Challenging Racism, and Other -Isms, In The Occupy Wall Street Movement

October 10, 2011  |  

In the book Confronting Authority, the late, great-Law Scholar Derrick Bell wrote about the events, which led him to forfeit his professorship at Harvard Law School in a protest over the university’s refusal to tenure a female professor of color. At the time, the Law school had only tenured three blacks and five women in total – and none of them were black women. The much criticized and condemned protest not only highlighted the deep problems of merit, sexism and racism within academia but also stressed the importance of taking a stand in the name of racial and gender justice – even if it means standing alone.

For the past few weeks, the entire nation has been focused on the “Occupy” protest, which has not only happening at Wall Street but in almost 300 cities around the country as well.  While the ideas behind this impromptu revolution seems vague to some, the spirit of confronting the authority over the direction in which this country is taking has resonated with the general population, who has seen their standard of living negatively impacted over the last decade.  Yet some folks of color are rightfully wondering where they actually stand in this movement, which seeks to speak in their names.

In the first few days of protest, I remember watching the live streaming video of Occupy Wall Street, zeroing in on anyone who looks like me and wondering why in a city, which is heavily populated by black, brown and various other ethnicities, were “we” largely absent from the protest? And then I began to think about the overall unspoken nuances over the term “occupy” on the same grounds, which was once Algonquin native land and, upon conquest, acted as a major trading post for black slaves.

For communities of color, the message of “we are the 99 percent” takes on dual meaning when you consider that sizable percentage of the 99 had long been dealing with sub-standard living conditions, occupation through the criminal justice system, political marginalization and economic disenfrashment. Even in the best of times, the black and brown community specifically dealt with higher levels of unemployment than their white counterparts.  Both communities were also subjected to the unfair and racist 100:1 sentencing guidelines, which sought to make possession of crack more sentencable than just regular cocaine.  Likewise, any and all attempts in the past to protest, march and even speak freely about how racism has created paradox of inequality were met with accusation of playing the proverbial race card.

With this “Occupy” movement, which has largely been seen as a movement of solidarity, it appears that some of the same oppressive social constructs of the past remain. Despite emphasis of being a leaderless movement where anyone with a gripe about the 1 percent can come, plan and get involved, there have been countless reports about people from historically marginalized communities not feeling the welcome mat from all and having their voices silenced through the individual movement’s general assembly as well as in facilitator’s positions, which basically act as the de facto leadership of the movement. Sure we can come, wave signs and join in on the chanting. However, when attempts have been made to discuss substantial and tangible ways in which race, gender, sexuality and ethnicity intertwine with capitalistic oppression in this country, some folks have been accused of trying to divide the movement.

This is in no way to discredit what is happening around the country but if the ultimate goal is to create a movement, which is representative of all people, than shouldn’t the movement be putting in the work to not fall into the usual traps of mimicking certain kinds of oppression in the same system they seek to upset?

Fortunately people of color, and other historically disenfranchised communities, are not waiting around for the rest of the 99 percent to “get it.”  In New York, where the original “occupy” protest began, a group of people came together to form a People of Color Occupy Wall Street committee, which seeks to “build a racially conscious and inclusive movement.”  Likewise, there is also an Occupy the Hood movement, which has seeks to attract minority voices to the “occupy” movement.

In Philadelphia, Ive spoken to some in the black, brown and other marginalized communities. They have struggled with feelings of isolation and marginalization within the larger context of the movement, and have also decided to approach the movement with both open-mindedness and cautious skepticism.  While they have taken up the task of creating a people of color working group to speak to the overall power structure both inside of the movement and the larger society as well, they have also rallied and protested inside of the occupation site, which doubles as Philadelphia City Hall, to challenge the unbridled concentration of power and demand that folks of all color be heard .

A true revolution, or any version of change, cannot and should not be carried out by those who were once comfortable with the power structures when it was in their favor. Nor should we, as people of color, feel the need to place “our” issues to the back of the bus.  No, we should be questioning and confronting authority, whether it comes in the guise of conservative, liberal and even progressive movements.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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