Last week, Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made headlines for downplaying the significance of workforce diversity in his department, saying things like, “I don’t think that’s important anymore.”
I am a journalist of color who specializes in covering race and the outdoors, but I’m not mad at Zinke for what others might characterize as outrageous, backward-thinking insensitivity. How could I be? It’s just business as usual.
The institution that Zinke inherited was, as of 2016, 73 percent white. In other words, the business that’s usual in the Interior Department is overwhelming whiteness.
Zinke’s exceptionally sensitive and capable predecessors, Sally Jewell and Ken Salazar, only created false hopes because of the potential they represented as a woman and a Latino from equity-driven western states. Alas, they didn’t possess superpowers. Under them, the workforce at the National Park Service, arguably the face of federal public-land management, actually got whiter, increasing to more than 83 percent white in 2015, from 82 percent when Obama took office.
The Interior Department’s whiteness is so baked into its roots, bureaucracy, and hiring procedures that it would probably require a divine being dedicating every minute of every day and every ounce of creative juice to bursting the diversity logjam. Obama made headway by creating monuments relevant to underserved communities using the Antiquities Act. Otherwise, the system is so rigged against people of color that even our first black president was rendered largely powerless against it, and the country is suffering a backlash for his even trying.
The more immediate human toll is the morale-crushing impact that the diversity downplay has on Interior Department lifers. There are many true believers among them in the diversity imperative—I’ve met quite a few—though their boss and his minions have done their best to expose and scatter them far from the flame of power.
I must admit that I was confused last fall when Zinke proposed new monuments at Kentucky’s Camp Nelson, the training grounds of African American regiments in the Union Army, and in Jackson, Mississippi, at the home of civil rights hero Medgar Evers. I thought maybe he was feeling repentant for ignoring tribal leaders a year ago at Bears Ears in Utah. In retrospect, proposing these designations that are relevant to nonwhite history seem like red herrings meant to distract from his suggested gutting of an embryonic national monument full of significance to indigenous Americans.
Last week, Zinke reestablished his what-country-are-you-really-from bona fides after Rep. Colleen Hanabusa (D-Hawaii) told him a story about her grandparents being held in World War II concentration camps and asked why funding was cut to preserve those sites. “Oh, konnichiwa,” he responded to the Hawaii-born Japanese American.
I’d rather know where a guy is coming from. The eight years under Obama and all that silly talk about a post-racial society was rather like jogging through a dog park in darkness. You just never knew when you were about to step in crap.
This Zinke guy, you just know, is full of it.
The interior secretary’s straight talk about diversity should clearly reveal the void that can be filled only by the remainder of the green ecosystem—the affinity groups, conservation and environmental organizations, and outdoor industry. These are largely self-determining institutions, presumably unencumbered by Byzantine federal hiring regulations and politically motivated leadership and oversight. If they want to hire brown people, women, LGBTQ people, or people with disabilities, no matter the administration in power, they can place them directly in the service of public lands.
To get there, the tree huggers who work outside the government need to stop practicing the low priority on diversity that Zinke preaches. So far, the only real difference between them and Zinke is that they like to talk (and talk and talk) about the value of diversity.
In the meantime, I’d prefer things to appear as they are. I’d have been mad, for example, if Ryan Zinke had retained the acting National Park Service director he inherited in Mike Reynolds. A longtime change agent for diversity in the agency, Reynolds was pressured by the Trump administration into high-profile assignments like inflating figures of his inauguration crowd.
Dan Smith is now the highest-ranking white dude at the Park Service—and of course he is. Before this, he was best known for allowing an NFL owner to improve his view by cutting down trees on federally protected land. That was until last week, when Smith became the focus of an Interior Department investigation for allegedly grabbing his nether regions and pretending to urinate on the walls of the same hallways where Zinke is presumed to be pissing on diversity.
“I can think of no one better equipped to help lead our efforts to ensure that the National Park Service is on firm footing to preserve and protect the most spectacular places in the United States for future generations,” Zinke said in a release about Smith’s promotion.
Ah, the sweet sound of transparency.