Post-Civil Rights Racism and OWS: Dealing with Color-Blind Ideology

Many racism theorists believe that color-blind ideology, which became prominent during the late 1960s-early 1970s, is the dominant racist ideology of the 21st century, becoming. Unlike earlier racist ideologies, color-blind ideology rests on the seemingly positive belief that we should not judge one another by the color of our skin. In fact, we should not notice skin color at all. This kind of thinking has a way of translating into racism-evasiveness so that not only do we try to deny differences in skin color; we deny the existence and significance of racism. In 2004, I examined how this ideology influenced the strategies of progressive grassroots organizations. In this essay, I will address how Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was affected by color-blind ideology and how they successfully challenged it in a way few other organizations have. I will also address new challenges the larger Occupy movement is facing where racism and color-blind ideology is concerned. Before I examine these issues, I should first provide a background on color-blind ideology and social movement organizations.

Unlike organizations of the 1960s that tackled a more overt form of racism, movements in the post-Civil Rights movement era must battle a less tangible, more subtle form of racism, one upheld by ideologies of denial. Thus, in my work, I struggled with a paradox: How could progressive organizations challenge racism in a society that denied its existence? Or, as Robert Smith wrote about color-blind ideology, “How can one propose specific policies or programs to deal with what cannot be seen or what one refuses to see or acknowledge even when it is seen?”1

My study drew on three years of ethnographic data collected on an interracial social movement union organization and its corresponding community-labor coalition in a Northeastern city. My findings suggest that members of interracial organizations strategically deploy a racially unified, color-blind identity; one that minimizes the significance of racism in order to maintain solidarity. Even though activists in these organizations saw working against racial injustice as part of their agendas, they feared addressing or discussing it explicitly. These findings differ from much of the past work on color-blind ideology, which looks at what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “race-talk”2 or clever rhetorical strategies conservatives and liberals alike use to deny the importance of racism in contemporary society. The people in the organization and coalition I studied understood the importance of racism and never tried to deny it. In fact, people of color made up the majority of these groups and many of the members had sophisticated knowledge systems on racism.3 However, members avoided explicit discussion on racism for the sake of solidarity and felt that they did not need to talk about racism, because they addressed it in their actions. In other words, since they “walked the walk” they did not need to “talk the talk.”

The avoidance of explicit talk on racism is influenced partially by internal organizational culture and partially by external racist culture. But it is also fueled by anti-intellectualism and American ideologies of pragmatism that devalue talk. There is an attitude in the US that we should not waste time talking; we should just fix the problem. We saw this in the media’s handling of OWS. Early on reporters asked, “What do you want?” “What are your demands?” The roots of the systemic problems OWS was fighting could not be eradicated by taking action with some quick list of demands. The kind of systemic change this country needs and that activists continue to fight for requires serious talk. With OWS, we have seen the importance of talk in their ability to avoid color-blind approaches. Specifically, we saw this with the development of their declaration.

The General Assembly at OWS originally put out a declaration that stated, “As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or lack thereof, political party and cultural background, we acknowledge the reality: that there is only one race, the human race, and our survival requires the cooperation of its members.” Manissa McCleave Maharawal, one of the people who blocked the declaration, writes in Racialicious that she felt uncomfortable especially with the language on being one human race. When she and what she calls a “radical South Asian contingency” approached the person who originally wrote the declaration, he argued that this part of the statement was “scientifically true.” She writes, “No we needed to tell him about privilege and racism and oppression and how these things still existed, both in the world and someplace like Occupy Wall Street.”4 After the declaration was blocked, the group went back to work on it. Now, the declaration reads, “As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members” and goes onto name discrimination based on ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and age as a significant issue. Sticking to the color-blind declaration might have been the quick and easy route to take, but OWS chose not to follow that path.

Recently, we have seen new challenges for OWS. Some indigenous people originally enthused by Occupy Wall Street felt betrayed by its uncritical celebration of Thanksgiving, especially since activists in seemingly more conservative areas, such as Louisville, Kentucky used Thanksgiving Day to acknowledge a history of imperialism and colonization in the US. Occupy Louisville’s meeting minutes indicate that members wanted to send a letter to OWS stating that they disagreed with the celebration of Thanksgiving. At the meeting, one member implored the General Assembly to “Keep in mind the origins of Thanksgiving and that we are living on previously Occupied land.”5 Other groups, such as Occupy Boston, shared Louisville’s perspective. In fact, Occupy Boston recognized Columbus Day as a national day of mourning and ratified a memorandum of solidarity with indigenous people on October 28th.

There have also been several other movements by indigenous people to rename Occupies. In Occupy Oakland, for example, a proposal to change the name to Decolonize Oakland failed, receiving 68% of the vote (a consensus of 90% was needed for the proposal to pass).  Afterwards, disappointed supporters of the name change began chanting “Decolonize Oakland!” In support of the name change, one woman argued, “If this conversation has made you uncomfortable, welcome to my fucking world!”6

What happened at Occupy Oakland and the response by indigenous people to OWS’s Thanksgiving celebration exemplified one of the central dilemmas of taking a racism-evasive or color-blind approach. Emphasizing that “we are all in this together,” while well-intentioned, can actually promote exclusiveness rather than inclusiveness. The color-blind identity of “the 99%” is powerful and necessary to move a large base, but the reality is that not everyone in that 99% is affected equally by Wall Street’s greed. Conversations about how current arrangements affect people differently need to be held as do talks about potentially exclusive language. That will not be easy. As one member who challenged the original OWS declaration asserted, “Let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilarating. Every single time it is hard.”7 Likewise, it will not be comfortable for European Americans in the movement to talk explicitly about white privilege and white racism. But OWS captivated the world with their non-hierarchical, horizontal approach that respected everyone and refused to shut down discussion. It is arguably the best prepared organization to successfully battle against the color-blind ideology that has immobilized many other organizations.

The avoidance of color-blind language in the final OWS declaration is promising. Now, activists must be careful as the Occupy/Decolonize Movement unfolds. Will there be a serious re-evaluation of the presumably racist language used to describe the movement? Or, as one Oakland member suspected, will European Americans in the movement remain emotionally attached to the capitalist idea of branding?8 This movement is dynamic and that is its advantage. Scholars and activists interested in the success of the movement will need to understand the naming debate and how the larger racist culture of color-blind ideology affects it. In the long run, it is my hope that members in this movement will have the courage to resist the comfort that comes with racism-evasiveness, and they will continue to have the painful, but necessary racism-centered talks that are essential to true equality.

Notes

1. Smith, Robert C. 1995. Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era: Now You See It, Now You Don’t. Albany: State University of New York Press.

2. Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2001. White Supremacy & Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

3. Essed, Philomena. 1991. Understanding Everyday Racism: An Interdisciplinary Theory. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

4. McCleave Maharawal, Manissa,“So Real, It Hurts: Notes on Occupy Wall Street.” Racialicious , Oct. 3, 2011, www.racialicious.com/2011/10/03/so-real-it-hurts-notes-on-occupy-wall-street/.

5. Meeting Minutes from Occupy Louisville, Nov. 24, 2011.

6. From the discussion of a proposal to change the name of Occupy to Decolonize, Oakland, CA, Dec. 4, 2011. www.truth-out.org/campaign-decolonize-native-americans-say-occupy-terminology-offensive/1325089484 

7. McCleave Maharawal, Manissa. 2011 (note 4).

8. Open Letter (note 6).

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