At a glimpse, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests can be construed as a wakeup call to address the social inequities that our contemporary American landscape is fraught with. The glaring uneven distribution of wealth is epitomized by the incessantly-chanted slogan “We are the 99 percent!” When the protests were in its infancy at Zuccotti Park, I often wonder who comprised the hoard of protestors in the park space. I wonder what kind of people were given voice and democracy at the daily general assemblies and  “human microphones” (When a speaker talks and the audience simultaneously repeats his or her sentences). I initially believed that any protestor could get the platform and let his or her voice be heard. But news articles have surfaced that racism exists inside Zuccotti Park. Subsequent reports and a video evidence anti-semitism among a few protestors. An article in AlterNet blog points to the presence of white male supremacy and the denial of white privilege. It is time to realize that the concept of race operates in protestors’ psyches when they choose to assemble and to form factions. At a glance, the protestors are mostly white males; their views obscure the views of minorities. Racial inclusivity is an integral part of coming together to form collective action. If Zuccotti Park is permeated with racist sentiments and white supremacy, then protestors are not taking into consideration the views of other races around them who share similar financial and social burdens.

The AlterNet article mentions that white liberals and white conservatives have a sense of white supremacy and white privilege. Feelings of supremacy and being at the center of everything-ness displays the “heliocentric” attitudes of whites. They conceive of the world and its consequent affairs as revolving around them. Whites equate normality. Perhaps this is why when we spot a white person, we do not react vocally the same way as we do when we discern a black or Asian person, i.e. We do not exclaim, “It’s a white person.” My philosophy professor said that when a white candidate is running for office, it is automatically assumed that he is representative of an entire population. But when a non-white candidate runs, he is suspected; his allegiance is automatically questioned. According to Leannndra, a blog commenter on Racistreview.com, the normality of being white allows whites to represent “ordinary Americans.” This includes the privilege to create independent political groups, to form factions and to lead protests such as the Occupy Wall Street movements. The “whiteness” legitimizes whites’ assault on the economy while allowing them to posit their experiences as the most representative [of social issues] and most alarming. Bridget Todd’s article mentions her encounters with white protestors who wave signs with messages equating student loans with slavery. She was offended that these protestors were completely insensitive to black protestors around them to make this blatant comparison.

So who are the protestors in Occupy Wall Street? In mid October, business intelligence analyst Shultz and Baruch professor Cordero-Guzman surveyed 5,006 occupants. Their resultant demographics of the Occupy Wall Street protest are antithetical to my preconceptions. 61% of occupiers were male and 37.5% were female. From my two perambulatory visits to Zuccotti Park, I had expected more men than women because I noticed a sea of men when I observed the park from its perimeter. Not to my surprise, there were 81.2% white persons while there were 1.6 black persons. Surprisingly there were 2.8% Asian persons. I did not witness more than three Asian persons when I went. But this could be affected by my bias (Noticing Chinese persons over South Asian persons) as well as the times and days that I went to the park. Attention needs to be drawn towards the overwhelming amount of white males in the occupation and how they stifle non-white persons’ voices and viewpoints and deter them from being amplified to the rest of the protestors during general assemblies and human microphones.

Racial inclusivity continues to be one of the most difficult tasks in these movements. Bruddaone’s article highlights the black female’s experience inside Zuccotti Park; she exposes the overt racism and sexism that she encountered on her day inside the park. The anonymous writer encapsulates her view of the male occupiers at Wall Street as having “no regard for black people or women.” She states that she was told to know her place as a woman of color. She claims that white males wielded their gender and race as a platform for ordering non-white females around. It seems that even in a movement that is supposed to embrace and to advocate for equality, white persons do what they can to silence others who are not white. They perpetuate white privilege: because they are white, they believe that they better understand the economic woes that have befallen America. They also believe that they best represent the 99%. I am uncertain as to who facilitates the human microphones. But I assume that if there are fewer minority speakers, it could mean that protestors of color are discouraged to speak up, or are not asked to speak up. They might be dissuaded of having a voice. They can be equally passionate and vociferous, but if they are barred from having a voice, “true” equality and democracy are illusions in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Larry Johnson’s article highlights the mid October news reports about racism amid protestors in Zuccotti Park. There was a video of a few white males verbally assaulting Jewish persons. Their flagrant accusations of Jewish persons touched notions of primordialism—Jews are “money-grubbing individuals” who are innately greedy; they are corrupt bankers who abet other Jews in order to accrue profits and to accumulate opulent amounts of wealth. These preconceptions resonate philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s anti-semitic encounters in 1940′s to 1950′s France. It also reverberates the film The Eternal Jew in which Jewish persons were vilified and strongly ostricized. A few bloggers state that anti-semitic sentiments were underreported (or under-investigated) by the media. This type of racism alludes to the stereotypes concerning Jewish persons. There are articles online with taglines that read “Is Occupy Wall Street racist?” The writer (a self-professed cynic) from Orofthepress.com argues that these issues of racism are not representative of the movements. He reminds audiences that they should not characterize Occupy Wall Street as racist and bigoted. However, this is a subjective view as I am sure he did not interview everyone to see if racist tensions are truly in the air every night and day of the protests. But he does believe that racism is present when minorities are placed as “tokens.” It hides the racism that is prevalent and glosses over its presence by having minorities as part of human microphones for the sake of diversity.

Perhaps the appropriate question to ask is Who is the face that represents OWS? My personal answer is: it should be many multi-racial faces, not just one (assumedly white person’s face). Bridget Todd’s experience at the protests prove the validity of asking this question. She was told that “she didn’t look like the average protestor.” Apparently, to white protestors, her black experiences were not completely representative (best-fit to represent). The black female (Bruddaone) articulates the color line: she gripes that white persons will never grasp the hardships that are specific to black persons. She protests that “they [Whites] have a safety net” (property, some form of wealth, etc.) in which they can cushion themselves with. Blacks do not have that luxury. She denounces the inability of OWS general assembly spokespersons to include her black struggle or to even comprehend it. I believe that if OWS is readily conceived by audiences (non-OWS persons) as “a bunch of hippies and white liberals,” then how can minorities be properly represented or even become visible? So who best represents OWS? It is actually difficult to answer this question, especially when this movement is in an infant stage. Leannndra from Racistreview.com comments that the 99 percent are represented as the “ordinary Americans” who are white lower middle class.” The commenter pointedly argues that protestors must acknowledge the plight of colored persons: “people of color never come out on top and continue to starve in the shadows of white people’s [the 1%] wealth.” Leannndra is touching upon the pretentious race-blind attitudes that the white protestors of OWS have, and the denial of white privilege. This race-blind attitude and ignorance of racial inequity among OWS protestors remind me of conservative behaviorists’s arguments which Cornel West mentioned. The conservative behaviorists believe that self-help is key to poor folks who need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Racism exists in both the 1% and the 99%, just as it is pervasive in other areas of life (One protestor told me, ‘We’re not perfect.”). It is unruly that protestors of Occupy Wall Street, who are supposed to represent the impoverished 99%, can have racist sentiments and tendencies to marginalize other groups who are not representative of their white issues. It happens that the articles I have selected are singular incidents that do not represent the entirety of the occupiers or OWS. But these individual cases are testiment to the very presence of white supremacy (Bruddaone’s complaints of being cut off by white males) leads to marginalization and the Othering of non-white protestors. This type of behavior questions what kind of democratic input  is attainable in OWS movements. It also questions what exactly is equality when the majority of protestors who are white lower middle class folks view non-whites in a different light and place their struggles as less important. In order for true equality to reign successfully, white oppression and non-white oppression (economically and socially) must be equally representative and weighed as valuable stories of social strife and inequality. Though everyone’s oppression is different and hugely subjective, protestors must not make less of each other’s experiences or discount them as being unrepresentative of the 99%.

4 responses

  1. kiarabrady says:

    Ken,
    Great piece very interesting topic. I personally am pro the OWS movement. You mentioned one pretty interesting point in stating that many of the protestors are white lower middle class citizens. What do you think this says about education. I see the correlation between race but I also have an opinion that education has something to do with the movement itself. I can’t tell you how many times I have to explain that not all the protestors aren’t new school hipster brats. I can’t express how many people I have met who believe they are apart of the one percent or who doesn’t believe it’s real. I hope this is something we can discuss face to face because I’m interested in hearing your opinions. I have been to two different occupy movements (here and seattle), and quite frankly if I only had myself to support I would quit my job, grab a sign and grab a tent.

  2. This is a very poignant article. I joined the OccupyAtl movement. I was as present and involved as my life would permit. The issues raised in this article are some of the very same ones I raised as a member.

    I joined the anti-racisim council. I was not informed as I was wont to be by phone, email, or any other form of communication as to when the meetings were to be held, so my attendance was irregular at best. When I voiced my opinions about the lack of racial concern, my views were usually relegated to being outside of the main view of the movement. This is particularly ironic because there is no main view. “We are all leaders or none of us are leader” I took issue with this daily repeated verse of the theme of the Occupy movement, but “my” leadership concerning this matter was ignored.

    When I pointed out that the occupy movement was nothing more than a continuation of the civil rights movement (which included human rights and economic justice) and that I was glad to see white faces at the table, they seemed nonplussed. When I stated that they should consider the fact that black and indigenous people had suffered longer and more the movement was not concerned with that. The movement tended to downplay that point as though it was somehow insignificant.

    They were reluctant to accept the fact that they had been absent at the table for years when the problem had been mainly one faced by black and minorities, but now that it was in their front yard, they wanted to address the issue.

    They were uneasy with the prospect that the issue may have been avoided if they had stepped up years ago before it became their problem, Had they been conscientious and concerned before, when it was not their problem, their early intervention into this mistreatment of blacks and minorities could have prevented the problem from the metastasis which transferred the problem to them.

    I referred them to a book, or the movie “Watermelon Man.” As a white person who woke up one day to find themselves black, it was not very enchanting. Even less enchanting was learning that there was little you could do about it. As I welcomed my new (black brothers and sisters) to the party, their uneasy subconscious acknowledgement of the truth was subtle, but noticeable.

    My purpose was not to cause them pain, or anguish, but to enlighten them to the fact that we are all in this together and should move forward together. I tried to get them to accept that we should analyse what we ( blacks and minorities) have learned from years in this struggle and add that knowledge to the frustration and presence our new converts brought to the table, but many occupy people feel they have the answer and occupation is it.

    My plan to identify specific goals and objectives, as well as proposing potential solutions was relegated to being a relic of America’s past racial struggles. This was ironic to me as my racial struggles for equality and justice have never ceased. Something that many of the occupiers have yet to comprehend.

    This is not a blanket indictment of all occupiers. Just as in the days of slavery, had it not been for men of great moral consciousness such as John Brown and others, we could still be fighting that battle. Today, there are many good conscientious people in the movement, along with some others who haven’t quite figured out the relationship yet.

    The idea that it is not necessary to delineate the problems, and solutions should not be lost in the ideology that bringing attention to a problem is somehow a solution within itself. I can tell you from years of struggle, bringing attention to a problem is not in and of itself a solution, although it is a step in the right direction.

    I look forward to the day when people can look beyond race in this country, but that day is not today, tomorrow, or any day in the foreseeable future. Even in the occupy movement.

  3. raining247 says:

    Wow, you have a rather different paradigm. Thank you for commenting. I have not thought of that way; I would have scolded them or berated them for their behavior, but you certainly have kept your cool and surveyed the situation. It is definitely something that is within moral consciousness, however cynicism and a sense of race-solidarity or blindness is a factor. My friend stated that OWS is about protecting what whites already have, not necessarily what they will not or do not have. Keep in mind the survey results–only a small part of the persons are unemployed; this speaks differently about the actual goals of the movement. I believe that it is the same with Student marches at Baruch; white lower middle class students are trying to protect themselves from paying more than necessary while students who are completely dependent on financial are able to free ride. Though I assume that they do not participate (some do for their friends b/c they vicariously experience their economic hardships) I think it is interesting that the student marches are about not having to pay more while there are people who do not have anything at all so they can’t lose what they do not have. Speaks a lot to Cornel West’s nihilism and his idea of postmodern hopelessness and cynicism against each other when the laws of survival of fittest only become more pronounced (even if we are adamantly competing for seats on the subway). Hm, I strayed.

    I am sorry to hear that your ideas were bypassed, taken lightly, discounted, and they acted blasé towards them. I can’t help but think “white movement,” but this conception hampers me from seeing them in a positive light too. When I become racist it does not make the situation better. :-( I wholeheartedly agree that we must usher the human race towards a day when the issue of race becomes un-divisive.

  4. jscab says:

    This is a very interesting blog and if the allegations of white males treating minorities, women and particularly colored women are true then there is a need for education in the movement. Education explaining that no matter what race, if you fall into the 99 percent you are considered part of the struggle. Education showing that there is an obvious difference between general colored economic struggle and general white economic struggle in the U.S. This movement is a chance to address that, but this can only be done if both racial groups unite, understand, and fight for a better living side by side. This can all be done with the education of people inside and outside the movement. Awareness of how racism has played a great role in colored peoples economic standing (the majority in poverty) is needed. While also knowledge of what each group is striving for through the same movement: The majority of white people want to keep their jobs, while minorities want to have a job or much better economic standing then the majority of us don’t have now. This could be achieved if more people in the movement (the 87% white males predominantly) were to open up, listen and stand next to minorities ideas of change. If this is allowed the movement would be more then compensated, not only with numbers but actually increasing there chances of making something happen. The more people that show up to protest, the more it shows that this country cant run without the working class. The working class in where according to the republicans favored economic theory receive only trickles of what the 1 percent shove into their pockets. This is why colored people must be a part of this movement, because they represent the bottom of the 99%, the ones that receive droughts and rather find a way to survive for the day then yell at a street unwillingly to negotiate an alternative. But these people are needed, because once OWS decides to act more strategically then they are now (by taking the one percent out of their comfort zone, in other words causing them to loose money) indeed the whole or majority of the 99% will be needed.
    Nevertheless I cant help but think that maybe some of these news reports on race problems, have been altered in order to disassemble this movement. It would be a key way to keep people from joining, especially with a young movement that hasn’t set a specific set of goals. One of my favorite artist of all time Immortal Technique had some really truthful things to say about the movement, including race and gender being used against it, in this RT news interview conducted around the beginning of the movement. I hate to fall into speculation but I see the use of it highly probable, in order to terminate a movement that is going against an established order with lots of money in it. However if racism does sneak into the movement, it must be fixed. For a movement standing for justice and equality cant have members acting in a contradicting manner.
    Here, check the vid:
    http://www.worldstarhiphop.com/videos/e/16711680/wshh08TGU2n2282aKE2S