CSWAC Blog

Occupy Wall Street and White Privilege (Part 4 of 4) – Moving Forward

Part 1 – the problem
Part 2 – the historical context
Part 3 – the current condition

As I write the final post in this series, a national outcry is taking place over the homicide of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, by a white man in Florida. Messages calling for justice flood my email. The whole country seems engaged.

Occupy Wall Street is no different in this regard. I believe there is a genuine desire for racial justice among the vast majority of OWS activists. But how do we get there? There is an experiential deficit among the white leaders of OWS and relative powerlessness among people of color to shape the agenda, both within OWS and at the margins of the Occupy movement. White privilege means never having to learn how race operates. It always operates in your favor, automatically. Why think about it?

Organizations working for racial justice led and sustained by people of color have always been the driving force behind racial progress in the United States. But that progress requires a sympathetic, informed, and committed body of allies within the white community as well. Racism is all about power. People of color don’t have it, at least on the scale needed to force the changes needed. Else they would just do it.

White people, who hold the power to do as we please, racially speaking, lack the knowledge of how to create a racially just society. And lacking that knowledge—worse yet, lacking the knowledge that we lack the knowledge—we are unable to create a movement that truly engages, speaks for, and benefits the 99%.

I continue to hear white OWS participants wonder why people of color are not present in greater numbers. Let me be clear, if I haven’t been so far. People of color have been present. The people of color I know are burned out from the constant task of swimming against an overwhelming tide of whiteness. Like Allen and Allen point out in their historical study of reform movements, people of color have always been there. And like Allen and Allen pointed out as well, white-led reform movements have always tried to reach out, recruit and support people of color. Thus OWS has taken part in coordinated efforts withMovement for Justice in El BarrioStop Stop and Frisk; the Applied Research Center, theCouncil of Elders, and others.

But these efforts have not shaped and informed the majority of participants in the movement, and the message, from what I hear, is not reverberating in the inner circles of OWS. Born in white privilege, and gifted with an overwhelming success, the unnamed tacticians and strategists of OWS may not have what is needed to truly reach the 99%. Fortunately, OWS has room for self-correction.

In a “leaderless” movement there is no single person or place to raise these concerns. There is no top down proclamation that can be made. Change has to come person by person, and really more to the point with this concern I am raising, one white person by one white person. I am calling for us to rise above ourselves. Even more difficult, I am calling for us to rise above our history because historical business-as-usual says that the Occupy movement will benefit white people, but leave people of color behind, again. All that is necessary for that to happen is for conditions in the movement to continue as they are.

Then in another generation or two, we’ll just have to do it all over again.

Here are some suggestions to white people in Occupy:

  1. Learn how to follow leadership of color. Not every time, and every occasion. But at least once, maybe. Go to a racial justice action organized by people of color. Find out beforehand what is expected of participants. Attend a planning meeting. Do not bring your own agenda. Listen, don’t talk. Stick to the theme the organizers set. At the action, listen and follow instructions given by the organizers. Do not create your own action within the larger action. Do not act out if acting out is not part of the plan. Show leadership by bringing one or two other white people who can do these same things respectfully. If you see other white people getting off script and being disruptive, encourage them in a non-obtrusive way to step back in the interest of the overall event.
  2. Educate yourself.Here are some resources on Occupy, racial justice, and white privilege.
  3. Understand white privilege (which is really a serious hangover from white supremacy). See point 2 above.
  4. There is a white anti-racist community that has emerged over the last four decades and is coming into its own. Learn about it. Join it. See point 2 above. Check outShowingUpforRacialJustice.orgfor a broader view. In OWS there is the Anti-racism Allieswork group. Explore www.euroamerican.org, our parent web site.
  5. Buy and read Accountability and White Anti-racist Organizing: Stories from Our Work.
  6. Support and attend anti-racism training.  I personally recommend thePeople’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, but there are other groups as well.
  7. Learn about solidarity politics and how that pertains to racial justice.
  8. Learn what it means to be an accountable white anti-racist activist.

In the end, the Occupy movement may deliver the economic change it seeks. So let me ask once again, is it okay if the redistribution of wealth and power takes place along existing lines of privilege?

Let’s get it right this time.