CSWAC Blog

Occupy Wall Street and White Privilege (Part 1 of 4) – The Problem

Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and the greater Occupy phenomenon that has swept the nation, is still drying its feathers after cracking out of its shell on September 17, 2011. The direction the movement will take remains to be seen but the target is clear: economic inequality and injustice fed by the expanding power of corporations.

Since early October I have been involved with Occupy Wall Street. Admittedly, the Occupy movement is more than OWS itself. But the events in New York City clearly inform the larger movement. My comments bear directly upon the experience in New York, but may reflect the much wider phenomenon as well.

OWS was predominantly white at its inception (Video, OWS and Race, October 2011), and it continues to reflect the whiteness of its origin. Is this a problem?

In US society, power and resources accrue to the privileged. Race, class and gender bestow privilege. Wealthy white men acquire vastly more income, wealth and power than their numbers warrant and poor women of color obtain vastly less. Others, as a group, fall somewhere in between. These are group trends. Individuals may be exceptions, but most find our lives impacted dramatically by our relationship to privilege.

Nowadays the rich are getting richer. Everyone else is just holding on or losing ground. That’s what OWS is about. The hyper-privileged (the 1%) have sewn up the goodies. In economic terms, they’ve reaped virtually all the gains in wealth and income over the last 20 or 30 years. They’ve done this the old fashioned way—by rigging the deck and redistributing income and wealth upwards. OWS is calling for a change in the rules so that everyone (the 99%) gets a piece of the pie. When the economy grows, everyone should share in that growth.

Social and political pressure from the figurative 99% may very well lead to economic reform and a more equitable distribution of wealth, income and power. This may take years of struggle, but history tells us it’s possible. Especially, too, when history tells us the economy now skews toward the 1% as rarely seen. We’ve come to an extreme. Calls for reform simply reflect a modest demand to return to a more historically typical middle ground.

At this point the essential question each person must ask is this: Is it okay if the redistribution of wealth and power takes place along existing lines of privilege?

In other words, supposing the Occupy movement is successful in achieving a redistribution of wealth, income, and power, how will that redistribution take place? Will everyone gain equally? Will those who have had the least for the longest be the ones who gain the most under a reformed system? Or will those who have recently lost their standing in the economy come first and regain the most?

The answer has everything to do with privilege, including racial privilege. People of color have had the least for the longest. White people, particularly white middle class males, are the most recently deprived. That the impetus for OWS comes from young white (and straight) men of middle class backgrounds is telling. As one of my white anti-racist activist and female colleagues theorized, it may be that those who felt entitled and now recently have lost that entitlement are most ready to challenge the system.

The founders and leaders of OWS romanticize the democratic unity of the 99%. We should all hang together to fight the 1%, they say. Yet when the 1% relents, and when the long-promised “trickle down” of income and wealth finally takes place, this same social grouping of young white middle class men stand first in line to receive the benefits. When they have jobs, when their promising future is restored once again, when they begin families and careers, how fervently will they advocate for the 99%?

Part 2 – the historical context
Part 3 – the current condition
Part 4 – moving forward