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Nick J. Sciullo

From:  Nick J. Sciullo, Social Justice in Turbulent Times: Critical Race Theory & Occupy Wall Street, 69 National Lawyers Guild Review 225 (Winter 2012) (58 Footnotes)

      These are precarious times--a moment that demands our full attention as critical scholars, practitioners, activists, and students. While some political commentators say that leftist criticism and direct action are steadily becoming more common and visible, especially as it relates to law, critical thought and action remain strongly condemned by an ever conservative American public. We do not have to look any further than the nightly news where skepticism about and anxiety of leftist “radicals” is often welcomed, which then infiltrates discussions with our friends, family, and colleagues.

      Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy movements have coalesced around feelings of powerlessness, contempt, and anger in the face of corporate violence--a violence that is all too real for not only wage laborers and the working poor, but also for the growing numbers of middle class workers. Indeed, as the National Lawyers Guild's past President David Gespass has written:

       This is the season to support the growing resistance to the rule of monopoly capital. It is not for us to decide the form that resistance should take, nor to dictate the direction it will go. Our obligation is to give that resistance room to breathe, expand and grow.

      But this must be tempered by the solemn words of French psychoanalyst, Elisabeth Roudinesco, who writes:

       We are certainly living in strange times. The commemoration of great events, great men, great intellectual achievements, and great virtues never stops ... And yet never have revisionist attacks on the foundations of every discipline, every doctrine, every emancipatory adventure enjoyed such prestige. Feminism, socialism, and psychoanalysis are violently rejected, and Freud, Marx, and Nietzsche are pronounced dead, along with every critique of the norm.

      These strange times feel strange for most of us on the left, wherever we may fall on this constantly shifting terrain. Our success may seem more apparent or even more frequent, but the path is long and the struggle hard.

      For people of color, however, there are fewer signs of success than in mainstream leftist battles. Today, people of color are fighting on new fronts of institutionalized racism: mass incarceration, so-called colorblindness, and post-racialism. These conditions add to the already near-lethal weight of slavery and colonialist histories, re-segregation, job discrimination, and broken education systems. The picture is bleak.

      In this brief article, I want to address the unique moment in which progressive movements find themselves, as well as the ways in which the progressive community can more effectively engage a broader range of people, including communities of color and white working-class communities. It is finally time for progressives to move beyond litigation reformist strategies and embrace leftist activism on all fronts. I argue that the Occupy movements represent a positive politics of struggle from which activists can learn. Specifically, they provide an opportunity for leftists to come to grips with, and intentionally correct, the mistreatment of people of color in anti-capitalist leftist struggle.

      Social justice in turbulent times? Yes. A future of possibility? Absolutely.

Race And Occupy Wall Street

      Race is one of the least explored facets of the Occupy movements. That it is so seldom mentioned is telling, because the omission speaks to the often colorblind criticism of capital from most socialist and Marxist activists. Omission of race is problematic, especially when critiquing capitalism and its central tenets. Racism and capitalism are intimately tied together and mutually reinforcing. A new movement that ignores one or the other is worth a closer look. For instance, would historians consider slavery without looking at the economics of the plantation? Or, would a discussion of Northern racism during World War II make much sense without examining the economics that led to the Great (Black) Migration? These examples show how rejecting capitalism without explicitly rejecting racism is a shallow critique at best. During this shifting political moment the question becomes whether the Occupy movements will fall into this same trap of privileging class at the exclusion of race or will they manage to popularly link the logic of oppression that shape both capitalism and racism?

      At first blush, the Occupy movements appear to have avoided the trap of privileging class over and exclusive of race, at least according to the nightly news and newspaper photos. It appears that people of all races are involved and interested in critiquing capitalism's excesses. My own observations of Occupy Atlanta at Woodruff Park are that the movement was diverse not only in racial make-up, but also in age, socioeconomic background, ethnicity, family life, employment, and education.

      That being said, I do not know to what degree people of color really were integrated into Occupy Atlanta. Simply occupying the same space in a public park seems to be a poor way to consider whether a movement is diverse. The occupants of Woodruff Park were largely people of color before Occupy Atlanta. To claim diversity by overshadowing people who already occupied the park is dishonest (unless they intentionally opted to participate in some way). If Occupy Atlanta lacked a diverse racial presence without park occupants it is more than a stretch to describe it as a “diverse social movement.”

      A revealing story, which suggests that Occupy Atlanta struggled with racial integration, is the participants' failure to let Representative John Lewis participate as a speaker. Of course, John Lewis is an ardent civil rights leader who is deservedly counted amongst people like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy. The failure to include Representative Lewis among speakers reeks of a loss of history and the continuation of a racially discriminatory past. It is possible that Representative Lewis was denied the opportunity to address the crowd not because of racism, but because Occupy Atlanta sought to keep the movement free of the influence of celebrities or government figures or because participants failed to recognize who Rep. Lewis was (unsettling for a number of reasons, but also because John Lewis is the member of Congress who represents the district in which Woodruff Park, the site of Occupy Atlanta) and the list could go on. Nonetheless, the incident represents a low point in Occupy Atlanta's history.

      My observation about the marked absence of people of color at Occupy Atlanta echoes criticisms made by others of the Occupy movements across the country. Fordham University found 68 percent of Occupy Wall Street protestors were white compared with only 10 percent Black participants and 10 percent Latino participants. Indeed, many of the people of color seem to be coming from the middle class, which is also not truly representative of those impacted by capitalism's excesses.

      There must be inclusion of people of color in the Occupy movements. It is not sufficient (although certainly helpful and no doubt appreciated) for white college students and young professionals to rail against a system from which many of them have benefited. Without including people of color who have suffered a continuous deluge of oppression from their families' first forced steps into this country the movement's credibility rings hollow. To be sure, credit cards and college loans, car loans, sub-prime mortgages, and the like have weighed heavily on the middle class but these instruments of capital slavery pale in comparison to the legacy of racial oppression in this country.

      At the same time to suggest that the growing numbers of voices that are critical of capitalism are primarily comprised of a narrow group of people would be incorrect. Anti-capitalism critique is popular, although the kind and tone of such critiques take many different forms. Therefore, while we may be inclined to think the Occupy movements are composed largely of whites, largely students or young people because media indulges these convenient stereotypes, to do so would gloss over the diversity of those who have historically, and continue to reject capitalism. Even conservatives, many of whom are libertarians or Tea Party members, became involved in the Occupy movements for the same reasons as others--to reject corporate greed and the destructive overlapping interests of the United States government and the private national economy.

      For example, at Occupy Oakland, Angela Davis argued that the Occupy movement implicitly rejects capitalism because capitalism is a racist set of relationships. Davis and many other activists and thinkers of color have long-argued this point. The United States, after all, was literally built on slaves' and immigrants' backs at their expense--an expense paid by blood. History shows us that early European imperialism was concerned not only with economic domination, but also racial domination. Imperialism was not simply about economic greed; it was also about destroying the dark Other. Ricky Lee Allen describes the danger of “Class-First” movements:

       By focusing on the identity politics between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the class-focus of class-first analysis misses much of the racialized identity politics that are just as global but arguably more significant in magnitude.

      A focus on class can blind us to the pernicious effects of racialization, which often works in tandem to perpetuate the capitalist machine. Progressives must embrace diverse identities to truly challenge capitalism and racism. A progressive movement succeeds not when it is myopic, but when it is broad-based. For example, Bronx organizers making the trip to Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan were unsettled by the largely white, young, and middle-class participants. Why? Because the 99 percent are largely of color and poor, at least in terms of percentages. This reality should call many white and middle-class Occupy movement leaders to evaluate what it means to be the now famous “99 percent.” In an encouraging sign, many Occupy movement participants and outsiders called this representation issue to question. They are asking this: why do the most visible parts of capitalism critiques continue not to embrace at best, or actively exclude at worst, people of color who are worst affected by arguably the most racist set of relationships--capitalism--in the United States?

      Some Occupy leaders pointed out the movements' singular focus on capitalism. While critiquing capital is certainly important, racism is often the most pressing concern for people of color. Occupy participant, Frank Diamond, a Haitian-American simplifies the issue: “‘It takes a wave to realize that the boat you have been riding is too small. We need to be represented here too. This is about us, too.”’ Similarly, activists like Malik Rhassan and Ife Johari Uhuru, Occupy the Hood and Occupy Harlem founders, sought to elevate the experiences of people of color within the growing national economic justice conversation. The struggles to continue to integrate the different strands of the movement--one that is white-dominated and others created by people of color who experienced Occupy as hostile or exclusionary.

      We ought to recognize that aside from lauding these sister movements as advances for revolutionary people of color, they are also strong critiques of the mainstream fringe that represents many of the Occupy movements. They critique the protests already going on and seek to establish a space that has been excluded from what might be generally seen by progressives as a “good movement.” The reality is that Occupy Wall Street did not begin as a movement about race. To read a racial justice agenda into the movement at its origins would be to rewrite history. That being said, a focus on race was eventually brought into the fold by including people of color, particularly in the smaller Occupy movements. Inclusion helps. It is the proverbial step in the right direction, but self-correction should not absolve the sins of history, which should be a lesson to other Occupy movements across the country.

      More work must be done to include a racial analysis of and integrate people of color into the Occupy movements and frankly most other visible “progressive” movements. It has become clear that diversity is a problem, and also clear that some in the Occupy movements have at least acknowledged this issue. While the Occupy movements are a protest in favor of social justice, more attention should be paid to the lack of the movement's diversity on its longevity, success, and impact on issues. Critical race theorists have begun such a political project, playing a vital role in developing sharp critiques about various movements' and communities' failures to center race, yet questions remain about the future of such projects in a political climate that demands bold action alongside bold analysis.

The Future of Critical Race Theory

      What we need is a future of, and for, critical race theory. Although critical race scholars have seen much in critical race theory's evolution and application across disciplines in the literature, we have done little to articulate a future for critical race theory. The progressive community has done well to articulate where critical race theory has been, but not where it is going. This is expected because, as National Lawyers Guild National Vice President Mumia Abu-Jamal has written: “[T]he law looks backward for its precedents. I think we are in a new era of social movements where the precedents will fall short of where society needs to Abu-Jamal's insight is an imperative--progressives must answer this call.

      Why is a future so important? To advance a theory we must have a notion of where it will go--not necessarily in terms of a final destination but in terms of a condition of possibility. The goal of any theoretical project must be to advance the understanding of not only the past and present, but also the future. To think without an eye to the future is to think without a future.

      Critical race theory has made tremendous strides in articulating a deeper understanding of social justice; in articulating an evolving understanding of slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights movement, criminal law, post-racialism, identity politics, etc. Derrick Bell writes: “Despite our best efforts to control or eliminate it, oppression on the basis of race returns time after time--in different guises, but it always returns. That all the formal or aspirational structure in the world can't mask the racial reality of the last three His words are a reminder that we must articulate a theoretical future to cultivate this risk into of the possibility for success.

      What does this look like? An instance of the critical race theory's future occurred when French President Nicolas Sarkozy dedicated a statue commemorating victims of slavery in spring 2012. In doing so President Sarkozy dedicated a monument that gave a future to the past. Its inscription reads, “By their struggles and their strong desire for dignity and liberty, the slaves of the French colonies contributed to the universality of human rights and to the ideal of liberty, equality and fraternity that is the foundation of our republic.”The Paris monument represents an important acknowledgement of history's evils coupled with a striking public commemoration. There is some success in this recognition and representation. Of course monuments do not make a movement nor solidify the relevance of struggles long past, but the Paris monument represents the beginning of an important future--a future that is aware of its sordid past. The United States has no such monument.

      Critical race theorists should find the crisis from which the Occupy movements emerged as an important time to advance their goals, to look forward, to move beyond the politics of the present. When critical race theorists are able to engage the present with an eye toward the future, then and only then will we see critical race theory embracing social justice. The Occupy movements have been correct in their politics in this respect. White supremacy sees a future and is invested in it, so why not invest in racial justice's future? Reiland Rabaka argues:

       Even in its mildest and most unconscious forms, white supremacy is one of the extremist and most vicious human rights violations in history because it plants false seeds of white superiority and black inferiority in the fertile ground of the future.

      Critical race theory must combat the world in the present as well as the future to truly challenge white supremacy and offer real solutions for our racialized world.

      The focus of the Occupiers is not necessarily on the immediate destruction of the capitalist order, but is instead on constant struggle both for the present and the future for a capitalism alternative. Capitalism did not arise in a day and it will not fall in a day, but the best strategy for transforming our economic system is to focus on immediate goals with an eye for long-term success. The Occupy movements are, at once, strong in their political present and many of the protesters are strong in the belief that their project has futurity (although more of their ranks certainly could be). Critical race theorists better known in the academy as “crits” ought to take heed of this example, putting theory to work, and focusing on the long road ahead.

Critical Race Theory as Social Justice Practice

       Now can you feel it?

       Nothing can save you

       For this is the season of our self savior

       Like Che Guevara, this young urban guerilla

       Sparks the revolution, black tactics, whatever

      --Digable Planets

      Although critical race theory is what it purports to be--a theory--it is also an important inquiry that offers a set of guiding social justice principles. In this sense it is potentially more praxis than theory. Frances Lee Ansley argues:

       [L]egal doctrine has important social power, that it shapes people's consciousness of themselves and their world, enlarging or restricting their vision of how things are, could be and should be. Historians also have pointed out the important role of law as mediator and unifier for Americans in particular, and the intense and intricate involvement of law and legal doctrine in the history of African-American people in this country.

       Race law doctrine has an effect, for example, on those of us considering Professor Bell's questions, and on others, in and out of the legal profession, who perhaps want no part of the questions, or have not yet dreamed of them. If the ideology of civil rights law itself, its spoken and unspoken message, is an active agent in our social reality, then a real understanding and analysis of race and law in our system would be an important contribution toward change, not simply an academic exercise.

      As such, critical race theory promises to shape and indeed has shaped social reality in profound ways. It is instrumental in the movement for social justice. If this is true, then we ought to articulate critical race theory in the same breath that we articulate opposition to corporate greed, rampant speculation, workplace discrimination, and other corporate ills. I argue that the Occupy movements should serve as a new point of departure for critical race theory.

      Activism changes society. Progressives, through action, can and must change the world to make it a better place. Historically, critical race theory has challenged stolid racial apathy in the academy, and today, presents a radical alternative of change and equality. This alternative ought to be foremost in our minds as we navigate the complex terrain of global capitalism, ethnocentrism, and gender and sexual orientation exclusion. If we engage in serious activism we can facilitate not only change, but also lay the foundation, by example, of a revolutionary way of being--which is change in itself.

      The character of this revolutionary way of being, which is directly linked to anti-capitalist movements, has been the subject of much discussion among critical race practitioners, many of whom are musical artists. Some (comprised of those in and outside of the academy) have encouraged armed resistance in the face of pervasive social ills. For example, hip-hop duo dead prez argued, “I say we all rush the Pentagon. Pull out guns and grab the This indictment of the military industrial complex is brutally direct. To take down the Pentagon, the bastion of security, with guns is ironic and persuasive. dead prez also have critiqued the police state: “I'll throw a Molotov cocktail at the precinct, you know how we These criticisms (not necessarily actions) are powerful examples of the way in which critical race theory can be applied outside the academy.

      The important point is that the call for armed resistance recognizes the desolation and anger borne by many poor communities of color in response to United States' institutions' failure to acknowledge its basic ethical obligations of compassionate living. In the same way revolutionaries' critical race visions have expressed violent resistance to protect America's dispossessed, the Occupy movements have offered a glimpse into growing unrest around a type of economic violence that many more people are experiencing for the first time.

      Critical race visionaries not only reveal survival stories among less powerful communities of color, they animate urgent calls for action. In other words, critical race theory may help invigorate our lack of civic engagement. We often assume activism exists where we are but when we look closely we are anything but active. While we may be able to point to some very active progressive voices and organizations there is no expectation that those who claim to be ideological progressives also be active in progressive struggles. Progressives may become bored, worn out, and tired like everyone else. It is in these moments of weakness, however, that other progressives must take up the charge and invest in movements, injecting new and exciting ideas into the fissures of enduring struggles. Therefore, critical race responses to the Occupy movements, like Occupy the Hood, should strengthen the Occupy message that we are the 99 percent suffering from capitalism's excesses--the time to act is now. Such responses should not be dismissed as “divisive” by white or middle-class progressives. We have a long way to go, together.

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.


       Decolonization never goes unnoticed, for it focuses on and fundamentally alters being, and transforms the spectator crushed to a nonessential state into a privileged actor, captures in a virtually grandiose fashion by the spotlight of History

      --Frantz Fanon

      Progressives must embrace the complementary energies of critical race theory and the Occupy movements to enrich critical race theory. Working within and amongst the current progressive activist energies, critical race theory may be able to garner a much needed boost for its waning critical power. Progressives must unite to fulfill the promises of those who inspire us whether those inspirations are Derrick Bell, Vladimir Lenin, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mahatma Gandhi. Together progressives can draw on the divergent success of our various paths and energize other progressives to advance their fronts of struggle. Movements need not be in opposition to each other, they can draw from each other. And, social movements are integral to a better understanding of law. The path to successful activism is in branching out, joining forces, and moving together toward a future that is more just and more livable.

Nick J. Sciullo is working on a Ph.D. in Communications at Georgia State University.