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Race Matters: Liberal Racism and the Occupy Wall Street Movement

Like many of you, I have been following the Occupy Wall Street Movement for some weeks now. I thought it would have been a moment that came and went, an episode which crystallizes the frustration that Americans are feeling in the time of the Great Recession, a boil once popped that deflates in a moment of cathartic release. I still remain worried that the powers that be, will at some point, pull a Douglas MacArthur Bonus Army move and commence to head-cracking. I am also impressed by folks speaking truth to power, and finding their voice in a moment of declining civic engagement, a time when emotional, financial, and spiritual exhaustion could easily lead them to disengage and surrender. There are numerous challenges ahead regarding the Occupy Wall Street Movement. These include the need for the Occupy Wall Street Movement participants to come up with a dominant frame, find a leader or spokesperson, and form a national organization. In this regard, Occupy Wall Street's decentralized nature is both a strength and a weakness. It gives flexibility and makes the movement (ironically in some ways) a bit harder for elites to derail. Decentralization also makes it difficult to develop a fixed, clear, and coherent set of policy goals to advocate for in the arena of normal politics. Occupy Wall Street also faces a practical hurtle, one that at first glance seems insurmountable: can people power have any impact on the decision-making processes of a financier class who are by their very nature(s) both anti-democratic and plutocratic? Race and class are intimately and inseparably tied together in American society. Blacks and Latinos have been particularly hard hit by the Great Recession. Extreme wealth and income inequality, even as made worst in recent years, are the predictable and intended results of centuries-long government policies that economically disadvantaged people of color while simultaneously subsidizing the creation of the white middle class in America. Moreover, the destruction of America's central cities by post-Fordist, neo-liberal economic policies put a brown and black face on the American poor in the popular imagination. These early efforts at the shock doctrine, deep retrenchment by the State, and austerity as a policy (and not as a temporary condition or corrective) were first perfected on the poor and working classes in America's central cities. History comes full circle as the knife sharpeners are now at the throats of the (white) American middle class. Eventually, Occupy Wall Street will have to deal with how differences of ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, and citizenship complicate their movement culture and policy goals. Diversity can be an asset; it can also make for real difficulties in getting self-interested, albeit well-intentioned, agents to work together towards a common goal. Like their intellectual fore bearers in the American Communist Party in Harlem circa 1930, some on the Left, the most orthodox and doctrinaire types especially, will insist that the Occupy Wall Street movement is all about class and not race. Moreover, from their perspective, any talk about race is a distraction from more "important" issues. This is a dangerous and problematic script where even among Progressives and the Left, white (male) privilege threatens to win out, even as the participants in Occupy Wall Street wrap themselves in the power of the "human microphone." White liberals and white conservatives are both infected by white supremacy and white privilege. In addition, both are invested in the white racial frame and a type of racial heliocentrism where "whiteness" equals normality: in this aspect, I have long suggested that white liberals and white conservatives differ only in how the disease that is white racism manifests itself. This suggestion offends liberals, because to them, racism is a particular sin of their ideological adversaries--and being politically correct on matters of race is a badge to be worn and a flag flown with (oftentimes) smug moral superiority over others who are not as "enlightened." By comparison, conservatives react with a mix of defensiveness and aggression as they default to a tired script of white victimology, where in the Age of Obama, anti-racism is the new racism; ironically, for racially resentful white conservatives in particular, the act of naming a thing for what it actually is becomes the greater sin. In all, white conservatives and white liberals both imagine themselves to be the natural masters of the universe. Liberals are ashamed of this fact. Conservatives revel in it. What will happen to the Occupy Wall Street Movement when black and brown folks assert the relevance of their own experiences? When they/we/us grab the human microphone and take center stage? The participatory democratic culture of the Occupy Wall Street Movement is fraught with the same challenges of power, inequality, and identity as American society writ large. It would be naive to expect otherwise. In my reconnaissance of Daily Kos, I closely followed the fallout from a post called "A Black Woman Who Occupied Wall Street: Why She Won't Be Going Back." The comments by (majority white) "Kossacks" to the author's experiences are quite--for lack of a better word--fascinating. I am all for being alert to how Right-wing types could potentially play the role of agent provocateurs. Yet, I also find it curious, that the general idea, i.e. that "gosh race could be a variable!" in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, was treated with such skepticism. As is my tradition, I have some questions: Have any of you been to the Occupy Wall Street rallies? If so, what dynamics of race, class, and gender have you observed? Is the human microphone really that inclusive? Or are some voices and experiences being censored and excluded? Are those who are the Other outside of the Occupy Wall Street Movement being treated as others within that counter-cultural setting? Or is the dynamic reversed where black and brown folks give a sense of "authentic" resistance, (and do pardon my obvious pun) some "oppositional color," to what at present appears to be a very white Occupy Wall Street movement?