Remembering Race in Occupied Wall Street

By Anita Sinha

The Occupy Wall Street movement protesting against corporate practices has me daring to hope that the striking disparities in the United States will change for the better. It takes a leap of faith to be hopeful, because substantial change has not come in response to the economic crisis, housing market crash, persistent high unemployment rates or debt ceiling debacle. The institutions causing these disasters have received only a cursory slap on the wrist.

In fact, research released in July by the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank focusing on low- and middle-income Americans, concludes that most gains in wealth since 1983 have gone to the top five percent of households, while wealth gains declined for the bottom 60 percent. While most Americans are still reeling from the recession, Forbes announced in July that “[t]he rich are now richer than before the 2008 credit meltdown.”

The economic challenges of the last 30 years have not been felt equally. A 2010 study, Foreclosures by Race and Ethnicity: The Demographics of a Crisis, by the Center for Responsible Lending which works to end abusive financial practices, shows that blacks and Latinos are more than 70 percent more likely than whites to lose their homes to foreclosure. US Census data from 2009 showed that whites had an average of about 20 times the net worth of blacks and Latinos, which is double the 2005 wealth gap ratio. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that unemployment rates in August were 16.7 percent, 11.3 percent, and eight percent among blacks, Latinos and whites, respectively.

Dismayed by the reality that US politicians have not responded effectively to wealth and race disparities, I dragged my feet when it came to standing behind the banner of hope for Occupy Wall Street. What changed my mind is that this time those of us seeking fairness are not relying on politicians to do the right thing after a crisis gripped the lives of the majority of the country, especially people of colour. Instead, we are standing behind a movement fuelled by America’s majority, whom demonstrators are calling “the 99 percent,” a term derived from a protest slogan urging unity against the greed of the one percent that has sustained this crisis.

It is a challenge to correct racial disparity while encompassing the entirety of the 99 percent, a huge group ranging from the unemployed, the underpaid and indebted students with scant job prospects, to unionised labourers, teachers and veterans. Occupy Wall Street has shown promise in taking on this challenge. In a blog post called Brown Power at Occupy Wall Street, a blogger described how she and other people of colour played a key role in drafting inclusive language in the movement’s demands. The first line of the movement’s demands initially read, “As one people, formerly divided by the colour of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or lack thereof, political party and cultural background, we acknowledge the reality: that there is only one race, the human race….”

Their concern was the use of the phrases “formerly divided” and “only one race, human race” – that the former was unrealistic, and the latter erased real social inequities. Despite initial resistance, the organisers edited the demands to accommodate these critiques. The final declaration reads, “As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members….” Since then, some protesters have formed a People of Color Working Group that, according to its website, is building “a racially conscious and inclusive movement.” They are “actively working to unite the diverse voices of all communities”, showing the potential of the movement to do the same.

This marks a critical moment. For years working-class people have voted against their interests by supporting politicians who pander to the rich. Now, finally, it seems we are moving toward a broader identity by galvanising action against corporate greed.

The increasingly powerful Occupy Wall Street movement deserves our patient support. We should resist dismissing it even if it initially omits important nuances about race, or for any other reason that can be fixed collaboratively. We should take responsibility for working out our differences, to harness the power of this movement toward economic change for the whole of the 99 percent.

Anita Sinha is Senior Attorney with Advancement Project, a US-based policy, communications and legal action group committed to racial justice.

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