Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Something You Should Read: Joel Olson Keeps On Winning With His Essay "Whiteness and the 99%"

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%.
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.

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.
  1. Do speakers urge us “get beyond” race? Are they defensive and dismissive of demands for racial justice?
  1. 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?
  1. 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?
  1. 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?
  1. 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?
  1. 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?


Shady_Grady said...

I don't know. I see it differently. It is up to people concerned by the issues you raise-whether they be black people or "enlightened" others to get off their keister and do something.

So much of the response (not at all saying this is your take ) around things like OWS is always "What about Black people?". Well why are black people so damn apathetic now compared to the 60's or 70's. Sh**! God***! Get off your a$$ and jam!!

We shouldn't expect some idealistic white OWS supporter to do all the heavy lifting for us and then complain "where are the black people/issues". Many struggles. Many issues. Get into it and get involved.

CNu said...

Shady Grady is truth and CDV's whining is tiresome as hail...,

This isn't Cobb's Silicon Valley apologia where we know that the afrodemic collective brings nothing of value - because well - the pop-tech market doesn't value identity politics - and - the identity politics collective within academia doesn't really do pop-tech in any meaningful way...,

Surely, if your bodies are on the line, and you participate fully in the occupations, then your interests as participants in a materially democratizing movement are instantiated and expressed, unless of course we are to conclude that Micah White done some how sold out, right?

Or, should we conclude that the 21st century responsible negroes are the real sell-outs because they have NO SKIN IN THE OCCUPY MOVEMENT WHATSOEVER - and have contributed nothing of value to the same, but sit safely paid on the sidelines as part of the paid MSM democratic political machine to sow division in the ranks of the core occupy movement?

ish said...

Chauncey I have to say that with my own personal experience of OWS movements in NYC that you're setting up a bit of a strawman. Of course the movement is going to struggle over race, I mean the whole country needs to struggle over race. But the movement I see is not the group of white hippies or even white students that the media says it is....and I don't see that movement trying to dodge the discussion and orientation that we all agree is necessary. The big rallies absolutely reflect the diversity of NYC back, and from what I see organizers are taking seriously the challenges of creating actions that address different communities.

It's weird that one of your bullet points is about criticizing "developing close working relationships with the police" when the only relationship I see being developed with the police is being at the business end end of a can of pepper spray or a club. It's true that many white people are getting a rude awakening to things black people have always known, but that's a good thing. There's nothing wrong with saying "I told you so," in that context, but I wish that these critiques of OWS you've been running were more about what OWS folks were actually saying than what somebody thinks they might be saying. I think the OWS movement is learning (and teaching!) a pretty healthy lesson about cops right now.

I don't think you should distrust the class focus of OWS. Class and race are deeply deeply connected; but if the self interest of class gets people off their asses to engage in direct democracy and direct action together, then we're in the perfect arena to work together on fixing all the other stuff that's broken too.

Plane Ideas said...

I encountered 'white democracy' during my solidarity here at the Occupy DC site..I still have not yet ran into CNu yet..

Some of them resented the notion that I dominated the applause with my discussion about police oppression and media ..They thought they were the natural and normal leaders just by being white...

I also reminded them that black interests were not just about race related topics and I expect to be in the middle of topics on finance, science, green issues..

Silky Soul Singer said...

@ Shady_Grady and CNu

I'm sorry but... What?!

"Well why are black people so damn apathetic now compared to the 60's or 70's."

This is the query of someone either very young or extremely naive.

Do you really think the majority of black people fought for their humanity during the civil rights struggle?

Here's a dirty little secret. Most Black Americans sat on their asses until the dust settled and then reaped the benefits (while claiming to be down with the cause).

With (what they perceive to be) more to lose today, do you really think most Blacks are going to stick their necks out for what is still an undefined, amorphous movement?

And CNu, CNu, CNu...

Do you know why we haven't seen more police terrorism during the occupations? Because there are no Black heads to bash in.

Video of young whites being pepper-sprayed or beaten by the police provokes outrage in everyone. But especially in other whites.

Let's say the majority of folks in Zuccotti Park had been Black or Brown. Do you think the police would have shown such restraint?

Do you really think the occupation would have lasted this long?

Do you honestly believe that they wouldn't have been labeled as "ghetto thugs" and there wouldn't have been a hue and cry for the police to protect the moneyed interests (as well as the average law-abiding white citizen) from said thugs?


CNu said...

@triple-S - I'm sure there's a microscopic kernal of empirical validity in something you've expressed, I just can's seem to find it.

Do you know why we haven't seen more police terrorism during the occupations? Because there are no Black heads to bash in.b

Not only a lie, but a stupid lie to boot - plenty black folk on the front line, just not at UC Davis.

Let's say the majority of folks in Zuccotti Park had been Black or Brown. Do you think the police would have shown such restraint?


triple-S, you need to blow all that hypothetical smoke out before you choke on it.

if the only thing the afrodemic set has to offer the Occupy movement is narcissistic whining, chalk up yet another dimension of afrodemic impotence and uselessness...,

p.s. I'd pay good money to pepper spray Thrasher my damn self!

Silky Soul Singer said...

@ CNu

No not a lie, or a stupid one. An error in semantics really. I should have typed: "NOT ENOUGH Black heads to bash in."

As such, I stand by my position. Law enforcement has two sets of (unwritten) rules regarding their engagement with white or Black citizens. I'm sure you know this as well as I do.

Also, the fact that you haven't been beaten senseless or pepper sprayed into submission is a testament to the fact that you are surrounded by and protected (consequently, as well as somewhat inadvertently) by your white compeers.

Ridiculing my hypothetical allows you to engage in the puerile fantasy that you are a fully engaged member of this "movement" that seeks to tear down the corrupt power structure by relying simply on the strength of its existence. Not much of an actionable plan I think (Is my contempt showing? Good.).

While the goal is laudable, the means are anything but.

While you currently believe that the needs of the many outweigh those of the few (and rightfully so), I am fairly confident that eventually you'll find that you are not as much a part of the many as you think.

CNu said...

Ridiculing my hypothetical allows you to engage in the puerile fantasy


Oswald Bates is the gift that keeps giving in the encounter with afrodemic thought.

{SMDH} Four decades of academic and public intellectual infestation, and NOTHING tangible to show for it.

What an embarrassment...,

Shady_Grady said...

@Silky, I don't think I wrote anything that you are referencing. I am neither young nor naive but thanks for the assumptions.

What I am saying is that it is incredibly presumptuous as well as a tad lazy to watch as other people get involved in a movement and tell them what their priorities should be. If Black people want to set the agenda, get involved with OWS-as some are-or start their own movement.

Just (metaphorically or literally) sitting on the sidelines giving criticism about where are the black people or why isn't OWS talking about this or that issue is not productive.

And if it's true as if you say that Black people are unwilling to stick their necks out...then they REALLY don't have room to criticize.

The police have been pretty violent as is. Let's say police responses would have been even more violent if more protesters were black. And?
That is the same argument that the Nation used to use in (weakly) explaining why they weren't more involved in protests. Backseat drivers don't get to complain about where the car is going.

Plane Ideas said...


I am not surprised a chatter class coward like you would want to pepper spray me but unlike the white kids who did nothing I would whip your ass to the cadence of some civil rights era negro spirtuals....Go for it pull out your spray gun,lol,lol

Impotent slugs like you who hide behind a government job that adds zero value to the community now has the audacity to lecture others reveals the yoyo we love to laugh at here at WARN..

BTW I still look forward to that lunch date now that i am here in DC not far from your government office:-)

CNu said...

but unlike the white kids who did nothing I would whip your ass


c'mon down and see me then - I'll help you put that crack pipe down and get up out your mama's basement once and for all jiggaboo..,

Plane Ideas said...

Perhaps people of color ignore OWS movements in part because they are smart and understand the impotency of such gatherings ..

I find it interesting the premise of 'they will come if white folks are the model'..

Pundits would often lament why black folks never turn out to vote these opinions never thought to consider that perhas the candidates and issues were shitty and not worthy of our intervention..

I have been on the ground in the OWS venues here in DC & Detroit they are important but of course not the only venues to speak truth to power..

Happy Thanksgiving ALL....Including you CNu hugged the boys for me:-)

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Just (metaphorically or literally) sitting on the sidelines giving criticism about where are the black people or why isn't OWS talking about this or that issue is not productive.

Without opining on the merits of such criticism, I strongly disagree with this general form of argument, which seeks to invalidate analysis and criticism of a human activity solely on the basis of whether they are being given by an individual who participates in the activity. It is logically fallacious; the relevant question is whether the analysis is correct and the criticism apt, not who it is coming from.