Some thoughts on Whiteness and the 99%

I have some disagreements with Joel Olson’s article, “Whiteness and the 99%”, but I will start with some agreements.

I agree that “biologically speaking, there’s no such thing as race.”

I have some disagreements with Joel Olson’s article, “Whiteness and the 99%”, but I will start with some agreements.

I agree that “biologically speaking, there’s no such thing as race.”

I agree that the 99% should struggle against “school segregation, colonization, redlining, and anti-immigrant attacks.” I agree that people should not be dismissive of demands for racial justice, consider police violence, and focus on behaviours of banks and governments that have disproportionally harmed Black and Latin American (and indigenous) communities.

In other words, I agree with the antiracist agenda that Olson advocates that the occupy movements should follow.

My disagreements are analytical, but they have some implications.

The history of racism that Olson outlines is not accurate: “Race was created in America in the late 1600s in order to preserve the land and power of the wealthy. Rich planters in Virginia feared what might happen if indigenous tribes, slaves, and indentured servants united and overthrew them.”

Anti-semitism, thinking about purity of bloodlines, demonizing people as “barbarian tribes”, and caste systems, all predate the 16th century and the United States, and go back to Europe. Other societies (India, for example) had their own caste systems, divisions between conqueror and conquered, and divisions between in- and out-groups. For the point Olson is making about the US antiracist struggle, the broad strokes he uses could be adequate, but particular antiracist struggles should be informed by more accurate history.

Olson is arguing, after all, that histories and legacies of racism create a real division within the 99% that cannot be wished away, but must instead be dealt with in an integrative way so that the 99% struggle simultaneously against the class divide and the race divide. But if, in fact, there is not one race divide but several, then Olson’s argument applies within the “non-white” group as well (this is why I once argued that “people of color talk is cheap”. Nonwhite immigrants who have citizenship status are in a very different position than those who lack such status, and potentially also in a privileged position relative to Black and indigenous people. This makes Olson’s suggested slogan, “People of color at the center!”, insufficient. Some people of color are privileged relative to others. Worse, if the slogan is “people of color at the center!”, the “center” will likely be filled with the most privileged people in that category – the situation Olson wants to prevent happening between whites and nonwhites will happen within the nonwhite category.

The importance of not assuming away division applies even more to Olson’s diagram about class and race (which isn’t a good model for data visualization – see flowingdata for some good examples). In that diagram, there is virtually no nonwhite in the capitalist class. Globally, this is false – from Carlos Slim to the Ambanis, there are numerous nonwhite (ie., who would be considered nonwhite in the US) billionaires energetically plundering the globe. Dipping down below the billionaire level and into the 1%, you will still find plenty of nonwhites. Indeed, while Olson discusses the alliance between the white capitalist class and the white working class, which he calls “white democracy”, today’s imperialism involves alliances between whites and nonwhites in the wealthy countries against the poor in the poor countries. The interplay between racism, class hierarchy, and imperialism cannot be captured in Olson’s diagram. At the very least, keeping Olson’s diagram intact, a modification is in order to add some nonwhite to the capitalist class.

I agree that “left colorblindness” can be an enemy, though I don’t think it is *the* enemy. Is it, for example, more of an enemy than saying that men and women are in the 99% together, and thereby ignoring gender? Or ability? Or queer identity? Or immigration status? The divide between indigenous and settler? Or the relationship between the US and the rest of the world? Racism is complex, and racism is not the only oppression. So, the call to put “people of color at the center” cannot be adopted without recognition of these complexities.

What is exciting about the occupy movements isn’t that it is ignoring these divisions, but that it might, might, actually create something that is greater than the politics based on coalitions of coalitions that leftists in North America have been doing – for at least the 10 years that I have personal experience of – without much success. While the way forward is never to pretend oppressions don’t exist, we are also not, and refuse to be, just what racism, sexism, capitalism, and imperialism have made us. It is true that “the only thing that can stop us is us.” Adopting left colorblindness would be an error, but so would adopting what you might call people-of-color blindness. The 99% have a great deal to do, including developing new ways of waging anti-racism and new ideas of integrated struggle.

Justin Podur

Author: Justin Podur

Author of Siegebreakers. Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.