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.
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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?