Efforts by groups like Occupy the Hood, a network formed by activists in New York and Detroit to bring more people of color into the Occupy Wall Street movement, are diversifying the conversation about the other 99 percent. This “occupying together” has its benefits for whites and people of color. People of color see connections between their concerns and the messages of this emerging movement, and the movement provides a new opportunity to draw attention to causes they care about such as their enduring struggle for economic and social equality. The movement also can learn much from people of color’s efforts, which include securing government investments and protections among other strategies.
Black and brown people’s link to the conversation is overwhelmingly clear, and tends to inform white America of its future. Our groups are often the most affected by emerging trends, such as declines in living wage jobs and rising unemployment, first, as the so-called “canaries in the coal mine.”
The Occupy Wall Street protesters are crying out against economic inequality, for instance. People of color already know this issue all too well. Consider that on average, African Americans earn 73 cents and Hispanics 69 cents for every $1.00 made by white Americans, many of whom are also struggling to provide a decent living for their families. And when it comes to the mortgage crisis, borrowers of color were more than 30 percent more likely to receive higher-rate loans even after accounting for credit ratings and other assessments of risk.
Then there are the predatory payday loans and education debt. Black college grads are the most likely to hold high levels of education debt.
But the conversation could go much deeper than that. Our groups are long tied to calls for government intervention in commercial activity—which is certainly an option for the current movement. When African Americans were literally bought and sold, for example, government needed to end the practice. And with Jim Crow, Chinese American labor and the railroads, and the modern-day immigration debate—situations in which the second-class status of certain groups allowed (and allows) for economic exploitation—government intervention was and is a necessity.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters speak of government’s failure to protect the basic economic rights of its people. For many years, people of color have remained outspoken about this issue from the civil rights movement all the way to the immigration and voting rights protection fights of today—with little response. To a degree, we all feel alienation from government because progress is hard to accomplish.
To be clear: When we talk about why people of color should feel a particularly strong connection to the 99 Percent Movement, we are not trying to be divisive or engage in some sort of one-upmanship about who has suffered more. Rather, we think it brings up a couple of points about the value of occupying together.
First, by definition, the 99 percent are a diverse group of people racially, culturally, regionally, and due to other important categories such as income, education level, and politics (certainly some are farther left than others). There is great potential to add strength to existing efforts and move more mountains by engaging more of these groups in the national dialogue over the 99 percent. The best way to do this is to reach each group where the connection is most real for them—this current piece focuses generally on people of color but the concept extends to other societal categories.
Second, hopefully the movement is starting a serious dialogue about building a solid middle class and opportunities for upward mobility for everyone—and this should mean ensuring that such progress will tackle historic and continuing racial inequities. Occupy Wall Street could embody a collective effort to promote issues that have historically affected specific subgroups.
Finally, we can look back on racial justice movements and recognize past and present strategies that did and did not work. This reflection also provides clear-cut and powerful examples that can be used by advocates to demonstrate how sometimes the good of the nation and its people warrants government intervention into private business interests. The most vivid include those cited above—slavery and Jim Crow laws, among others. Such examples illustrate that the world won’t come to an end if government regulates private commercial activity—in fact, it can lead to better outcomes and an elevation of our stature on the world stage.
Occupying together has the potential to demonstrate the good that can come from positively embracing diversity—strength in numbers and wisdom that stems from learning about one another’s experiences.
Joy Moses is a Senior Policy Analyst and Jasmin Jones is the Special Assistant for External Affairs at American Progress.