In my research and writing on the relationship(s) between race, power, inequality, and political culture, I often reference Joel Olson's concept of "white democracy." A complement to Joe Feagin's white racial frame, white democracy is a deceptively simple construct, with much explanatory power, and offers a theoretical lens that neatly groups together many other (seemingly disparate) findings.
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%.
Olson's piece on whiteness, the OWS movement, and white privilege is meme worthy, and as such, deserves as wide an audience as possible. "Whiteness and the 99 percent" is dispassionate; this is its strength. The essay is also wonderfully transparent as it grapples with white privilege, the Left, and liberal racism, in a way that is provocative, yet accessible.
As I am fond of saying, I don't have time to hold the hands of white folks and do any teaching about how they should get their house in order. Olson, as a member of the tribe, is imminently more patient and kind.
To that end, he smartly crystallizes the problem of white privilege and the OWS movement down to several key points.
Olson suggests that liberal colorblindness does the work of white privilege, and by implication, white supremacy. White democracy is real. The racial state is not an aberration in American history, rather it is the norm. Liberal colorblindness is given life through the white racial frame. This creates a "distorted white mindset" which sees the interests of people of color as "special" and "particular," while the interests of white folks are deemed "normal":
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.
Olson's latter point is a neat reframing and statement of what critical race theorists and others have described as white/liberal "universalism," wherein the interests of whites (as the in-group) go uncommented upon and uninterrogated because they are a "given." Consequently, the interests of White people, and Whiteness more generally, are not framed in terms of race. The irony is rich: Whiteness and White people do of course have racialized group interests--American history is a testament to this fact--they simply do not name them as such.
Like Olson, I too have similar worries about OWS. I am happy to see organic efforts such as Occupy the Hood, and moves by local groups to make issues of identity and racialized power more central to the OWS agenda. Nevertheless, I remain concerned that white group interests, white experiences, white politics, white understandings of the good life, white history, white humanity, and white concerns, remain normalized by OWS.
To counter this tendency towards a de facto embrace of white privilege as the status quo ante, Olson concludes "Whiteness and the 99%" with a set of helpful questions which challenge the OWS movement to remove their White (and middle class) blinders. He suggests that OWS should:
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.
- Do speakers urge us “get beyond” race? Are they defensive and dismissive of demands for racial justice?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
These are challenging questions that could serve as powerful rubrics for decision-making and agenda setting.
As is my habit, some questions in the interest of sharing:
For those on the front lines of the OWS movement, are Olson's suggestions being heeded? Would they be met with a positive response? Is OWS actively interrogating white privilege?
Or are the knee jerk, "it's about class and not race" ideologues, limiting the conversation, and enforcing their own version of political correctness which marginalizes the broader interests and concerns of black and brown people?