Occupy Wall Street might seem like a movement that would resonate with black Americans. After all, unemployment among African Americans is at 15 percent, vs. almost 8 percent for whites. And between 2005 and 2009, black households lost just over half of their median net worth compared with white families, who lost 16 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
However, these numbers have not translated into action. A few prominent African Americans, such as Cornel West, Russell Simmons, Kanye West and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), have made appearances at Occupy protests. “Occupy the Hood,” a recent offshoot, has tried to get more people of color involved. But the main movement remains overwhelmingly white: A Fast Company survey last month found that African Americans, who are 12.6 percent of the U.S. population, make up only 1.6 percent of Occupy Wall Street.
African Americans share white Americans’ anger about corporate greed and corruption, and blacks have a rich history of protesting injustice in United States. So why aren’t they Occupying?
“Occupy Wall Street was started by whites and is about their concern with their plight,” Nathalie Thandiwe, a radio host and producer for WBAI in New York, said in an interview. “Now that capitalism isn’t working for ‘everybody,’ some are protesting.”
From America’s birthing pains to the civil rights protests of the 1960s, blacks have never been afraid to fight for economic or social justice. Crispus Attucks, a former slave and the first person killed by British soldiers in the Boston Massacre of 1770, is considered the first martyr of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass, a slave turned abolitionist, stressed in the 19th century that black and white laborers’ fortunes and freedom were intertwined, saying that white labor “was robbed” of fair wages so long as it competed with unpaid black slaves.
In 1969, James Forman, former executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a civil rights organization, called on blacks to not perpetuate capitalism or contribute to the exploitation of blacks in the United States and elsewhere. He urged black workers to take over America by sabotaging U.S. factories and ports “while the brothers fight guerrilla warfare in the street.” And Huey Newton and the Black Panther Party renounced the American Dream as defective and called for the destruction of the capitalist system.
Blacks have historically suffered the income inequality and job scarcity that the Wall Street protesters are now railing against. Perhaps black America’s absence is sending a message to the Occupiers: “We told you so! Nothing will change. We’ve been here already. It’s hopeless.”
While the black press and civil rights groups such as the NAACP and the National Urban League were critical to past protest movements, black churches were the organizational force behind the rhetoric. Church leaders mobilized famous names and unsung heroes to end segregation through meetings, marches, demonstrations, boycotts and sit-ins. But where is the church now?
Some argue that the black church is losing its relevance, especially among young people who have been turned off by the religious theater of celebrity preachers. Even after lenders were accused of targeting black churches and communities as fertile markets for subprime mortgages, these churches are not joining Occupy protests en masse.
And despite their inclusive mission statements, major civil rights organizations and leaders appear to be selling out black America for corporate money. Beginning in the 1980s, for example, the tobacco and alcohol industries meticulously cultivated relationships with leaders of black communities. Institutions such as the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund and the Congressional Black Caucus have counted those industries as major donors — at the expense of the health of the black community.
More recently, the Congressional Black Caucus and other civil rights groups have received strong financial backing from telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Comcast. These firms support regulations that would be barriers to the goal of universal Internet access, stifling economic opportunity for black communities. We can’t expect our civil rights organizations and political leaders to help blacks rage against the corporate machine when they are part of it.
And what about Jay-Z and other hip-hop stars? For all their influence on American culture, they haven’t tackled big challenges such as poverty, police brutality, voting disenfranchisement and the racist prison complex. Jay-Z hasn’t shown up at any Occupy gatherings, but his clothing company appears to be trying to capitalize on the protest wave. Rocawear is peddling “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts for $22 a pop — with no plans to donate profits to the movement.
Beyond a lack of leaders to inspire them to join the Occupy fold, blacks are not seeing anything new for themselves in the movement. Why should they ally with whites who are just now experiencing the hardships that blacks have known for generations? Perhaps white Americans are now paying the psychic price for not answering the basic questions that blacks have long raised about income inequality.
New Jersey comedian John “Alter Negro” Minus says he won’t participate in the Occupy protests because black people are being besieged by so many social injustices, he can’t get behind targeting just the 1 percent.
Banks’ bad behavior “just gets lost in the sauce, so to speak,” Minus said. “High joblessness and social disenfranchisement is new to most of the Wall Street protesters. It’s been a fact of life for African Americans since the beginning. I actually think black people are better served by staying out of the protests. Civil disobedience will only further the public perception that black people like to cause trouble.”
Is there a chance that the movement can become more diverse? Leslie Wilson, a professor of African American history at Montclair State University, is not optimistic.
“Occupy Wall Street cannot produce enough change to encourage certain types of black participation,” Wilson said in an interview. “The church cannot get enough blacks out on the streets. Some students will go, but not the masses. Black folks, particularly older ones, do not think that this is going to lead to change. . . . This generation has already been beaten down and is hurting. They are not willing to risk what little they have for change. Those who are wealthier are not willing to risk and lose.”
Black America’s fight for income equality is not on Wall Street, but is a matter of day-to-day survival. The more pressing battles are against tenant evictions, police brutality and street crime. This group doesn’t see a reason to join the amorphous Occupiers.
But if the Occupy movement does not grow in solidarity with other constituencies of exploited and oppressed people, and if black America does not devise new leadership strategies to deal with today’s problems, the truth of Frederick Douglass’s wisdom will hold — the powerful undertow of race and class in America will keep both blacks and whites from being free.
Stacey Patton is the author of the memoir “That Mean Old Yesterday.”
Read more from Outlook:
Occupy This: Six other targets for the movement
Why Occupy Wall Street will keep up the fight
Does America need Wall Street?