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

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