The Utility of Elevating Critical Race Theory within the Occupy Movements

      Why should we want to elevate critical race theory within the Occupy movements? This is a logical question because while the Occupy movements are associated with the rejection of many forms of oppression, they have not coalesced around race or ethnicity issues. Critical race practitioners ought to focus on the room that the Occupy movements opened up for national conversations about racial justice.

      The Occupy movements provide an opportunity to distract those deeply invested in white supremacy from their steadfast opposition to racial equality to begin appreciating the toxic impact of racism on us all. The role of critical race theorists may be to articulate racial justice messages in the broader context of corporate greed, which may create an inroad to critique racism, albeit indirectly. The reason for this indirect approach is that corporate greed's relationship to race may be a critique that some in the largely white corporate community can hear and understand. Ansley reminds us:

       [T]his is the reason white people resist an end to white supremacy. They have a real stake in the system and, with the exception of a few idiosyncratic and often not very reliable defectors, they will fight to defend it. The explanation, then, for the halt of the civil rights movement is simply the entrenched power of resistant whites who refuse to give up further privileges.

      While white people often have a significant interest in capitalist success, an assault on capitalism may not be seen as an assault on white supremacy. In this way critiques of capital may function as a necessary subversive attack on white supremacy under the veil of a more benign critical agenda. After all, we should not confuse racial supremacy for capitalist supremacy, no matter how closely they are related or how closely they resemble each other. As a result, the Occupy movements unwittingly opened up doors for progressives to advance critical race theory arguments under the guise of capitalism critiques. Direct challenges to white supremacy are wrought with difficulty, particularly because of the reactionary forces they draw, and although progressives may feel they are being disingenuous to their own principles, the potential effectiveness of this approach cannot be denied. There is nothing wrong with covert action.

      This approach may be successful. At the very least we should not not do it, given the current state of racial justice politics, and in the spirit of political innovation inspired by racial justice movements. Richard Delgado writes:

       [L]egal reforms that grew out of the civil rights movement were severely limited by the ideological constraints embedded within the law and dictated by ‘needs basic to the preservation of the class structure.’ These ideological pillars supporting the class structure were simultaneously repositories of racial domination and obstacles to the fundamental reordering of society ... A legal strategy that does not include redistribution of wealth cannot remedy one of the most significant aspects of racial domination.

      Delgado reminds us that the Occupy movements may be seen as addressing an issue that is central to the progressive quest to promote racial equality, in which a battle against poverty and against accumulation is not not a battle against race simply because it fails to exclusively focus on race. It is possible, while the Occupy movement's impression is still tender, that racial justice can still enter America's inequality discussion. Ultimately, the insidious economic violence of the status quo has rendered people of color, in many instances, no better off than when economic violence was less well-hidden.

      In fact, critical race founders have argued that a narrow focus on equality or more appropriately--on the explicit signs of inequality--may be antithetical to their goals because a narrow focus may deny the complex manifestations and realities of racism. As Kimberle Crenshaw notes:

       The narrow focus of racial exclusion--that is, the belief that racial exclusion is illegitimate only where the ‘White Only’ signs are explicit-- coupled with strong assumptions about equal opportunity, makes it difficult to move the discussion of racism beyond the societal self-satisfaction engendered by the appearance of neutral norms and formal inclusion.

      If progressives limit racial justice conversations to the standard repertoire of racial discrimination, within this “post-racial” period, then they are bound to tread the same colorblind waters that deny racism's power today. Joining forces with the Occupy movements would be an opportunity to move the cause of racial equality and social justice forward.