CSWAC Blog

Occupy Wall Street and White Privilege (Part 3 of 4) – The Current Condition

Part 1 – the problem
Part 2 – the historical context

The rich have been getting richer. The wealthiest 400 individuals in the United States own as much as the poorest 150,000,000 people. Get a college degree and drive a cab. It’s not easy being young, white and male when the middle class is on its way to extinction.

OWS and the Occupy movement have given hope to many who are hurting in today’s predatory economic climate. Coming out of nowhere on September 17, 2011 when a small group of activists camped out in Zucotti Park near Wall Street, the movement has
exploded. But was it genius, or was it simply time? Maybe a little of both.

OWS crafted a culture in which participatory democracy and transparency are core values, and this created an open structure that all could enter. But at its inception the OWS founders also brought an unexamined whiteness into the process of OWS cultural creation.

The racial philosophy of the dominant white culture today is colorblindness. Activists working for racial justice have long criticized colorblindness as being unwilling to grapple with the realities of structural racism in our economy and society. Colorblindness has been co-opted and skillfully used by conservative demagogues to undo many of the gains of the civil rights movement. In the name of not seeing race, a colorblind philosophy refuses to see, understand, and act against racism.

The founders of OWS showed their unexamined complicity with colorblindness early on when crafting their initial declaration. It took the courageous stance of a small group of people of color to create room for a race conscious, anti-racist vision in the declaration.

This pattern continues to apply. OWS remains a predominantly white social phenomenon. People of color take part, and their presence has an impact, but the predominantly white character of OWS persists. It’s an odd experience, one of my colleagues of color noted, to be in New York City where people of color are often
a majority, and to go to OWS and see all those white people.

And it’s not as if the good white people of OWS invented protest. People of color have been struggling for a long, long time. I personally work closely with two social and racial justice organizations led by people of color that have been active for more than 30 years. So when white workers in unions, the white unemployed, and the white victims of foreclosure, predatory student loans, and failed job markets come into New York City as part of the great awakening of the 99% it’s wonderful to see, but maybe a little confusing to  those same people who do not know the long and continuing history of struggle for  racial and social justice in the United States.

The very structure of OWS is problematic. A movement that values democracy and rule by consensus and fails to identify leaders and issues has shown itself to have great advantages, but disadvantages come with this structure and they impact activists of coloradversely. An “anything goes” atmosphere gives permission to (usually white) disruptive elements at demonstrations organized by people of color when true solidarity calls for disciplined support. And perversely, efforts to establish discipline within OWS are brought forward when people of color assert themselves during internal discussions.

This can lead to some hard feelings. “Why should I help 1,500 white people,” I recently heard an activist of color glibly say. People and neighborhoods of color have been under siege for a long time. It takes all their time and resources just to fight back. Even in the best of times, people of color bear a disproportionate share of bad outcomes. Although popular wisdom dates the start of the current economic crisis around 2008, United for a Fair Economy reported in 2009 that people of color had already been in economic crisis for 5 years.

The predominantly white mass of OWS protestors made news when their marches and occupation were targeted by police who resorted to mass arrests, pepper spraying, contrived charges of assault, and other repressive tactics. Many protestors felt themselves unjustly assaulted and victimized. Indeed they were, but they failed to understand how their whiteness also protected them. New York City police arbitrarily stop and frisk thousands of young men of color each day, enacting many of the same atrocities anonymously, one victim at a time, far from the media’s eyes. In the New York metropolitan area every few months, and sometimes more often, a young man of color is killed by police who act with excessive violence. In the latest incident they chasedRamarley Graham, an unarmed teenager, into his family’s house, into his bathroom, and shot him dead. This happens a lot. And not just in New York City.

It’s complex. People of color have been present in OWS all along. And OWS has been aware of its whiteness and a need to reach out and become multiracial for just as long. And yet, as Robert and Pamela Allen pointed out in their study, reform movements of the past have also done as much and still failed to become truly multiracial. OWS is still seriously flawed and diminished by its whiteness. Three notable examples, notable because people of color have taken time to place their experiences in writing, are the protests surrounding Danny Chen and Trayvon Martin, and the conditions taking place at the OWS Spokes Council.

There are serious problems and limitations to any social justice movement that is predominantly white.

First, it is not the 99%. And it will not benefit the 99%. White-led movements benefit white people. How can it be otherwise?

White-led movements ignore white culture and history. That’s
part of white culture. We discard the past, believe we invent the future anew,
and never consider that our whiteness has any bearing upon what we do.

White-led movements ignore the experience of people of color. When did the current economic crisis start?

White-led movements universalize white experience. If it fits for me, we think, it must fit for everyone, and we say we don’t need to pay attention to race since we’re all human any way.

Lastly, for all the reasons given above, white-led movements can reform, but not change the social order. I truly believe, from my firsthand experience in OWS, that people want real and lasting change. So this is something to think about very seriously.

Part 4 – moving forward