Race And Occupy Wall Street
Race is one of the least explored facets of the Occupy movements. That it is so seldom mentioned is telling, because the omission speaks to the often colorblind criticism of capital from most socialist and Marxist activists. Omission of race is problematic, especially when critiquing capitalism and its central tenets. Racism and capitalism are intimately tied together and mutually reinforcing. A new movement that ignores one or the other is worth a closer look. For instance, would historians consider slavery without looking at the economics of the plantation? Or, would a discussion of Northern racism during World War II make much sense without examining the economics that led to the Great (Black) Migration? These examples show how rejecting capitalism without explicitly rejecting racism is a shallow critique at best. During this shifting political moment the question becomes whether the Occupy movements will fall into this same trap of privileging class at the exclusion of race or will they manage to popularly link the logic of oppression that shape both capitalism and racism?
At first blush, the Occupy movements appear to have avoided the trap of privileging class over and exclusive of race, at least according to the nightly news and newspaper photos. It appears that people of all races are involved and interested in critiquing capitalism's excesses. My own observations of Occupy Atlanta at Woodruff Park are that the movement was diverse not only in racial make-up, but also in age, socioeconomic background, ethnicity, family life, employment, and education.
That being said, I do not know to what degree people of color really were integrated into Occupy Atlanta. Simply occupying the same space in a public park seems to be a poor way to consider whether a movement is diverse. The occupants of Woodruff Park were largely people of color before Occupy Atlanta. To claim diversity by overshadowing people who already occupied the park is dishonest (unless they intentionally opted to participate in some way). If Occupy Atlanta lacked a diverse racial presence without park occupants it is more than a stretch to describe it as a “diverse social movement.”
A revealing story, which suggests that Occupy Atlanta struggled with racial integration, is the participants' failure to let Representative John Lewis participate as a speaker. Of course, John Lewis is an ardent civil rights leader who is deservedly counted amongst people like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. The failure to include Representative Lewis among speakers reeks of a loss of history and the continuation of a racially discriminatory past. It is possible that Representative Lewis was denied the opportunity to address the crowd not because of racism, but because Occupy Atlanta sought to keep the movement free of the influence of celebrities or government figures or because participants failed to recognize who Rep. Lewis was (unsettling for a number of reasons, but also because John Lewis is the member of Congress who represents the district in which Woodruff Park, the site of Occupy Atlanta) and the list could go on. Nonetheless, the incident represents a low point in Occupy Atlanta's history.
My observation about the marked absence of people of color at Occupy Atlanta echoes criticisms made by others of the Occupy movements across the country. Fordham University found 68 percent of Occupy Wall Street protestors were white compared with only 10 percent Black participants and 10 percent Latino participants. Indeed, many of the people of color seem to be coming from the middle class, which is also not truly representative of those impacted by capitalism's excesses.
There must be inclusion of people of color in the Occupy movements. It is not sufficient (although certainly helpful and no doubt appreciated) for white college students and young professionals to rail against a system from which many of them have benefited. Without including people of color who have suffered a continuous deluge of oppression from their families' first forced steps into this country the movement's credibility rings hollow. To be sure, credit cards and college loans, car loans, sub-prime mortgages, and the like have weighed heavily on the middle class but these instruments of capital slavery pale in comparison to the legacy of racial oppression in this country.
At the same time to suggest that the growing numbers of voices that are critical of capitalism are primarily comprised of a narrow group of people would be incorrect. Anti-capitalism critique is popular, although the kind and tone of such critiques take many different forms. Therefore, while we may be inclined to think the Occupy movements are composed largely of whites, largely students or young people because media indulges these convenient stereotypes, to do so would gloss over the diversity of those who have historically, and continue to reject capitalism. Even conservatives, many of whom are libertarians or Tea Party members, became involved in the Occupy movements for the same reasons as others--to reject corporate greed and the destructive overlapping interests of the United States government and the private national economy.
For example, at Occupy Oakland, Angela Davis argued that the Occupy movement implicitly rejects capitalism because capitalism is a racist set of relationships. Davis and many other activists and thinkers of color have long-argued this point. The United States, after all, was literally built on slaves' and immigrants' backs at their expense--an expense paid by blood. History shows us that early European imperialism was concerned not only with economic domination, but also racial domination. Imperialism was not simply about economic greed; it was also about destroying the dark Other. Ricky Lee Allen describes the danger of “Class-First” movements:
By focusing on the identity politics between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the class-focus of class-first analysis misses much of the racialized identity politics that are just as global but arguably more significant in magnitude.
A focus on class can blind us to the pernicious effects of racialization, which often works in tandem to perpetuate the capitalist machine. Progressives must embrace diverse identities to truly challenge capitalism and racism. A progressive movement succeeds not when it is myopic, but when it is broad-based. For example, Bronx organizers making the trip to Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan were unsettled by the largely white, young, and middle-class participants. Why? Because the 99 percent are largely of color and poor, at least in terms of percentages. This reality should call many white and middle-class Occupy movement leaders to evaluate what it means to be the now famous “99 percent.” In an encouraging sign, many Occupy movement participants and outsiders called this representation issue to question. They are asking this: why do the most visible parts of capitalism critiques continue not to embrace at best, or actively exclude at worst, people of color who are worst affected by arguably the most racist set of relationships--capitalism--in the United States?
Some Occupy leaders pointed out the movements' singular focus on capitalism. While critiquing capital is certainly important, racism is often the most pressing concern for people of color. Occupy participant, Frank Diamond, a Haitian-American simplifies the issue: “‘It takes a wave to realize that the boat you have been riding is too small. We need to be represented here too. This is about us, too.”’ Similarly, activists like Malik Rhassan and Ife Johari Uhuru, Occupy the Hood and Occupy Harlem founders, sought to elevate the experiences of people of color within the growing national economic justice conversation. The struggles to continue to integrate the different strands of the movement--one that is white-dominated and others created by people of color who experienced Occupy as hostile or exclusionary.
We ought to recognize that aside from lauding these sister movements as advances for revolutionary people of color, they are also strong critiques of the mainstream fringe that represents many of the Occupy movements. They critique the protests already going on and seek to establish a space that has been excluded from what might be generally seen by progressives as a “good movement.” The reality is that Occupy Wall Street did not begin as a movement about race. To read a racial justice agenda into the movement at its origins would be to rewrite history. That being said, a focus on race was eventually brought into the fold by including people of color, particularly in the smaller Occupy movements. Inclusion helps. It is the proverbial step in the right direction, but self-correction should not absolve the sins of history, which should be a lesson to other Occupy movements across the country.
More work must be done to include a racial analysis of and integrate people of color into the Occupy movements and frankly most other visible “progressive” movements. It has become clear that diversity is a problem, and also clear that some in the Occupy movements have at least acknowledged this issue. While the Occupy movements are a protest in favor of social justice, more attention should be paid to the lack of the movement's diversity on its longevity, success, and impact on issues. Critical race theorists have begun such a political project, playing a vital role in developing sharp critiques about various movements' and communities' failures to center race, yet questions remain about the future of such projects in a political climate that demands bold action alongside bold analysis.