Perhaps, as they are reduced to a fraction of a citizen, other Americans now catch a glimpse of what it means to be codified as only three-fifths of a person. Melissa Harris-Perry, “Are We All Black Americans Now?”
In March of this year, Melissa Harris-Perry poignantly observed that much of what has fueled widespread political outrage–whether rising unemployment, intrusive security screenings, or lack of democratic representation–has been normal life for African-Americans. To put it even more strongly: the situations that outraged White citizens only came to Black people after decades and centuries of struggle. As Harris-Perry says,
Few events more clearly demonstrated the blackening of America than the standoff in Wisconsin. Like the nineteenth-century leaders of Southern states who stripped black citizens of voting rights, public accommodation and civic associations, Wisconsin’s Republican majority dismantled the hard-won basic rights of Wisconsin workers. Like those Confederate leaders, the Wisconsin GOP used intimidation, threats and even the police against demonstrators and rival officials. As the saga unfolded, many Wisconsin citizens felt stunned that their once-secure rights might be eliminated. For a moment, perhaps, they glimpsed the experience of black men and women who watched the shadow of Jim Crow blot out the promises of emancipation.
The key phrase falls at the very end: the promises, not the once secure rights, were lost.
Janell Ross has recently written that Occupy Wall Street doesn’t adequately represent the “struggling Black population.” The ambiguity of the phrase is important, for she claims both that struggling African-Americans are not represented as leaders in the movement and also that their struggles were and are not adequately taken into account as the movement formed and continues to progress.
The problem is not one of “identity politics,” whereby for a social movement to be valid it has to include representatives from every possible configuration of marginality. The problem is that, as Harris-Perry alludes to in the epigraph, representative American democracy was forged as a slave holding state. Reigning in the gross inequality in wealth and the undemocratic power of multinational corporations could happen and the end result be the rescue of white persons from their brief experience of Black life.
I support Occupy Wall Street; I am thrilled to see people fighting against the ridiculous inequalities in income, wealth, and political power. However, for Occupy Wall Street to “adequately represent” African-Americans–in both senses, I suspect–it’s going to need to see Wall Street not as the endgame or focal point but a strategic symbolic location to pry open and attack racist-capitalism. I’m sure you might spark some more non-white interest if you stated that any attempt to fix the wealth gap between “the 1%” and the “99%” has to be structured within a project to fix the racial disparity of wealth.
The median wealth of white U.S. households in 2009 was $113,149, compared with $6,325 for Hispanics and $5,677 for blacks, according to the analysis released…by the Pew Research Center. (Wealth Gap between Whites, Minorities Widens).
If Occupy Wall Street can be seen as a forceful protest against the descent of “the social, economic and political conditions that have long defined African-American life…onto a broader population” (Harris-Perry), then the goal should be clarified: it’s not an attempt to restore representative democracy but to attack the racist-capitalist state. I put it as a negation to do justice to the difficulty of coming up with a positive list of demands: one is not trying to restore a lost past, reclaim a tarnished ideal, or tweak a fairly functional system that has gone awry; one is trying to overcome an anti-Black world. As Césaire wonderfully puts it:
What can I do?
One must begin somewhere.
The only thing in the world worth beginning:
The End of the world of course.
I suggest that demanding the U.S. address the racial inequality of wealth–including the various structures, institutions, codes, policies, and powers that reinforce it–is a place to begin this ending (and focusing on the racial disparity of wealth forces us to deal with the patriarchal and heterosexist norms that undergird racist wealth creation and transfer in the US and abroad).
What do you think? As is wonderfully clear from Occupy Wall Street, we can’t even think, let alone address these problems alone.