Occupy Wall Street's Race Problem

The economic crisis has disproportionately affected people of color, in particular African Americans. Given the stark economic realities in communities of color, many people have wondered why the Occupy Wall Street movement hasn’t become a major site for mobilizing African Americans. For me, it's not about the diversity of the protests. It's about the rhetoric used by the white left that makes OWS unable to articulate, much less achieve, a transformative racial-justice agenda. 

One of the first photos I saw from the Occupy Wall Street protests was of a white person carrying a flag that read “Debt=Slavery.” White progressive media venues often compare corporate greed or exploitation to some form of modern-day slavery. But while carrying massive amounts of debt, whether in student loans, medical bills, or predatory balloon-payment mortgages is clearly a mark of a society that exploits poor and working-class people, it is not tantamount to chattel slavery. In fact, slaves, who were the property of others by law, for centuries symbolized wealth. A slave, as property, could be sold as a commodity to clear debt. Currently, black households carry about $5,000 in wealth compared to $100,000 for white households, according to a recent Brandeis University study. Arguing that white working- and middle-class people are slaves to debt or corporations undermines not only the centrality of the African slave trade to the birth of the modern corporation but the distinct ways in which debt prevents many blacks from achieving middle-class status.

In this way, white progressives subscribe to the same “slavery” line conservatives use to incite white fears of economic and political subjugation. Rush Limbaugh, according to Media Matters, equated the 2009 health-care law to slavery, noting, “It's not going to be a matter of whether you can or cannot pay. It won't be a matter of whether you have coverage or don't have coverage. What'll matter is that all of us will be slaves."

Pundits have observed that many black people may be staying away from the Wall Street protests to avoid (additional) direct contact with police. Last year, New York City carried out 600,000 random stop-and-frisks, half of which were conducted on black citizens, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union; it makes sense that blacks, who are often in daily contact with police, would stay away from an event where interaction with law-enforcement officers would be inevitable. In fact, on October 22, scores of OWS protesters joined a Harlem demonstration against the practice of stop-and-frisk, during which several people were arrested.   

But when the New York Police Department began to act violently against the mostly white protesters on Wall Street, many of the videos posted by OWS attendees on YouTube made the point that protesters were arrested, beaten, or pepper-sprayed “just for asking the police a question” or for “just exercising their right to protest.”

In contrast, many nonwhites assume the worst in any interaction with police, and if the worst doesn't occur, we often consider that the exception, not the rule.

In a London Guardian op-ed, white feminist writer and Democratic strategist Naomi Wolf wrote that she was arrested at an OWS demonstration while “standing lawfully on the sidewalk in an evening gown,” as if to connote that nice white ladies on the way to high-society gatherings wouldn't or shouldn't be treated as criminal by the police. She went on to detail the ways in which police lied or broke the law in handling the protest. Though blacks and Latinos are never mentioned directly, statements that accuse police of misconduct when they clash with ostensibly law-abiding activists highlight how much white occupiers take for granted that only “criminals” will be the target of police violence and harassment.

Another fundamental flaw of white progressives (like many participating in the OWS movement) is the “take back our country and/or democracy” framework. In order to be invested in that idea, you have to see and believe that you had some stake in it to begin with. If you've been stopped and frisked 50 different times with as many fines to pay, or you're HIV-positive and your welfare benefits were cut off because you were too ill to keep an appointment with a case manager, it's hard to believe that the government is just broken—it seems pretty insistent and hell-bent on your demise.

Comparing debt to slavery, believing police won't hurt you, or wanting to take back the America you see as rightfully yours are things that suggest OWS is actually appealing to an imagined white (re)public. Rather than trying to figure out how to diversify the Occupy Wall Street movement, white progressives need to think long and hard about their use of frameworks and rhetoric that situate blacks at the margins of the movement.

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