Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Political Hermeneutics: A Letter From People of Color (the 99th Percentile) to the OWS Movement

The fault lines of race, class, and gender are central to any analysis of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. Not surprisingly, some folks would like to overlook these issues as being peripheral to a political moment that should be "about class" and "not race."

My rebuttal is predictable and direct: race and racial ideologies are no sideshow in American politics; how can they possibly be peripheral to OWS?

This is especially true as OWS works to define its movement culture, and to make sure that parallel efforts such as Occupy the 'Hood are included within their broader agenda.

Some have accused the Occupy Wall Street Movement of being the product of grumpy angst by generally entitled and privileged white folks who are upset that they are now getting a bum deal. In all, from this perspective, OWS is a version of the white privilege temper tantrum performed on a national scale.

In turn, this assertion leads to the following question: where were the OWS folks when black and brown people were catching hell for decades, as globalization and deindustrialization ravaged our communities, and punched upward mobility and wealth accrual in the gut?

These are fair questions that need to be addressed...and answered by OWS and its advocates. The following is an effort to further that discussion.

On occasion, I work through the hermeneutics of political "texts" that I find online or in print. The following open letter, which is now circulating around the black blogosphere, is quite provocative as it raises many questions that are more than worthy of no small amount of critical engagement.

As is my habit, comments follow in brackets and in bold.

An Open Letter (and Invitation) to the so-called 99% From People of Color (AKA the 99th Percentile)

Dear so-called 99%

[The branding of the OWS movement has been very effective. Who could reasonably agree with such a stark divide where the 1 percent (them) is doing amazingly well, and the 99% (the rest of us) are doing so poorly during the Great Recession.

However, this slogan hides more than it reveals.

For example, the biggest divides in wealth inequality, the ownership of financial instruments, and those who benefited the most from the Bush era tax cuts begins at the top 10 percent of earners. Moreover, if you want to see where the real action is in terms of America's kleptocracy, one should focus their attention on the top 1/10 of 1 percent of earners who are recording unbelievable gains while the American workforce in mass has seen its wages stagnate for the last 40 years.

The top ten percent have done well too: they now control 50 percent of the income and 70 percent of the aggregate wealth. The top 2o percent of the U.S. population controls approximately 84 percent of wealth. What to do about these measures of inequality?

When we use the language of the 1 percent, how do differences of race play into this narrative. The top 1 percent of black and brown folks are doing less well than their equivalents in White America. Does this complement the narrative? Or does it complicate it, because while the black and brown elite may be doing much less well than their white peers, both are still invested in the status quo...or are they?]

You suckers thought that you were so special, ennit? You thought that your heineys were just that much better and softer and more supple than all those poor people of color, huh? There was never any discussion of the “99%” for the past 400 years while Native lands were stolen, Native people were exterminated, black folks were enslaved, Latinos were gerrymandered, Japanese people were placed in internment camps or Arabs were sexually groped, fondled and heavily-petted at airports. No problem, right?

[Yes and no. Wealth accrual and inter-generational transfers of resources in this country have for centuries been racialized. As professionals in sociology, political science, and economics have repeatedly observed, race in America is also a story of wealth--who had it, had access to it, and could pass it down--and then reproduce its benefits for themselves and their descendants.

Scholars such as Joe Feagin, Manning Marable, Ira Katznelson, Eric Williams, Omi and Winant, Oliver and Shapiro, and others have done a wonderful job of tracing out these contours. White folks, both native born and immigrants knew this game. To not participate in it would have been morally and ethically sound (perhaps), but ill-advised in terms of crude self-interest. Who the hell is going to run away from free money?

Whiteness involves being an active signer to what Charles Mills smartly describes as the Racial Contract (or for whites in mass, at the very least being tacit beneficiaries of it). Once you make the bargain those "inconveniences" of history become just that, facts and incongruities to be avoided lest too much uncertainty (and responsibility spawned by introspection) occur.]

There was never any discussion of the fundamental imbalance of power on this continent and inherent unfairness of the trickle-up economics for the past few centuries as the aforementioned groups were only seen as a source of labor for powerful white male interests. Not a word.

Because you thought you were special. You were immune to that. That little issue didn’t involve you.

[Always be careful whenever you insert "never." There were many folks, across the color line, who understood the damnable imbalances of power in this country, especially as they overlap with gender, race, class, and other types of identities. Taken in total these disparities reveal the naked lie that is the American creed of upward mobility and the Horatio Alger myth.

Folks often want to deploy the "they were products of their time defense." Avoid it. Run away from it. The premise is absurd and weak.

Whiteness does involve being special. Historically, it was the cultivation of white mediocrity and the prize for European "ethnics" assimilating into "Americanness." Part of that bargain was to distance oneself from black people, and to look askance at, as well as socially distance oneself from, most people of color. European immigrants deeply--and others as well to this day--understood that to be "White" pays a material, financial, emotional, and psychic wage.

Whiteness is special: it got you low interest loans; it got you the G.I. Bill; it got you a job in a factory with a living wage; it got your kids into college and good high schools; it got you membership in a privileged class.

White folks knew exactly what they were buying into. Do not remove or take away their agency.

There is a reason that white Americans have on average 2 dollars for every 10 cents that blacks and Latinos possess: the State was invested in subsidizing their enrichment and advancement. The wages come with a natural defense as well, where the beneficiaries of White privilege can proudly announce that "their family never owned slaves" or "my grandparents were immigrants."

Guilt free. Hands clean.]

Now, you see that these powerful white males do not care about you either. Now you see that they will—just like they did to “us,” all people of color in this country—extrapolate every single ounce of energy, money and value out of you, your kids, your wife, your mistress.

[We need to ask hard questions here. Historically, elites have not treated their social lessors well. More specifically, Europeans were barbaric to each other across lines of class--in the work houses, in the factories, with indentured servitude--long before they got to the New World and discovered the "blessings" of African labor, chattel slavery, and genocide of indigenous peoples.

We need to define terms. Who are the "powerful?" Who is "white?" How does gender play into this--do not let white women, as beneficiaries of Whiteness and white supremacy too, off the hook so easily.

Here is another challenge. The global power elite numbers only a few thousand. Do they even care about race? They are transnational. Their concern is Capital and finance. Most certainly, race and these other issues of identity and in-group superiority may matter for the middle managers and other lowly administrators in this game. But, do you think that those who are really moving the pieces on the chessboard are at all concerned with such parochial and local interests as race, gender, and sexuality?]

After they do that, they will throw you away, fire you, lay you off, send your job to Mexico or India or someplace else where they can do exactly the same thing to those poor schmucks. Only they’ll do it for much less money. Now, you’re beginning to see that and so you started to call yourself the so-called “99%,” because you realize that you’re not so special at all.

[This is old school for black and brown folks. Hell, listen to classic rap song The Message. We were on to this con game decades ago.

When White America gets a cold, black and brown Americans get the flu. But, what of poor rural whites? What of those folks in the rust belt? On the 'res? How can we work together with them, to find common class interests across the lines of white identity and the wages of Whiteness? Where historically most members of the white poor and working classes have chosen racial affinity over class alliances with people of color?]

Stupid white people.

[The masses are asses. Are white folks any more or less stupid than any other group because of their "skin color?" No.

But, Whiteness does encourage a type of willful historical ignorance, myopia, blind denial, and short shortsightedness. Whiteness has paid white people as a group--for the most part--a type of psychic wage from group belonging. This has come at a moral and ethical cost. Most folks, not because they are White, but because they are lazy, dim witted, and painfully human (and comfortable on the sidelines of history) will not be self-reflective enough to work through the ledger sheet of race and their soul's debit; what is the blood on their hands from the benefits of "benign," "colorblind," white supremacy in the Age of Obama.

In fact, there are still white folks who believe silly fantasies such as this School House Rock video about Ellis Island, the melting pot, and European immigration. There are others who are race traitors, and as such, know the score. The latter have always been with us and on the right side of history. They are down like John Brown. Real warriors.

The question becomes how to move the lazy and settled middle.]

The punch line though? You were always part of the 99%.

[Yes and no again. In absolute terms they were not elites. But, they could feel superior and special by signing restrictive housing covenants; joining the KKK; becoming cops so they could beat a colored, a Mexican, a Chinaman, or an Injun; lynching negroes; and rioting against efforts at school integration in and around Boston.

The system needs to maintain the appearance, and historically for whites, of upward mobility. The system also needs the appearance of inclusion in order to make those who have bought into it psychically invested in the merits of their own hard work, because of course those other people can't succeed because they are "lazy," "un-American," or have "bad culture."

Remember: Success is easy in America. But, only if you work hard enough for it.]

Those powerful white interests love you as much as they love me. Which is to say that they love you about as much a man loves a pregnancy scare from a one-night stand. None. Zero. Idiots.

[Is this the money shot? Sorry, I couldn't resist...]

The bad news: You’re not special and unfortunately you’re just now beginning to realize that. The good news: well hell, at least you’re beginning to realize it now. But those are the two reasons that people of color have not joined this movement en masse: #1 We cannot believe that you were so stupid to not know that you weren’t special and that these powerful white male interests were just using you, and #2 we want to make sure that you gullible sheep will not, as soon as those powerful white male interests try to buy you off with giving your job back with the little benefits and 401k, forget about all of us poor people of color who have been suffering for years.

[Those white folks who are race traitors, critical thinkers, and visionaries who see globally and were long onto the neoliberal con game will get you. But again, most people are profoundly mediocre. Do not forget your audience: Whiteness is profoundly ahistorical; it is literally without history. To ask most White Americans to think about structures, institutions, and power, is a challenge, because to be white, is to be the quintessential individual.

In all, to get the privileged "I" to think structurally is quite difficult, if not impossible, in the long run. Some of them are coming around. I would not hold my breath waiting for the others as it may take an even bigger system shock than the Great Recession to wake them up. But by then, it may be too late.]

We are the faces at the bottom of the well, the very bottom of the 99%.

We are the 99th percentile. The bottom.

[Who is "we?" Who is "the bottom?" Please clarify your terms. Do these cohorts include people of color who are part of the elite? Be mindful of assuming a sense of linked fate or group affinity. These assumptions can lead one to misunderstand how class interests can overcome race, gender, or other assumed intra-group markers of affinity.]

We’re attracted to the movement, but we need assurance that you’re not gonna just up and leave and get tricked again, like you did before.

Now the invitation: we will join you. We are attracted to this movement. We want to join you. The truth is that we need this movement at least as much as you do. The truth is that we want to make something very serious and very permanent happen for the betterment of all poor and middle-class Americans—Native, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Arab, everybody! The truth is that you have always been our brothers and sisters—you just didn’t know it. But we need to know that you’re serious. And what we mean by “serious” is that you aren’t going to back to thinking that you’re part of the 1% again and forget about us. You are not. We are in this together, whether you, my white brothers and sisters, choose to acknowledge it or not. We’re waiting.

So what’s it gonna be?

[I will let these paragraphs stand on their own. To reiterate the author's claims, please tell me, what is it going to be?]

13 comments:

CNu said...

Now the invitation: we will join you. We are attracted to this movement. We want to join you. The truth is that we need this movement at least as much as you do. The truth is that we want to make something very serious and very permanent happen for the betterment of all poor and middle-class Americans—Native, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, Arab, everybody! The truth is that you have always been our brothers and sisters—you just didn’t know it. But we need to know that you’re serious. And what we mean by “serious” is that you aren’t going to back to thinking that you’re part of the 1% again and forget about us. You are not. We are in this together, whether you, my white brothers and sisters, choose to acknowledge it or not.

This is the keeper.

The 2,315 words preceding it were a complete and utter waste of oxygen. The race man schtick may be all the 2nd and 3rd line inheritors got, but it's sooooo played out and useless.

We’re waiting.

So what’s it gonna be?


Be sure to bring something concrete, tactical, and useful to the invitation - and you're good to go.

Otherwise, content yourself with standing there with your hands in your pocket looking idiotic while waiting for those busy doing something to validate your grievances....,

Tom said...

I kinda lean toward CNu's message, but not because I agree with him that the privilege talk is "race man schtick."

I have no doubt white OWS folks' privilege poisoning is key--central to this problem.

But, for that reason, the WMs won't have any idea what most of the letter is trying to tell them. They'll file it as something about "diversity," which, I'll leave the results to everyone's imagination.

(I'm not a POC; not sure whether you were asking for non-POC opinions here or not.)

chaunceydevega said...

@Cnu. We are always out with the begging bowl. Makes me wonder what would have happened if we listened to Garvey.

@Tom. All voices welcome here on WARN. We are for the children like Wu-tang. I can't resist a chance to name check ODB.

40 said...

I think the racial issue that is missed with OWS is how long would this have lasted if the ethnographics were different ("Resurrection City" ring a bell to anyone?) As a NYCer I wake up to the coverage of this every morning and I am equal parts amused & angered when I hear these people talk of "Police Brutality". I've watched the boys in blue monkeystomp the emotionally disturbed homeless, and random Negroes and Latinos just because they dare question why they need to produce ID when being racially profiled. I know people who have spend 5 days in jail for not having photo ID and no other crime, while these OWS protesters will likely get the "Lindsay Lohan 5 hours in jail makes a 30 day sentence treatment". The disparity to me lies in the actions and consequences. I cannot muster up sympathy for these protesters being "attacked" when you know they've been advised to use all restraint possible given the visibility of the protest. Stop trying to create a sense of victimhood when 3 miles away in the same city 9 out of 10 RESIDENTS (not Occupiers) of Brownsville can attest to being stopped and frisked with regularity. Maybe it is because of my blackness that this "Occupation" does not register with me, because real or imagined I do not have the luxury to camp out for 8 weeks down town. I'm ambivalent about OWS, if they were about putting in some work regarding prosecuting these bank CEOs with RICO statues then I'm in. But if you're just going to camp out and be annoyed when police ask you to move in a way that is unbecoming, then welcome to being black in America. I deal with that AND go to work every day.

nomad said...

And then there is racial pragmatism: "Make no mistake about it, reclaiming the right of the poor, jobless and discontented to peaceably assemble, while politically paralyzing mayors and police forces used to cracking heads and dispersing malcontents is a project only white protesters could have accomplished without police violence and massive arrests."

http://www.blackagendareport.com/content/occupy-where-whats-it-black-and-brown-people?destination=node%2F12712

CNu said...

lol,

Tom, you're easily one of the most respectable negros I know.

I'm the disreputable bomb-thrower, tirelessly castigating spoiled, impotent, handwaving 2nd and 3rd line inheritors of the civil rights movement, as well as, sockpuppet token negroe conservatives.

{what do the pretend ideologically antithetical camps share in common? why, they're both wholly dependent beneficiaries of wealthy ideological patrons/institutions - and - neither camp practices, preaches, or teaches anything remotely approaching self-sufficiency.}

CNu said...

And then there is racial pragmatism: "Make no mistake about it, reclaiming the right of the poor, jobless and discontented to peaceably assemble, while politically paralyzing mayors and police forces used to cracking heads and dispersing malcontents is a project only white protesters could have accomplished without police violence and massive arrests."

Intellectually honest statement of the week!!!

But count on jiggaboos to be steady crying instead of intelligently, strategically, and proactively trying to figure out how to get-in where they fit-in...,

Tom said...

CNu, Like Nomad said, we all do what we can.

chaunceydevega said...

@40. how dare you bring race into this? how dare you suggest if those were some black and brown folks acting up that they would have got curb stomped by now. Racist!

@Nomad. I hear that too. Use the OWS folks as cover. But history tells us the concerns of black and brown folks are always up for negotiation in these matters.

nomad said...

Alliance against a common gargantuan enemy. Sounds like a sane approach. Hang together. Hang separately.

profacero said...

What kills me is the whitefolks who will use this as an excuse to keep sitting in their chairs.

--El Mexicano

Marama Davidson said...

So Real! You might relate to this then. 14 minutes long video but it goes to the heart of many things you mention in this article. From an indigenous woman of Aotearoa (New Zealand)who speaks about keeping the Occupy Movement legitimate by decolonising it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUAEoz47l0M

Isome said...

I've been participating in # occupywallst since the 24th of Sept. I'm of African descent. We/they work hard to acknowledge white privilege and counteract it during general assemblies and other group mtgs. There is now occupy the hood. You are woefully misinformed about this.