Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Left Colorblindness and White Democracy

Many thanks to Chauncey DeVega for pointing me to an article titled Whiteness and the 99% by Joel Olson. So much of what Olson says applies not only to OWS, but any progressive organizing in which we might be involved.

First of all, Olson defines "left colorblindness."

Left colorblindness claims to be inclusive, but it is actually just another way to keep whites’ interests at the forefront. It tells people of color to join “our” struggle (who makes up this “our,” anyway?) but warns them not to bring their “special” concerns into it. It enables white people to decide which issues are for the 99% and which ones are “too narrow.” It’s another way for whites to expect and insist on favored treatment, even in a democratic movement.

Then he summarizes the historical development of "race" in this country as a way for the 1%ers to maintain power.

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. So, they cut a deal with the poor English colonists. The planters gave the English poor certain rights and privileges denied to all persons of African and Native American descent: the right to never be enslaved, to free speech and assembly, to move about without a pass, to marry without upper-class permission, to change jobs, to acquire property, and to bear arms. In exchange, the English poor agreed to respect the property of the rich, help them seize indigenous lands, and enforce slavery.

And thus was "white democracy" born.

As this white race expanded to include other European ethnicities, the result was a very curious political system: the white democracy. The white democracy has two contradictory aspects to it. On the one hand, all whites are considered equal (even as the poor are subordinated to the rich and women are subordinated to men). On the other, every white person is considered superior to every person of color. It’s democracy for white folks, but tyranny for everyone else.

After covering how that white democracy still exists today as is catalogued in the disparities we see in almost every system of our culture, Olson demonstrates how the issues faced by people of color are not divisive - but central.

The roots of left colorblindness lie in the white democracy and the distorted mindset it creates. It encourages whites to think that their issues are “universal” while those of people of color are “specific.” But that is exactly backwards. The struggles of people of color are the problems that everyone shares. Anyone in the occupy movement who has been treated brutally by the police has to know that Black communities are terrorized by cops every day. Anyone who is unemployed has to know that Black unemployment rates are always at least double that of whites, and Native American unemployment rates are far higher. Anyone who is sick and lacks healthcare has to know that people of color are the least likely to be insured (regardless of their income) and have the highest infant mortality and cancer rates and the lowest life expectancy rates. Anyone who is drowning in debt should know that the median net wealth of Black households is twenty times less than that of white households. Only left colorblindness can lead us to ignore these facts.

This is the sinister impact of white democracy on our movements. It encourages a mindset that insists that racial issues are “divisive” when they are at the absolute center of everything we are fighting for.

And then he tells us how we can be successful in organizing the entire 99%.

The only thing that can stop us is us. What prevents the 99% from organizing the world as we see fit is not the 1%. The 1% cannot hold on to power if we decide they shouldn’t. What keeps us from building the new world in our hearts are the divisions among us...

Creating a 99% requires putting the struggles of people of color at the center of our conversations and demands rather than relegating them to the margins. To fight against school segregation, colonization, redlining, and anti-immigrant attacks is to fight against everything Wall Street stands for, everything the Tea Party stands for, everything this government stands for. It is to fight against the white democracy, which stands at the path to a free society like a troll at the bridge.

I wholeheartedly agree with Olson. And as I was reflecting on this, it struck me once again how the election of Barack Obama shook this white democracy to its core. Contrary to what folks like Cornel West say, the President doesn't need to talk about race at every turn. Its in everyone's face every time they look at him and his lovely family. Their very presence in the White House and his position at the pinnacle of power takes the whole issue of race to the center of its existence and threatens to completely undo the foundation of white democracy. When we forget this, we lose sight of the basis for the kind of resistance he's facing when it comes to left colorblindness and white democracy.


  1. reading this blog post was a great 'birthday gift'..Thanks, Batya

  2. This is so great!! Thanks

  3. GREAT post, smarty! This quote from Olson gets to the core of it, doesn't it:

    "The only thing that can stop us is us. What prevents the 99% from organizing the world as we see fit is not the 1%. The 1% cannot hold on to power if we decide they shouldn’t. What keeps us from building the new world in our hearts are the divisions among us..."

    As you then point out, this gets to the genius of President Obama. He constantly talks about the fact that "there's more that binds us than divides us," and through things like OFA and everything he does, he's directly tackling this problem.

    And this is why the gatekeepers of the world's public discourse - the few Billionaires that own ALL the MegaMedia - are so freaked out by Our Guy. It's why they let OWS become a story in the first place, since it clearly will lead, and already has tried to lead, to a perfect "divide and conquer" tactic for them.

    Too bad for them and the Lee Atwater/Karl Rove school operatives...the can of whoop-ass President Obama opened up in 2008 is way too strong for their recycled, stale dirty tricks of Division. There's no putting a lid on it. We Won't Turn Back, Brothers and Sisters! -bonkers

  4. O/T

    HAPPY THANKSGIVING, SP! May you and yours have a peaceful and blessed time together!

    Happy Thanksgiving also to all who visit here today!

  5. This is an amazing are so absolutely on spot.

  6. smartypants,

    I wonder if you had seen this:

    Why Obama Matters

  7. Thank you for posting this excellent article by Joel Olson. Happy thanksgiving, smartypants to you, your family, and to all that comment here.

  8. rikyrah - Yes, I saw that article...fantastic!!!

  9. I'm clearing out some bookmarks and I came across this article. Written some 5 years ago, it seems spot on to describe Bernie Sanders' campaign and the attitudes of many of his followers. I had an argument the other day (with someone who is near and dear to my heart) about the fact that "income inequality" is not the only important overarching issue and that the concerns of black people, native people, immigrants, and women are not just sub-issues that will all be resolved by punishing Wall Street. I will show him this and hope that it helps him understand that.