitation and the acqui-
sition of leisure preferences that deﬁne outdoor recreation and NPS destinations as culturally
relevant and appropriate. Is there anything the NPS can do to alleviate these constraints? We
believe that service provision for people of color can be improved by ensuring that programs
and facilities are affordable, accessible, culturally relevant, safe, and welcoming.
More speciﬁcally, we suggest that NPS initiatives and programs work toward ensur-
ing that younger generations of Americans, particularly youth of color, establish a long-term
relationship and gain in-depth experiences with national parks (Stanﬁeld McCown 2011).
Moreover, NPS must work harder at recruiting individuals from more diverse backgrounds,
as nearly 80% of the NPS workforce is White (Partnership for Public Service 2018). Simulta-
neously, the agency needs to dissipate the conservative organizational culture that discourag-
es new ideas and creates barriers for promoting diversity and inclusion (Santucci et al. 2014).
A more inclusive workforce would give voice to the needs and constraints of people of color.
The biggest challenge facing NPS may be political. It is noteworthy that people of color
are far more likely to visit parks that are relevant to their historical and/or cultural heritage.
For example, data collected by VSP showed that Asian Americans comprised one-third of all
visitors to Manzanar National Historic Site, a unit that interprets the internment of Japanese
Americans during World War II (US Department of the Interior 2005). Likewise, Blacks
made up 17% of all visitors to Booker T. Washington National Monument, a historical park
established to honor the birthplace of one of the United States’ most prominent African
American educators and orators (National Park Service 1996). However, as we have noted,
many Whites regard national parks and other recreation areas as White spaces. They might
not want NPS and other agencies to highlight non-White legacies or reach out to minority
communities. Given the widespread antipathy many people of color encounter in everyday
life, NPS will need strong and inﬂuential allies and partners as they continue to seek to make
the agency relevant to more Americans. Without allies and political support, NPS’s effort
to diversity will stall, and many people of color will continue to encounter formidable con-
straints to visitation.
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