Race and standing in the Occupy movement
One of the themes that has developed during the Occupy movement has been the involvement (or lack thereof) of people of color. Chris Hedges described the suspicion among some in the minority community this way:
Marginalized people of color have been organizing, protesting and suffering for years with little help or even acknowledgment from the white liberal class. With some justification, those who live in these marginalized communities often view this movement as one dominated by white sons and daughters of the middle class who began to decry police abuse and the lack of economic opportunities only after they and their families were affected.
While Hedges uses that promising start as a jumping off point for yet another archaeological dig into the 60's (short version: hippie embrace of counterculture over economic justice doomed the possibility of a multi-ethnic coalition), that sense of suspicion towards white liberals as being a little too selective in their outrage is very real. In addition to its being sounded in Twitter streams and other social media, commentators like Kenyon Farrow have begun to elaborate on it.
Farrow's first reservation - that whites who throw around terms like "slavery" too casually alienate those for whom they have a much different meaning - is well taken. As he points out, that is territory well marked by Rush Limbaugh (and others on the right - not all of them white). Invoking such freighted language without any apparent understanding of its history is a sure fire way to turn off those with a much closer connection to the real thing.
He also points out that minorities may be reluctant to put themselves in positions of confrontation with authorities because their interactions with them have historically been so much more negative. This also makes a lot of sense. Given the higher levels of harassment, arrest, and incarceration in minority communities it is perfectly reasonable for them to let someone else be on the front line of confrontation with police, thank you very much.
But Farrow and others start to lose me when they dismiss attempts by white liberals to begin to address these issues. He mentions only in passing last week's march by Occupy Wall Street to Harlem in protest of the city's stop-and-frisk practice. Then at the end he dismisses it entirely: "Rather than trying to figure out how to diversify the Occupy Wall Street movement, white progressives need to think long and hard about their use of frameworks and rhetoric that situate blacks at the margins of the movement."
Are these things mutually exclusive? Does thinking long and hard about their language preclude the possibility of reaching out and attempting to work together? Do we have to wait on a 100% Farrow-approved rhetorical framework before any kind of collaboration can occur?
There is an undercurrent of imagined slights ("Though blacks and Latinos are never mentioned directly,") and resentment in some of this criticism. It is as though the portion of white liberals who have lately been radicalized on issues of economic and social justice are not qualified to speak on them because of the lateness of their conversion. I can understand a certain feeling of impatience and exasperation towards them - what took so long, eh? - but better late than never right?
Instead of disparaging it, why not use this as an opportunity to bake a more inclusive spirit into the movement? That does not have to just mean changing the nature of Occupy, either. It can mean finding ways to build coalitions and work together on similar but distinct issues. ("Environmentalism" might mean fracking to someone in a white rural area, lead paint and asbestos to someone in a black urban area. Let's figure out ways for those groups to keep in touch, and for each to occasionally spare some energy for the other.)
The implication that there is no room for collaboration seems counterproductive to me. White liberals do need to make an effort to reach out to people of color, to listen to their concerns, take their counsel, and incorporate their concerns into their activism. Many are already grappling with this issue, and (I believe) doing so in good faith.
Events like the march to Harlem show a willingness to break down exactly the kind of marginalization Farrow concludes his piece warning of. But if the response to these overtures is to dismiss them because those making them haven't paid their dues long enough, or put it in precisely the right way, that will tend to separate us more than unite us. Who does that help?