Whiteness and the 99%

This piece was written by Joel Olson, a member of BtR-Arizona, as a contribution to ongoing debates about the occupations taking place in the U.S.

A printable PDF of this piece is available for download here, and a readable PDF is available here.


Whiteness and the 99%
By Joel Olson

Occupy Wall Street and the hundreds of occupations it has sparked nationwide are among the most inspiring events in the U.S. in the 21st century. The occupations have brought together people to talk, occupy, and organize in new and exciting ways. The convergence of so many people with so many concerns has naturally created tensions within the occupation movement. One of the most significant tensions has been over race. This is not unusual, given the racial history of the United States. But this tension is particularly dangerous, for unless it is confronted, we cannot build the 99%. The key obstacle to building the 99% is left colorblindness, and the key to overcoming it is to put the struggles of communities of color at the center of this movement. It is the difference between a free world and the continued dominance of the 1%.

Left colorblindess is the enemy

Left colorblindness is the belief that race is a “divisive” issue among the 99%, so we should instead focus on problems that “everyone” shares. According to this argument, the movement is for everyone, and people of color should join it rather than attack it.

Left colorblindness claims to be inclusive, but it is actually just another way to keep whites’ interests at the forefront. It tells people of color to join “our” struggle (who makes up this “our,” anyway?) but warns them not to bring their “special” concerns into it. It enables white people to decide which issues are for the 99% and which ones are “too narrow.” It’s another way for whites to expect and insist on favored treatment, even in a democratic movement.

As long as left colorblindness dominates our movement, there will be no 99%. There will instead be a handful of whites claiming to speak for everyone. When people of color have to enter a movement on white people’s terms rather than their own, that’s not the 99%. That’s white democracy.

The white democracy

Biologically speaking, there’s no such thing as race. As hard as they’ve tried, scientists have never been able to define it. That’s because race is a human creation, not a fact of nature. Like money, it only exists because people accept it as “real.” Races exist because humans invented them.

Why would people invent race? Race was created in America in the late 1600s in order to preserve the land and power of the wealthy. Rich planters in Virginia feared what might happen if indigenous tribes, slaves, and indentured servants united and overthrew them. So, they cut a deal with the poor English colonists. The planters gave the English poor certain rights and privileges denied to all persons of African and Native American descent: the right to never be enslaved, to free speech and assembly, to move about without a pass, to marry without upper-class permission, to change jobs, to acquire property, and to bear arms. In exchange, the English poor agreed to respect the property of the rich, help them seize indigenous lands, and enforce slavery.

This cross-class alliance between the rich and the English poor came to be known as the “white race.” By accepting preferential treatment in an economic system that exploited their labor, too, the white working class tied their wagon to the elite rather than the rest of humanity. This devil’s bargain has undermined freedom and democracy in the U.S. ever since.

The cross-class alliance that makes up the white race.

As this white race expanded to include other European ethnicities, the result was a very curious political system: the white democracy. The white democracy has two contradictory aspects to it. On the one hand, all whites are considered equal (even as the poor are subordinated to the rich and women are subordinated to men). On the other, every white person is considered superior to every person of color. It’s democracy for white folks, but tyranny for everyone else.

In this system, whites praised freedom, equal opportunity, and hard work, while at the same time insisting on higher wages, access to the best jobs, to be the first hired and the last fired at the workplace, full enjoyment of civil rights, the right to send their kids to the best schools, to live in the nicest neighborhoods, and to enjoy decent treatment by the police. In exchange for these “public and psychological wages,” as W.E.B. Du Bois called them, whites agreed to enforce slavery, segregation, reservation, genocide, and other forms of discrimination. The tragedy of the white democracy is that it oppressed working class whites as well as people of color, because with the working class bitterly divided, the elites could rule easily.

The white democracy exists today. Take any social indicator—rates for college graduation, homeownership, median family wealth, incarceration, life expectancy, infant mortality, cancer, unemployment, median family debt, etc.—and you’ll find the same thing: whites as a group are significantly better off than any other racial group. Of course there are individual exceptions, but as a group whites enjoy more wealth, less debt, more education, less imprisonment, more health care, less illness, more safety, less crime, better treatment by the police, and less police brutality than any other group. Some whisper that this is because whites have a better work ethic. But history tells us that the white democracy, born in the 1600s, lives on.

The distorted white mindset

No one is opposed to good schools, safe neighborhoods, healthy communities, and economic security for whites. The problem is that in the white democracy, whites often enjoy these at the expense of communities of color. This creates a distorted mindset among many whites: they praise freedom yet support a system that clearly favors the rich, even at the expense of poor whites. (Tea Party, I’m talking to you.)

The roots of left colorblindness lie in the white democracy and the distorted mindset it creates. It encourages whites to think that their issues are “universal” while those of people of color are “specific.” But that is exactly backwards. The struggles of people of color are the problems that everyone shares. Anyone in the occupy movement who has been treated brutally by the police has to know that Black communities are terrorized by cops every day. Anyone who is unemployed has to know that Black unemployment rates are always at least double that of whites, and Native American unemployment rates are far higher. Anyone who is sick and lacks healthcare has to know that people of color are the least likely to be insured (regardless of their income) and have the highest infant mortality and cancer rates and the lowest life expectancy rates. Anyone who is drowning in debt should know that the median net wealth of Black households is twenty times less than that of white households. Only left colorblindness can lead us to ignore these facts.

This is the sinister impact of white democracy on our movements. It encourages a mindset that insists that racial issues are “divisive” when they are at the absolute center of everything we are fighting for.

To defeat left colorblindness and the distorted white mindset, we must come to see any form of favoritism toward whites (whether explicit or implicit) as an evil attempt to perpetuate the cross-class alliance rather than build the 99%.

The only thing that can stop us is us

Throughout American history, attacking the white democracy has always opened up radical possibilities for all people. The abolitionist movement not only overthrew slavery, it kicked off the women’s rights and labor movements. The civil rights struggle not only overthrew legal segregation, it kicked off the women’s rights, free speech, student, queer, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and American Indian movements. When the pillars of the white democracy tremble, everything is possible.

The only thing that can stop us is us. What prevents the 99% from organizing the world as we see fit is not the 1%. The 1% cannot hold on to power if we decide they shouldn’t. What keeps us from building the new world in our hearts are the divisions among us.

Our diversity is our strength. But left colorblindness is a rejection of diversity. It is an effort to keep white interests at the center of the movement even as the movement claims to be open to all. Urging us to “get over” so-called “divisive” issues like race sound inclusive, but they are really efforts to maintain the white democracy. It’s like Wall Street executives telling us to “get beyond” “divisive” issues like their unfair profits because if you work hard enough, you too can get a job on Wall Street someday!

Creating a 99% requires putting the struggles of people of color at the center of our conversations and demands rather than relegating them to the margins. To fight against school segregation, colonization, redlining, and anti-immigrant attacks is to fight against everything Wall Street stands for, everything the Tea Party stands for, everything this government stands for. It is to fight against the white democracy, which stands at the path to a free society like a troll at the bridge.

Occupy everything, attack the white democracy

While no pamphlet can capture everything a nationwide movement can or should do to undermine the white democracy and left colorblindness, below is a short list of questions people might consider asking in movement debates. These questions were developed from actual debates in occupations throughout the U.S.

  1. Do speakers urge us “get beyond” race? Are they defensive and dismissive of demands for racial justice?
  2. If speakers urge developing “close working relationships with the police,” do they consider how police terrorize Black, Latino, Native, and undocumented communities? Do they consider how police have attacked occupation encampments?
  3. If speakers urge us to hold banks accountable, do they encourage us to focus on redlining, predatory lending, and subprime mortgages, which have decimated Black and Latino neighborhoods?
  4. If speakers urge the cancellation of debts, do they mean for things like electric and heating bills as well as home mortgages and college loans?
  5. If speakers urge the halting of foreclosures, do they acknowledge that they take place primarily in segregated neighborhoods, and do they propose to start there?
  6. If speakers urge the creation of more jobs, do they acknowledge that many communities of color have already been in chronic “recessions” for decades, and do they propose to start from there?


Attack capitalist power—attack the white democracy.
Build the 99%!
People of color at the center!
No more left colorblindness!


Joel Olson is a member of Bring the Ruckus.

Where does a Racist go to Register?

I think I can really understand what you mean. This can’t really work if we ignore our differences because if we have to do that to make the movement work, then it will have failed. But if we can’t ignore race because it has been trained into all of us, then we also can’t ignore racism because that too has been trained into all of us. You can’t get to 99% percent without including a lot of racists. You can’t even get to 1% without including some racists.

You don’t know me, personally, but my friends would tell you I try to avoid racist behavior in public. Because it hurts people, me included. But there is some racism in there, inside me. Not 100 percent, but not 0% either. I think probably this applies to everybody. What do you do with a racist? What do you do if we are all racists? You will have to have racists in the center too. Possibly we’ll all have to be at the center.

If I were a cynic I would

If I were a cynic I would say this article is intended to increase the split between whites and people of color by in the 99% by very cleverly playing up the same strategy of getting the poor folks to fight each other that the rich have always used. He says be suspicious "If speakers urge developing “close working relationships with the police,” Hmm. If I was camping out on public parkland facing a contingent of armed swat cops I might consider it good tactics to try to mollify them rather than give them an excuse to bust heads. As for forgiving debt-what I hear being asked for is a mortgage "write down" to the current value of the property--not a complete pass of all debt, just a reasonable adjustment to refect actual current value of the property. This might prevent owners from abandoning houses, thus driving down the value of neighboring houses. Leaping from that to saying if the 99% don't advocate for giving people a pass for electric bills they are racist, is too great a leap for me. Besides, I know for a fact (from living in Maine) that many white folks find it hard to pay the utility bills. Saying the call for canceling student loan debt but not electric bills is racist is just silly. I am pretty sure people of color go to college and get student loans to attend. To imply otherwise is to play on racial stereotypes in the guise of advocating for racial justice. How twisted is that?

Glad you not a cynic

You simply are oblivious to your own whiteness.

The article is prety straghtforward, not twisted at all.


While women may cross classes we still earn less than men and are expected to do a lot of work for society for free and be grateful of the opportunity. There are more women than there are people of colour so we should be at the centre. The Occupy movement isn't about who's got it the worst. We can squabble about that after force politicians to confront inequality. If there are 10 people of color and one white person all living in the same poor neighbourhood should the white person not be helped? Racism and sexism both need to be addressed right now as do many other issues. Environmentalists have good point in that the survival of the planet should be the central issue because that applies to everyone.

We need to focus on the main issue, the foundation of justice. By limiting the funds available to redress social injustice the 1% keeps us squabbling amongst ourselves over which issue deserves the meager funds available.

While we work together as equals to force the 1% to pay there dues we also have the opportunity to dialog amongst ourselves. Dialoging amongst activists will help us to learn about and adopt each others causes. Coming in with "my issue is more important than yours" undermines what the Occupy movement is trying to accomplish. There is no need for it. People will be open to your issues, your thoughts on solutions, etc. but in return you should be equally open to others who feel just as passionately about injustices they are suffering. There is no need to have a hierarchy of issues just like there is no need to have an official leader. Probably the most important aspect of Occupy is that it is bringing together diverse groups that normally don't interact much. Together we stand, divided we fall.

"There are more women than

"There are more women than there are people of colour so we should be at the centre. The Occupy movement isn't about who's got it the worst. We can squabble about that after force politicians to confront inequality. If there are 10 people of color and one white person all living in the same poor neighbourhood should the white person not be helped?"

No. You are wrong as hell. 'Women' and 'people of color' are not two mutually exclusive categories;some women are of color, and some people of color are women. But I guess you mean White women. And no, since White women are not more important than people of color (or vice versa), you all should not be centered in any movement;get the fuck over yourself. And if there are 10 POC in a poor neighborhod and one White person, is there a specific reason why this White person should be helped? Other than the fact than they are White? Shouldn't one be asking why POC are living in a poor neighborhood in the first place?

You're saying that we should adress racism and sexism as two equal forces of oppression when you yourself fail to do so.

"People of color at the

"People of color at the center!
No more left colorblindness!"

I think this article is kind of bogus... Why does any race need to be at the "center" of this movement, which (until now) I did not realize had undercurrents of hidden white supremacy.

The thing I find interesting is that the author uses this nice little chart to explain the inequality. He focuses on the 'race' difference above the class line. I think this is a mistake, especially in regards to the 99% movement. The problem is that the class line is placed so unequally. It's hard for me to swallow the argument that 'all whites care about is only bettering whites' while the top 1% (likely 99% white) is screwing over the rest of the nation (about 70-75% white).

Time for a reality check, bro. Greed is greed. It's the people with power - be they white, black, red, yellow, brown, green, or whatever - that exploit and enslave other people. Any legitimate contributor to these debates should take a look a history - everyone's history. You might be surprised to learn that quite a lot of humans exploit, murder, and conquer a lot of other humans of the same and different color. It's a human thing, and I think that feeling of wanting to target and attack another is showing itself in even your writing.

Read it again!

This is exactly what the article is speaking about. . . YOUR point of view. This is the problem. . .we will never get the equality that we seek by putting this point of view at the forefront of the Occupy movement. Read the article several times and really think about it again. . .

privilege denial is common.

Left colorblindness on display. The call for humanism is an explicit demand to ignore social inequalities.

I know this is likely a troll--the "bro" comment is a give away--but the humanist line at the bottom of the post reeks and reminds me of similar denials of privilege and bias within the new atheist movement.

some new atheist communities do try to tackle privilege

dagseoul, I too have seen such denials of privilege within new atheist communities, but I think you're identifying the problem too narrowly.

Denial of privilege occurs regularly in all communities which are not explicitly feminist or antiracist. My sense is that new atheists are probably not worse in this regard than sports fans, environmentalists, or car enthusiasts.

If I'm wrong about that, and we new atheists really are notably worse about denying privilege, it may be that new atheists are predominantly geeks, and so have that concentration of young white male libertarians which is typical of geek communities. I'm particularly certain we're no worse in this regard than World of Warcraft players and the like.

Anyway, there are of course some places which stand out as worthwhile of one's time. I invite you to check out the Crommunist and/or Pharyngula blogs, new atheist communities I'm aware of where privilege is frequently discussed.

Anonymous poster FBI jacketing

I am appalled by the FBI/CointelPro jacketing that a certain anonymous poster made about brining up the question of race. Just because a person brings up issues of race does not mean that they are "provocateurs", agents of the state, or infiltrators. In fact, that kind of allegation is exactly what this article is about. The "a rising tide raises all boats" (to use a phrase from Tim Wise..whom i have mixed feelings about...thats neither here nor there) ideology which looks at, say, class, without looking at other parts of a persons self will never go far enough in addressing social war. Conceptualizing social struggle through a lens that takes all parts of a persons self (race, gender, class, sexual orientation, ability, documentation status, etc.) is imperative. We have been engaging in social war for too long from the perspective of "we can deal with after the rev" and it has always led to the co-optation of struggle. Folks with more privilege across the board (i personally come from a working class family and identify as queer, but I am a cis-gender, white, male, that is documented, is able bodied, and who is currently living on occupied cheyenne and arapaho land) are willing to sell out revolutionary ends when we get our piece of the pie. To point this out is not to necessarily be working for the state (and in actuality i personally fear people who cop jacket someone for pointing this out more than folks who challenge us to think more thoroughly about struggle) but it is to listen to the experience of folks who experience the effects of systemic oppression to a more intense degree than I do. It make me wonder why you would be so quick to call someone a cop.

Though race is a social construct this does not deny the lived implications that come out of this ideology. Social constructs may be fictive and they may change over time but this does not negate the impact that they have on our lives. To call for putting folks at the center of struggle who suffer the most from our current system (and I would go further by not focusing solely on race but also gender/documentation status/et. al at the center) is to call for folks who benefit the most to act in solidarity with those who benefit the least. Narratives may be constructed but they are also deadly.

Great piece! As someone who has been involved in occupy denver since almost the beginning I am always glad to see pieces/discussions that push this movement to remember that what we should be fighting for is not the ability of the (largely) white middle class male to stay middle class but complete destroy of capitalism, racism, colonialism, patriarchy, heterosexism, ableism, and the state.

Lets make occupy mean social war.




Thank you for your sharing your thoughts, they resonated with me deeply. As a queer-identified female of color I have found the movement has grown quite alienating for me over-time. Still, I hold out hope that my voice can still be heard, that I can help to construct a more egalitarian world, and that in the end we may see a stronger society that respects and embraces --first and foremost-- its diversity. Again, thank you.

Gopher's comment

I just have to say thank you for the sanity. Your comment is as valuable, IMO, as the article itself. As long as people see discussions of how the problems they call universal (when the discussion focuses on them) impact "those people" to a greater degree and in specific ways as "divisive"and as "special problems," we will remain divided. And conquered.

Some thoughts moving forward...

The author makes some good points, pointing out the idea that race is a social construct rather than a biological fact; and, elaborating on the way white privilege recruits poor and working class whites to support the economic and social status quo. While it is important to give people awareness of these issues moving forward, it is equally important to embrace the people standing with you in the current struggle, rather than push them away with dubious ideological complaints.

The author - whose name, incidentally, indicates that he is likely white himself- suggests that there was a physical meeting of some kind between poor whites and the ruling class planters in which a formal agreement was made to oppress people of color for all eternity. This is the type of sweeping claim that allows outsiders to dismiss your organization (not to mention the fact that a subsidiary group within the organization is dubbed "smack the white boy"). There can be no doubt that white privilege exists, but it certainly didn't come about in the simplistic fashion that the author suggests.

And then comes the demand that people of color occupy the center of the occupy movement. Whaa...?? Didn't we just finish debunking the very idea of race?? The poor and working class are what this movement should be about, not to mention any american with a conscience. And guess what...the majority of people of color belong to this same group. So why the divisiveness? (perhaps Bring the Ruckus is part of the CIAs infamous cointel project...)

BTW the median income of white households is 50,673 and that of black households is 31,969. I've never been very interested in math but I'm pretty sure that the ratio is less than 2:1 AND NOT THE 20 TIMES HE STATES.

The author, and the organization, should devote more time to research if they wish to avoid being labeled as radical wingnuts (read: marginalized to such an extent that their opinions - even the valid ones - never reach the audience).

You'd be correct if that's what he said.

BTW the median income of white households is 50,673 and that of black households is 31,969. I've never been very interested in math but I'm pretty sure that the ratio is less than 2:1 AND NOT THE 20 TIMES HE STATES.

He didn't say income. He said wealth. And that is documentable. Retirement savings, home equity, and many other dollar values are much lower among nonwhites.

You know, with a lower income it might be a little harder to save. So it shouldn't surprise you that savings are MUCH lower.

Killers of the Dream

I think your reply illustrates that you're not aware of what the Olsen's referring to.
It's an easy problem to solve.

There's a great chapter in Lillian Smith's important work Killers of the Dream (1949) called "Two Men and a Bargain" that illustrates the bargain the poor white man makes with the rich white man. You can find the parable she relates in her chapter online in various places. I suggest you read it.

Olsen is properly referring to this bargain in his post. It's not something his stretching to claim. It's something that's been a well accepted claim within whiteness studies, critical race studies, the civil rights movement. Poor white people make a bargain with the wealthy white people in order to preserve the white power structure so that, if they work hard enough, they too might some day benefit from its injustice.

the poster talked about net wealth, not income

To Anonymous about "Some thoughts moving forward..."

Read the original article more carefully. The ratio of 1:20 was about net wealth, not income.

See http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/07/26/wealth-gaps-rise-to-record-hig...

The cross-class alliance was clearly a social deal offered by the ruling class to poor whites as a way to split the 99%, and quite intentional. I'll let you research that on your own.

Your response falls exactly in line with the poster's complaints. Pointing out that race is central to an analysis of what is going on is dismissed by you as "divisive".

Yes, please read the article

Yes, please read the article again! The author is entirely correct. I do believe that the inabitlity to come to terms with this dynamic has become one of the biggests problems in any progressive social movement in the U.S.


I couldn't help but nod my head in agreement the entire time I read this article and found the comments and dialogue fascinating. As a "bi-racial" (I've always disliked the term) woman with a white father and black mother growing up in a largely white community in Northern Canada, the concepts of white priviledge and systematic injustice have been familiar to me long before I began using the terms. In fact, discussing white priviledge with white males has been a long been a pastime; one I have been undertaking with my father for as long as I can remember.

I attended the Occupy Edmonton demonstration in my home city primarily because I felt solidarity for the people in the US who were finally revolting against their financial oppressors; the bankers and the government which let de-regulation get out of control (its happening in Canada too). My home province also happens to be a large oil supplier (yup, the "dirty oil" from the tar sands) which contaminates the environment severely and poisons water supplies.

It was nearly immediately at the demonstration, after speaking with a First Nations elder about his people's land being stolen while today they are imprisoned and often living in poverty, that the realization hit me. I am well aware of the poor treatment of First Nations in all social spheres and of the effects of colonialism and the residential school system. Truly, Canada is guilty of mass genocide which it has never really owned up to. I realized that this original occupation and the bigger history of colonization and slavery for capitalist gain MUST be the issue addressed and understood by the movement (and the general public). As a non-white female myself, I appreciate that this must happen.

This is not about measuring degrees of racism. It's about addressing the unjust social and economic system which has its roots and history in de-humanizing and enslaving aboriginals in countries all over the world. An ugly and brutal history such as this has continued to spawn more systemic injustice because we as a society have allowed it to. Now that it is affecting more than the most disadvantaged non-white groups across the world, the white majority are starting to pay attention to something non-white people have lived with their whole lives. This of course is not meant to offend white people. Acknowedging the existence of white priviledge and its historic roots will only serve to strengthen the movement. From this, together people can create a better future. Idealistic? Maybe :)

Great comments and I will continue to follow and share with others.

So what now?

The academic arguments are all very interesting, but are there any suggestions for how this can play out in the real world? (And by the real world, I don't mean on FB.) White people verbally acknowledging in general assemblies that issues like home foreclosure, unemployment, and police brutality primarily affect people of color doesn't seem like it's really all that meaningful, especially when the poc who are most affected (ie not students of color) aren't there to hear it or speak about it.

And considering local movements in places that are >95% white (which are happening in small midwestern cities), how can those discussions be centered around POC without it devolving into white people speaking for people of color to white people who really don't care? And, honestly, how do you get people in those areas to care considering they have their own struggles and needs that are somewhat different than those of people of color at OWS? (Suburbanizing farmland, for example. Intensive military recruitment in high schools is another that may not affect those in NYC as much.)

I'm not being facetious here, and I'm not trying to make this all "what about the white people." I do think the history of racism and its presence today should be loudly acknowledged in this movement. I'm just not sure how that's practically done at this point or if it's even a reasonable expectation for some areas outside of NYC.

Institutional Racism

Fine piece from a fellow University of Minnesota graduate, it has it's strong points but it's downs as well.

The root of white democracy is institutional racism, which profoundly exist, which divides and perpetuates the idea of race, which has meaning because humans have created meaning for it, as you brought up. However, race wasn't created in the 17th century, ancient Egyptians and Greeks have long discussed the differences of appearance in man, although the modernization of race took a turn as the age of exploration and colonization went underway. With that being said, left colorblindness needs to take in all problem into account.

It shouldn't be about Black unemployment rates are always at least double that of whites or that people of color are the least likely to be insured and the median net wealth of Black households is twenty times less than that of white households - rather, it should be about unemployment or low median net wealth, of any race, are problems that we need to eliminate!

I don't think my problems, perpetuated by institutionalized racism, should be more of a concern of someone rather than whites suffering the same problem, maybe to a lesser degree, but still the same problem. That's like saying house slaves have been living better than field slaves; the fact is they are slaves, an undermining offense no man or women should live under.

Attack problems in a whole, everyone in the 99% facing issues should be seen as equal, no special benefits to anyone, a problem is a problem and it's our jobs to fight to fix it!

Institutional Racism inside radical movements

I have been saying this for over 40 years. I know Joel Olsen, and when I first started saying them, even he did not agree with me. Thankfully he has changed his perspective. Now, we need to build an anti-racist/anti-colonial movement to challenge this cancer inside white progressive movements. Internal racism undermines all such movements, leading to their death or discredit, without fully obtaining their goals.

left colorblindness

Thank you for your great insight on how race has been usued to divide ones humanity.I agree, and feel it is time to stop being exploited. The people, the earth, and all its creatures and living things now need to be respected for the beauty of life. The capitalists of perverted power and death are over. Mark Schilkey

I recommend this article on "Inverted Hierarchies"

"Inverted Hierarchies: Substituting Struggle for Liberation with Horizontal Hostility":http://glittertariat.blogspot.com/2011/09/critique-of-anti-assimilation-part-ii.html
The author puts it this way:

"While some members of the working class may have petty and apparent privileges over other members of the working class, those privileges are far less than what could be achieved through unified struggle. "

Is this to say that white

Is this to say that white privileges within the working class are petty? I skimmed the article and part of it seems to say that portions of the class will struggle with each other and thats good as long as they come back around to the class struggle, but that seems very different from the above line.

Obviously we should have a unified struggle, the problem is white workers won't unify with the rest of the class. Our history is one of selling out others to gain higher wages and more relative freedom from state repression.

We have to struggle against the notion that all we need to do is come together, because it glosses over who has refused to come to the table on equal terms. In order to unify the class, white workers have to break away from whiteness and all its comforts to join the class and swear off the bosses.


Nice analysis. That is how it is here in Flagstaff. I think every town is different though, other places have a different vibe going on. I like the set of questions you ask.

Sexism and Racism in Coverage of Occupy Wall Street

I read a lot of truth in this piece and blame the media for over-representing white males in coverage of protests. White males embody power and in order for liberal media to express the power of the protesters, they bias in the direction of the entitled population.

This is especially true in the Occupy Wall Street protests going on now in Zuccotti Park.

One example I've looked at closely is this article in The New York Observer that focuses on a (white male) former fashion model and his (white male) friend, a sometimes professor of poetry. The ultimate embodiment of privilege.

Why do they get a feature article, and why are they allowed to use terms like "gang bang for democracy" and "Sherwood forest" in order to describe the protests? It's just offensive. But again, the media is going to follow the sensational in order to hook in reader - that's all I can suppose. Unless, of course, the author or the publication have a deeper agenda.

My full response here:



Ay-yi-yi. It's articles like this that give "the left" a bad name. Has the author even been down to Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park, or has he just watched people talk about it on TV? It's an extremely diverse crowd, contrary to what you may have heard on Fox News. Academic discussions of race like this one (wow! White people have it better than black people! Holy crap!) do nothing to advance any agenda except to encourage a tedious academic echo chamber.


There's nothing more offensive and divisive than comments like this that belittle the insidiousness of racism. I have to assume the Ay-yi-yi comment was made by a non-black person. As a white person, I can only point the finger back at Mr. Ay-yi-yi for holding us all back. This question, "has the author...been down to Occupy Wall St..or has he just watched people talk about it on TV?" completely misses the point. The fact that the media is only showcasing the white spokespeople means that white people are not stepping back, or telling their white brothers and sisters to step back, when the cameras appear and let the people of color speak. White privilege takes center stage when whites allow it. Step off the stage brother and grab your white friends' hands to pull them down with you. Ask the people of color at Zucotti Park to be ready to speak for the movement.

I guess you already know it all...

...since you didn't even really read this whole article. It's hardly an academic matter to suggest that addressing racism is "at the center of everything we're fighting for." And the only echo chamber is your skull, so bounce this around in there:

The whole wealth of this nation was amassed through the seizure of land from people who were already living here; some were in fact exterminated, the rest decimated beyond recovery.
The entire post-colonial agriculture industry, which DROVE AND INDEED ENABLED THE GLOBAL INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION, was built by Africans, of various ethnicities, who were brought to the Americas by force or by pretext and enslaved.
The US, for most of the last 160 years, enforced separation of "whites" from other ethnic groups in housing, education, and public services.
Someone in your family remembers when segregation still existed.
And with regard to OWS, if we're going to critique banks, we'll HAVE to address racism, because banks bank on it:
- Banks traded slaves (Google it).
- Banks developed services and instruments that intentionally exploited black people the moment their participation was allowed; they developed mechanisms to exclude black people just as quickly.
- Banks build prisons (Google it). But maybe you don't think prison is a racial issue either: it's just a crazy coincidence that "black non-Hispanic males are incarcerated at the rate of 4,749 inmates per 100,000. White males are incarcerated at the rate of 708 inmates per 100,000.
- Banks also administer the billing for phone calls made from those jails and prisons. If you don't like those $5 fees, wait til you see how much a call from jail is. (But it's worth it to stay in touch with your children.)
- Banks make money from Foodstamps, Federal unemployment benefits, and Federal Temporary Cash Assistance (welfare) by administering their funds. They love it!
- And if they haven't got you yet, they own housing projects to store you until they're ready to put you to work making license plates (Google it).

When I look at all of this info it starts to seem like a GLARING OMISSION that race is not explicitly, specifically, centrally included in most OWS bank literature. Prove me wrong.
OWS organizers keep saying it's divisive to talk about race; they scolded OccupyTheHood for being divisive, and publicly. Why? For demanding that racism take center stage. It will be a shame if OWS disintegrates (no pun intended) due to cluelessness.

Ay Yi Yi Indeed

As diverse as crowds may be, on line on Occupy Houston threads, many folks have a mentality similar to that of groups like the Tea Party. Immigration issues are important and are so charged here that I can relate to what the author is communicating. Houston is 2nd in cases relating to human trafficing, and N.Y. is up there too, it's just that they are almost done building that wall and it is killing people and the Earth and this is an example of one of those specific concerns that affect all people in this area,and truely every citizen,
but perhaps it is not as blarring as economic fraud. I do like the comment about how some economies within America have been in a resecion disproportionatley.

Author from AZ with input from all over

Hey Ezra,

The author of the piece is a member of Bring the Ruckus in Arizona. He drafted the article, and then got two rounds of edits from members of BtR who are participating in occupations in several different cities across the country, including Zuccotti in NYC, sometimes as members of radical caucuses, people of color caucuses, and anti-racist working groups.


Thanks for the response. That's fine, and you are all of course entitled to your opinion, but I don't see this article as advancing anything positive or addressing anything that has been lacking in discussion that I have encountered either at Zuccotti or online, etc. I haven't heard anyone denying that communities of color are disproportionatly affected by police brutality, subprime lending, foreclosures, unemployment, etc. You may have encountered people who say that a central focus of the OWS movement is the criminally risky (and just criminal) lending and banking activities that crashed the global economy to devastating effect that went unpunished and without any change in regulation that would prevent the same activity in the future, and that a focus (or squabbling) about which communities of color have it the hardest distracts from that focus (I would agree with that). That does not mean those people are negatively 'colorblind' or discount race as a factor in economic hardship.

So what you are saying is.............

illustrating the authors point. To suggest that the author is engaging in "oppression Olympics" by stating that racism should be at the center of this movement is dismissive. ["that a focus (or squabbling) about which communities of color have it the hardest distracts from that focus"] While many whites at OWS and other Occupy sites are aware of the oppression of people of color if they fail to acknowledge that the movement cannot dismantle economic injustice without focusing on racial injustice then whatever "progress" or benefits will come from the movement will be unequally distributed. Note that in 1960 the poverty rate for African Americans was 3x that of whites (and over 50%). Today the poverty rate amongst blacks is 3x that of whites. [ http://www.irp.wisc.edu/faqs/faq3.htm] If the focus of OWS is banking activities that crashed to global economy - how can you sell that message to people who've been living in a deep economic crisis for much longer than many whites realize? Or are you cool if they sit this one out?

Defeating left color blindness

The author is suggesting not an oppression olympics, as the dismissive comment above would have it. He is suggesting that the concerns of people of color be front and center of this movement, and I have to agree with that. While no one has denied that people of color are disproportionately affected by the economic crisis, I hear no loud voices affirming it either. We are in the early stages, only three weeks or less in, so I hope as things progress that more and more of us white people will get more awareness of what white privilege is, what it looks like and sounds like, and how to combat it in everyday practice. I hope this for those who carry male privilege or heterosexual privilege as well. These are not criticisms of individuals, or criticisms of the Occupy movement. This is a realistic assessment of how aware we all need to be if we truly want this movement to succeed and embody and empower the whole 99%, not just the white/straight/male part!

LOL, I am sooo dang

LOL, I am sooo dang confused! I have worked so very hard within my home to raise my children blind to color, guess I am an idiot for this? I have raised them that although we have very different cultures and histories (histories filled with greatness and histories filled with atrocities) that we are all human and humanity is what counts. My first and biggest disagreement with his article is he refers to this as a democratic movement, I am not sure what movement he is keeping up with, but the reason me and mine support this OWS is that it is ALL encompassing, politically, racially, religiously, and sexual orientation to boot! I am supporting it because it is so diverse on all levels. With SO many involved it is difficult to cover every single grievance, that is just the truth. When you are talking about this many people and GROWING, quickly, it is difficult to form 1 voice. That is the very reason it is taking so long. But frankly, this is the best chance we have had at getting real help to ALL people by everyone joining together and fighting for the greater cause. Like someone else had said, once this is done and the RIGHT people are in place then other grievance's can be helped, fixed, reformed, etc. BUT if we do not get to that point, it will never happen, just as it has not happened yet. Life will remain as it is, but only get worse. As this movement strengthens they will continue to try to take more rights from us.. They have already started..(Don't take my word for it, research it!) In my opinion, he is using slick wording and intellectual half truths to drive a wedge and SEGREGATE this movement. AGAIN, Don't take HIS word for it, do your own research. ~~Lastly,I repeat, not a Democratic movement. I am thankful for every democrat involved, but I am also thankful for the Republicans, the conservatives, the liberals, Progressives, (70% of the movement are Independent)..blacks, whites, Asians, Catholics, Christians, Buddhists, etc etc on all accounts. It will take everyone to get the job done. And getting the job done is when a new America can be born. A new America as beautiful as a Calico cat and has as many personalities as the crazy lady on that Showtime series. <3

I think there is a slight

I think there is a slight difference between the colorblindness that this article addresses and the way you raise your children. I believe this article is talking about the inherent differences and opportunities that exist in our society between white people and people of color. As the author points out, those of us who are white have enormous advantages (access to healthcare, higher pay, police protection, etc.), and that is something that must be acknowledged for us to move forward. We can't deny that these inequalities exist, that is what has been holding us back for centuries. Instead we must accept at some fundamental level that differences exist for various racial groups and use that as a starting point to correct the injustices in the world (which invariably effect people of color significantly worse).

It is also important, in my opinion, to teach people to move past preconceived notions that society has produced, whether it be race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. That is what you are doing with your children, teaching them to challenge notions (laziness, weakness, incompetence) of differences based simply on aspects such as skin color. We must accept that differences exist, but that these differences are PURELY preconceived ideas with no basis in reality. We should accept that people are fundamentally the same, yet challenge why those of us with privilege receive enormous amounts of benefits as compared to other members of our society.

um. You are missing something fairly fundamental

A lot of your upset is based on your misunderstanding that the word democratic refers to the American political party that took it's name from the actual concept of democracy. Democracy is functioning when all people can participate equally in making decisions or governing. Our country boasts a democratic system of government (although there is much evidence to the contrary) no matter which of our ridiculous parties is in power.



I understand your perspective, I was raised with [and raised my children with] similar values. But I also think that the author's main point is an extremely good one.

I take the following as a good main point: "...we must come to see any form of favoritism toward whites (whether explicit or implicit) as an evil attempt to perpetuate the cross-class alliance rather than build the 99%."

Ideals are only as good as their results in fact. I share your color-blind perspective, having grown up in a family with friends of other races generally present, and I've known and worked with many kids from Flatbush, the Bronx, and Queens who were in lockdown schools, drug rehabs, and at-risk programs [I was doing art therapy, among other things]. But just looking around at circumstances puts the lie to our "colorblind" illusions.

The most effective ways I found to reach those troubled kids I worked with included acknowledging that they were from a completely different culture than the one they were now involved in. That, in effect, they were foreign exchange students, exploring an alien land, and what they'd learned growing up in "the hood", while valid for that environment, wasn't going to help them to navigate the system in which they now found themselves. And yes, it was a highly effective technique in terms of enabling them to shift their perceptions, create some success, and move on.

But the reason that the "reframing" technique I used was so effective was because I WAS TELLING MYSELF THE TRUTH. I objectively analyzed what these kids knew, what they saw and felt, and why they were having trouble with their current situations. I came to the conclusion that they came from an entirely alien culture, and nobody had bothered to explain the dynamics at work. [Said culture has been called a "subculture" in the past, but that is imo inappropriate. I won't get into the arguments here, though, in the interest of some tiny amount of brevity].

If it is true that they come from a separate culture, then to respect their parity as human beings demands understanding that they HAVE a separate culture, and that we communicate with them from that understanding. And if it is true that they do have a separate culture within the boundaries of our nation, then that speaks to the illusion that we are all "equal" in the sense of being a homogenous population.

We are NOT equal in that way. One culture is not regarded in the same ways as another in this country, and even speaking about that here will doubtlessly elicit some shrill commentary from some who want to keep the neoliberal boxes nicely arranged in their minds. Even in my own mind! For instance: while I consider Ebonics to be an outre idea, I suspect it's for the same reason that I think Spanish shouldn't be the first choice of language on my bank machine- which tells me that I'm definitely programmed towards an unconscious bias- and it's in a blind spot that's been papered over with the kind illusion of colorblindness.

If we're going to serve "truth, Justice, and the American way", and "all [people] are created equal", then we need to be honest about that.

I remember back in the day learning about "the Melting Pot", and the glory of this country being its multicultural base and its colorblindness. I think those are noble aspirations, but that we're not there yet. I think that until we are suspicious of the illusion of homogeny-as-virtue, we still have many miles to go.

I think I have more connections to various "Other" people than many whites. I am not going to list them all as some kind of Liberal trophies- they are my friends. And like all good friends, they force me to think outside of the boxes I've been trained to believe in. This is a service to me- and a challenge.

I think that the above article provides the same service, if you're willing to allow your box to expand. As the French put it, "Viva la difference!"

While keeping issues of race

While keeping issues of race absolutely central to radical movements, including OWS, is clearly a priority, I think this article relies on a common tautological argument around the social construction of race. I'm not sure how you can simultaneously argue that race is a fiction and then use it as a proper object on which to base your analysis. If whiteness is a fiction, how are you so certain about where to draw the line around who is white and who is not? You slip from acknowledging race as the real effect of imagined differences to using it as a means by which to proceed with authoritative categorisation. We need to acknowledge that race has a material positivity as well as as a discursive one, and at the same time continue to emphasise class (itself problematic, but, with its clearly material basis not quite as unstable a signifier) as a primary category of analysis when we talk about inequality and oppression.

R U Kiddin?

"I'm not sure how you can simultaneously argue that race is a fiction and then use it as a proper object on which to base your analysis."

The author is arguing that race is a BIOLOGICAL AND GENETIC FICTION, while at the same time being terribly real from a social/political/economic vantage, and the elephant in the room which even leftie whites studiously ignore.

Really, I'm surprised that you didn't get this. Maybe you don't want to?

Those in power draw the line

The fact that race is a fiction doesn't diminish its social importance: when people believe something and create institutions that reflect it, it becomes a social reality.

In terms of how to draw the line, it isn't us who does it: it's the police, the bosses, those in power who decide the rules of race in a way that maintains their power. We must begin to fight in those terms.

WTF - [Caution: Link is NOT SAFE FOR WORK]

I'm sorry, but as (possibly?) a fellow student of 'the university'; an academic, this is the kind of intellectual bullshit that just pisses me off. That might hurt your feelings, and that's not my intention. But we all know about the problem of intentions, right? "with its clearly material basis not quite as unstable a signifier" - unstable? This is entitlement-in-print. 'Race' does not need to have a material stability to have bought about centuries of untold pain to millions around the globe. Not just in the US. Take a look at this image of Emmett Till http://turangawaewae.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/emmett-till.jpg?w=360&h..., which I've just used in a blog and therefore suffered the pain of looking at it, and remind yourself of what you so easily dismiss. Then ask if Emmett could have been saved by location in a different economic class. You are casually casting aside centuries of pain that is not captured in the foreclosure of a house. Or an 'American (white) Dream'.

Oh my gosh, please add a

Oh my gosh, please add a NSFW tag on that Emmett Till photo!

Look away?

It is difficult to be confronted with what our societies have and continue to produce: intense suffering. Not a group of white southerners, not an individual but society at large. Perhaps it is time we stopped giving in to our desire to look from the suffering of others... intellectual engagement on its own will not alter the cumulative crises we face. In that respect intellectual argument on issues of 'race' and 'class' stretch from here to proverbial Africa, and have for some time. I believe change will take emotional engagement. I believe that's what Audre Lorde meant when she said "Our feelings are our most genuine paths to knowledge".

I'm not sure I understand

I'm not sure I understand what this article's points are. Like, after reading that article I genuinely don't know the arguments the author is making.

I just don't get why we would not want to transcend racial thinking. We should work to solve all of the problems of society regardless of race.

It sounds to me like the issues of people of color as described in this article are actually issues of the poor. Why, then, can't we focus on issues of the poor rather than making it about the color of one's skin? If people of color are poorer, then won't we be predominantly taking care of them?

I actually think part of

I actually think part of what the article is getting at, is that by addressing issues of workers of color, we do address the issues of the working class as a whole. If we fail to address how people of color are being exploited, we will fail to address the issues of all workers. We can't, and shouldn't transcend racial thinking until we have forced society to abandon race. If we ignore it, but the cops and the bosses continue to abuse black and brown folks and pamper whites, then we're just ignoring injustice. We have to fully acknowledge and attack that injustice in order to get to a world that doesn't treat people illy based on their race.


Great piece that has stimulated a lot of contribution which is promising. At times disappointing. Your critique has resonance around the globe: http://turangawaewae.wordpress.com/2011/10/22/occupy-wall-street-the-pow...

Misses the mark a bit

I think this individualizes and as a result mis-interprets the cause of non-white marginalization. In a nutshell it says that general white racism is the cause of black marginality. And, general left racism is the main obstacle to collective action. I think that this is wrong. And in turn, I think the author offers up empty solutions that are just going to lead to frustration on all fronts. I wrote something on this two years ago, and I still agree with it.


"The way we make sense of racial disparities directly informs how we remedy them. Here, the left must clarify our approach, and offer a sounder position in the public debate. Ultimately, it is not an either/or class-not-identities/identities-not-class issue.

Martha Gimenez is correct to emphasize an alternative to both of these approaches. Instead, she argues that “Class and identity [race in this instance], however, are not mutually exclusive but part of a network of relationships that shape people’s experiences. Class struggles and identity-based struggles are intertwined: class relations presuppose cultural understandings, and cultural and political recognitions are a means toward economic and political justice.”

If we think of capitalism as a purely economic system, it is true that class is constitutive in a way that race is not. Capitalism by definition requires class divisions, but in the abstract is conceivable without racial disparities. However, a notion of the real political economy that ignores historical particularities, cultural trends and intra-class dynamics is of very little use.

Racism is not just a legacy of the past, but also something promoted by the market logic — a reality that our strategies should assimilate. Giving relative autonomy to non-class forms of domination (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.), while framing our strategy and analysis through the lens of class, is a way of avoiding problems of class-reductionism or identity politics and building broad-based movements that organize around particular experiences.

In terms of race, we need to identify and explain the dialectic between the means of production and the process of racism. Histories need to be revisited, with past injustices bearing on our explanations for a contemporary racism that appears autonomous. Race cannot be subsumed into class, but they cannot be divorced either."

Institutional racism vs autonomous working class racism

Mike-I read your article on the Solidarity website...Id like to challenge the notion that the approach in this article individualizes racism and detracts from the ways in which institutional forms of racism need to be identified and targeted.
-It seems so simple-identify institutional forms of racism, target them, united the class-why hasn't this been done already?
It seems there are at least two threads underlying this logic which need to be challenged. On one hand-we don't control ruling class policies and decisions-we don't run the prisons, the police, the institutions which form the policies which reproduce racism systemically-as those who wish to transform the entirety of power relationships in this society, we look to strengthen the portions of working class life-culture, experience, and activities, which have the potentials to overthrow this. Racial, gendered, or other divisions within the class are obstacles to the devvelopment of a class unity capable of confronting not just institutional racism, but capitalism itself. I don't mean to argue that racism, gendered oppresion will or could be eliminated prior to anticapitalist revolution-as often leads to the dead ends of,"Challenging White Supremacy," workshops and other notions of,"educating," ,"ignorant," workers with guilt or by talking at them. It does, however, mean, that prioritizing forms of activity from within the class capable of challenging divisions within the class is somewhere revolutionaries can participate meaningfully in populist movements-and open broader, more radical potentials by doing so.

The second notion within the idea of prioritizing institutional racism is that it diminishes the revolutionary potential of autonomous working class racism-and assumes that,"institutional racism," is inflexible as Capitalist class policy. The ongoing counterinsurgency campaign escalated under Clinton's administration against the,"survivalist," movement and insurrectionary white supremacist tendencies certainly demonstrates both international Capital's fears of the insurrecitonary potentials of autonomous white racism, and opposition to its old forms from within Capitalist institutions. Depending on the progression of working class struggles, what is to say that the ruling class forms of institutionalized racism couldn't shift dramatically-even away from race based conceptions of privilege? This is by no means arguing that targeting institutionalized forms of racism is not important...but I think does point back to the significance of autonomous working class racism...