TRR Exclusive: Inside Occupy Wall Street: The Race Debate

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The Occupy Wall Street movement wants the world to see it as an inclusive, multicultural grassroots uprising representing the full spectrum of America’s rich ethnic tapestry. But the group’s internal documents reveal what any casual observer knows; the movement is almost entirely dominated by a bunch of disaffected white kids. 

The Occupiers have been going to great lengths to counter the persistent narrative that their movement is mostly comprised of young white kids with nothing better to do. After all, the left accused the Tea Party for being racist simply because it is allegedly too racially monochrome. “A huge backlash is coming against this movement,” one member of the movement warned, in a batch of internal communiqués obtained exclusively by the Washington Times, “by those powerful people of color minorities who have been protesting their whole lives, that this movement is white and middle class.” 

But according to the results of a web-based survey of 1,890 visitors to the occupywallst.org web site, that’s exactly what it is. The survey found that “the overwhelming majority of the respondents are white, educated, earning little but employed full-time, left-leaning straight guys who live in cities and describe themselves as independents rather than democratic or republican.” The people of pallor were so dominant in the survey and “the sample of non-white people in this sample [was] so small” that organizers doubted that analyzing that subgroup would result in “any worthwhile insight.” The 99% seem to be 99% white.

“This is REALLY SAD empirical evidence of how estranged people of color feel from this movement,” one minority member of the group despaired. “It’s heartbreaking and devastating.”

For some the problem is the press. The reason the movement is seen as mainly white lies not with its actual ethnic composition but with media bias. “The official mainstream media just automatically goes to white people first, because they take whiteness as the dominant narrative,” one protester observed. “We need to put multiculturalism on the top of our media strategy no matter who speaks. And also, allow the true factual diversity—impossible to ignore– to come to the fore”

One member suggested solving the problem by having special days when white members of the movement would not speak to journalists but the press would be directed to non-white protesters. “We pick one day in which everyone who speaks to the media at #OWS is not white,” the proposal went. “If the media try to talk to you, and you’re white - then you tell them to talk to someone who is not white. Flood the world with images and words of non-white members of #OWS.” The strategy would expand over time to other categories. “Then we have one day where everyone is a woman, or one day where everyone is over 40 years old.”

“I don’t think setting aside a single day will really be helpful and instead ends up tokenizing,” another said. He suggested a less structured, more voluntary approach. “There’s a good rule of thumb to follow, whether speaking to the media or participating in the General Assembly: if your voice has been disproportionately represented, then step back. This can happen in conjunction with (particularly whites and/or men) encouraging journalists to speaking to a wider diversity of voices.”

Yet others in the leaderless group demanded a disciplined and focused multicultural message. The “suggestion for non-white dominated media day is bogus,” one member railed. “We should make everyday non-white dominated media day, every day. That means white people should actively speak about people of color and minorities should promote their cause in multicultural inclusiveness in an actively conscious way.”

One protester suggested pursuing the type of affirmative action programs that the hated corporations use. “If anyone wants to ‘have more people of color present and represented’ then a better model to look at are the requirements of certain companies when they search for jobs. They work with guidelines for how to reach candidates of color, a statement that they welcome candidates of color, and they actually plan searches in such a way as to be sure that they get the right pool of applicants… It’s not tokenism,” he added helpfully, “it’s integrating a commitment through actions.” Another counseled outreach to local businesses. “Could someone from the PoC [People of Color] working group join our community relations group to help working with a diverse group of local residents/businesses? I’m thinking specifically of the many Hispanic, African-American, Asian etc residents and business-owners in the area.” Whether the local merchants would be interested in supporting the group is doubtful. As Manhattan writer Leslie Feffer archly observed, “there is more ethnic diversity among the food cart vendors who were pushed out of the park than among the white kids beating drums.”

One comment revealed that gender is an issue in the movement too. “Today once again, sitting in the Education and Empowerment working group,” a female demonstrator complained. She painted a picture reminiscent of the reported treatment of women at high level meetings in the Obama White House. “If it isn’t white men dominating the meeting, then its men of color, while the women of color bicker amongst themselves suspiciously of each other for no reason except that we feel so alienated we just try to learn the ‘process.’ It’s getting tiresome and ridiculous.”

Another member noted that the Occupiers gathered to protest the economy, not race, so ethnicity should not be an issue. “Right now the encampment occupiers are at least 80% white,” he said. “It reflects its source base… OWS has not targeted racism and is not speaking specifically to people of color: its program, issues and slogans have targeted not race but class and political structure— banks, economic injustice and the perversion of democracy in our politics.” He suggested some issues that the movement could “glom onto” such as that the recession is hitting blacks harder than whites. “But you can’t digitally airbrush every photograph and video to put color into the 80% white occupiers.”

But this voice of reason was immediately shot down by the defenders of the multicultural orthodoxy. “Your claims on whiteness are highly problematic,” one protested. “The whiteness you take for granted, 80% occupiers is, or 90% is dead wrong. Actually a large part of those categorized incorrectly labeled white are Spanish, Arabs, international, diverse internationals…. I feel really troubled that efforts at proper representation is so cynically described as ‘airbrushing’… By insisting that whites control this movement, you can hardly speak about class until you address race. They are not separate spheres. … you provide no solutions to bring more diversity.”

One heroic person of color refused to buy into the alleged importance multicultural issue. “I am a nonwhite person (Puerto Rican) who never fills out surveys that ask me to specify my ethnicity,” he said. “There are people in the world who could give a crap abt reporting their race/ethnicity, or who deem it something to pay attention to. I am here to make a change for everyone.” But another had no qualms about using her race as a tool for the cause. “I am Puerto Rican, a single mom, and gen x, so I fit into a lot of “unexpected” boxes for the OWS movement,” she wrote, “if you need to pimp out any of that.”

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About the Author

James S. Robbins

James S. Robbins, Ph.D., former Senior Editorial Writer for Foreign Affairs, was formerly professor of international relations at the National Defense University, associate professor of international relations at the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College and special assistant in the Office of the Secretary of Defense under Donald Rumsfeld. Dr. Robbins is author of the recently released "This Time ...

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