In a new study with implications for environmental organizations – and an indication that stereotypes are alive and well – most Americans underestimate just how concerned minorities and lower-income people are about environmental threats. This extends even to members of those groups: They themselves underestimate their peers’ concerns about environmental problems.
These misperceptions fly in the face of significant research – including this study – that shows racial and ethnic minorities and the poor are consistently among the most worried about environmental challenges, said co-author Jonathon Schuldt, associate professor of communication.
“What really surprised us was just how paradoxical the results were,” he said. “We found a very consistent pattern that if the American public thought a group was very low in concern, in fact that same group was reporting high levels of concern.”
The study, “Diverse Segments of the U.S. Public Underestimate the Environmental Concerns of Minority and Low-Income Americans,” appeared Oct. 29 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study also found most Americans associate the term “environmentalist” most closely with whites and the well-educated, according to the research.
Schuldt and his co-authors attribute the findings to stereotypes that permeate American culture. For example, there’s a misperception that people with lower incomes have more pressing needs and don’t have the luxury to worry about environmental threats. “When you look around at portrayals of the kind of person who cares about the environment, you see a lot of depictions of white and more affluent segments of society,” Schuldt said.
However, poorer people and people of color consistently report the opposite – perhaps because they are typically the hit hardest by environmental challenges, Schuldt said. “We saw that with Hurricane Harvey. We saw that with Hurricane Katrina and with more recent hurricanes. It is communities of color and low-income folks who are disproportionally vulnerable to and affected by environmental threats,” Schuldt said.
The research team conducted an online survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,200 Americans about their levels of concern for the environment, whether they identified as an environmentalist, and the age, socioeconomic class and race they associated with the term “environmentalist.”
The researchers also showed study participants either a diverse or a nondiverse hypothetical environmental organization, with different photos and recruitment messaging. Those who saw the diverse organization were less likely to show a difference between their perception of whites’ and nonwhites’ environmental concerns.
“The fact that we were able to shrink this gap suggests these beliefs are malleable,” Schuldt said. “And if environmental organizations grow more racially and ethnically diverse, highlighting that in their messaging might further promote diversity, by making more people feel welcome at the table.”
The findings could have practical implications for environmental advocacy and policy. If policymakers, scholars and practitioners endorse similar views, these misperceptions may influence which groups’ perspectives get prioritized and may contribute to the historical marginalization of minority and lower-income populations, the study said.
The findings could also have implications for environmental organizations, Schuldt said. “If they rely on their assumptions about who is concerned about the environment,” he said, “then they might not be going about outreach in the right way.”
Co-authors on the paper were Adam Pearson ’03 of Pomona College, Rainer Romero-Canyas of the Environmental Defense Fund and Columbia University, Matthew Ballew of Yale University and Dylan Larson-Konar of the Environmental Defense Fund and the University of Florida, Gainesville. The research was funded in part by a grant from Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future.