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%.