Occupy Wall Street Activists Address Racial Diversity and Equity Inside and Outside Movement

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October 17, 2011; Source: Associated Press  |  Why isn’t there as much racial diversity in the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement protests as one might expect, since minorities are undoubtedly pretty well rooted in the 99 percent that OWS promotes against what it sees as the world’s oligarchic control by the wealthiest 1 percent? 

Conservatives such as Michelle Malkin have chortled about the lack of overt racial diversity among the protesters, though it is difficult to remember a comparable concern regarding the racial composition of the Tea Party protesters, much less the Tea Party’s uniformly blanched leadership. 

Nonetheless, activists in the OWS movement have been aware of the racial imbalance in the composition of OWS participants, though the composition appears to be changing as time goes on. This article from the Associated Press suggests, for example, that the Occupy movement in Atlanta, for example, is visibly becoming more diverse. Occupy Wall Street in New York has been more racially diverse than others.

But the Occupy movement is focusing on unemployment, foreclosures, and poverty, and those are issues that disproportionately affect people of color. Shouldn’t progressives concerned about these issues be concerned about ensuring racial equity in the movement? Some Occupy sites—for example, Occupy Chicago—feature ongoing community organizing efforts minority neighborhoods. (There is also a nationwide effort along these lines called Occupy the Hood.)In New York, there is a People of Color Occupying Wall Street Working Group, organized by African American, Latino, and Asian American activists in order to deal with issues concerning the composition of the movement and its leadership. 

Even though this movement is all of one month old, critics are raising questions about it as though it were a fully fledged, centrally defined and controlled network rather than the much more organic movement that it is. Still, in dealing with the racial equity question, the evolution of Occupy Wall Street will have to address some outstanding questions.

In Washington, the Occupy movement has coincided with the dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. King led a poor people’s movement, but the Occupy Wall Street movement is much broader. Its claimed 99-percent constituency captures the American middle class as well as the poor. The nation’s elder civil rights leaders, those with roots in the King era, have been generally supportive of the Occupy movement, even Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia) who was denied the opportunity to speak by the general assembly’s consensus process when he visited the Occupy Atlanta group. (Lewis later said he was not offended by the decision of the assembly, and Occupy Atlanta has extended an invitation to Rep. Lewis to return to speak.)

On the other hand, civil rights leader and former Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young was a bit disparaging toward the Occupy movement, telling the Associated Press, “I can understand people being frustrated with Wall Street, but this just needs to be more than people voicing their frustrations and a few leaders having their 15 minutes of fame.” Young’s comments contrasted with Lewis’s generosity toward Occupy Atlanta and with Charlie Rangel’s defense of the Occupy movement against people who were ridiculing its lack of a sharply focused message and agenda (Rangel recalled how some of the civil rights protests were similarly disparaged).

This is a new movement. Unlike the Tea Party, which was specifically organized to affect party politics by replacing conservative Republicans with more conservative Republicans, the Occupy Wall Street movement isn’t directed toward changing the political composition of Congress or the White House—not yet anyway. As it moves into its second month, the Occupy movement will be judged on how its message takes shape and gels, moving from what the protesters oppose to what they support. That might be the impetus for drawing in people of color who have known what it means to be at the bottom of “the 99 percent” long before the advent of the current spate of joblessness, foreclosures, and Wall Street excess.—Rick Cohen

  • Ken Knox

    Rick, your headline says it all….”activists address…” The OWS happening has been portrayed in the media as a spontaneous grassroots initiative of people who feel there is economic disparity. Now, organizers have entered (who are they?)to enlist people of color who otherwise have not yet seen fit to be there. Somebody will profit from this and try to turn the protesting into an ongoing social movement with political goals (union organizing?). So much for “grassroots” protests.

  • Roshambo

    The lack of diversity among the OWS movement is not about exclusion, it is about the fact that the people who are being the most vocal are the ones who feel the most impact. White people are finally feeling what People of Color have felt for decades, the sting of unemployment, the fear of homelessness, the growling of hunger and for the first time a generation faces the possibility of not doing better than their parents. This has been the reality for many communities of color for a very long time. The key will be how the OWS movement will engage those communities now that they so badly need them.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Ken: Thanks for your comment. I suspect that there is something to the evolution and growth of grassroots movements that leads to people taking leadership roles and organizations trying to attach themselves to the dynamic. Some of this might be welcome, helping a loose and confusing movement develop a structure and hone a message. Other aspects might be destructive, as organizations try to capture and steer the movement. Certainly the Tea Party has encountered this dynamic in its relationship with the national (c)(4)s like Dick Armey’s group that have ridden the Tea Party stallion but tried to tame it to follow the rider’s lead. Will be interesting to watch.

  • rick cohen

    Dear Roshambo: Very interesting point. You’ve obviously remembered the analysis that this recession has been unusually “democratic,” with impacts on all socio-economic classes. That being said, the populations that were in a recession before the recession have been hit the hardest, as they always are.