Media Coverage of Racial Participation in Occupy Wall Street
Author:Nadra Kareem Nittle
November 8, 2011
While Occupy Wall Street may eventually blossom into a national political force, the mainstream media have largely ignored a key characteristic about the protests: the leaders are white and there are few people of color among the participants.
By not covering this aspect of the story, media outlets are missing important opportunities to gauge the future impact of the protests and offer insight into communities of color.
Answering these questions with comprehensive reporting would broaden the public’s perspective on the protests as well as on minority communities: Why aren’t more people of color actively engaged in this movement when minorities suffer most from the wealth gap in America? Will growth of the protests be hampered by an inability to recruit people of color? Are the solutions that the protesters seeking in the best interest of minority residents?
“If I were a minority journalist I would call out the fact that the racial composition of the Occupy movement is predominantly white and that journalists are ignoring the elephant in the room,” says Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., dean of public affairs at UCLA, and a professor of public policy and political science. “If it’s about structural inequality, then how come the people most adversely affected aren’t represented here? Why aren’t white journalists writing about the fundamental underlying root causes of this?”
Furthermore, Gilliam says that if the media wants to do a better job covering Occupy Wall Street and its underlining causes, reporters need to do more than write about lack of diversity. He says journalists must ask themselves this question: “Is there a way to pivot from Occupy to find a frank discussion about the root causes of structural inequality?”
Thus far, only a few media outlets have even mentioned the racial composition of the protests, and those stories don’t delve deeply into the reasons or ramifications.
In a piece called “Occupy Wall Street Struggles to Make ‘the 99%’ Look Like Everybody” published on Oct. 28 on its City Room Blog, the New York Times cited a Fordham University survey taken from Oct. 14 to Oct. 18 at Zuccotti Park. The survey found that 68 percent of the protesters were white, 10 percent were black, 10 percent were Hispanic, and 7 percent were Asian. Moreover, a survey taken between Oct. 21 and 22 of 5,006 visitors to the website Occupywallst.org, created by a founding Occupy Wall Street activist, estimated that 81.2 percent of Occupy participants are white, 6.8 percent Latino, 2.8 percent Asian and 1.6 percent African American.
While the New York Times piece noted the limited number of diverse protesters in the movement, it did not attempt to answer the broader questions about race and the protest. What’s clear, however, is that the New York Times and other media outlets could report on these themes simply by reaching out to more diverse sources.
Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, a visiting scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, says that “it’s especially ironic that blacks and Latinos” aren’t represented as much as whites in the Occupy movement, given that they have weathered enormous setbacks during the economic downturn, including soaring rates of unemployment and foreclosures. Latinos, Soto points out, reportedly lost more wealth during the recession than any other demographic because the majority of their wealth was tied to the equity in their homes. That being said, Soto says, the political participation by minorities “is a function of resources, whether that’s voting or having the time to go to a march. It’s hard to go out and occupy if you’re working a job at KFC and babysitting your sister’s kids.”
William Winters—economic justice organizer for Change.org, a nonpartisan organization that promotes petitions created by the public to influence decision makers—is concerned that more diverse crowds haven’t turned out at Occupy events. But he says that the goals of Occupy Wall Street are consistent with concerns in communities of color. For example, Winters says that banks have invested in private prisons, fueling the prison industrial complex that has led to massive incarceration of blacks and Latinos and minority groups should welcome the scrutiny of these financial institutions.
However, if the media doesn’t report on these issues and numbers of blacks and Latinos at Occupy events remain small, there’s concern that such issues “are going to continue to exist at the margins,” Winters says.
If news outlets had paid more attention to the predatory loans banks gave to black and Latino homebuyers in the early part of last decade, “the media could have played a role in heading off what became a huge meltdown,” Winters says. For its part, Time magazine did note the predatory relationship between banks and communities of color in the recent article “Is Occupy Wall Street Too White?”
Winters suggests that the media can highlight the financial issues in minority communities by interviewing and profiling the people of color who are participating in the protest. He helped promote a Change.org petition about police brutality at Occupy Oakland launched by a black woman. Occupy Oakland is said to be one of the most diverse sites of the movement, with whites, blacks, Asians and Latinos all taking part.
In addition, the mainstream media has largely missed the fact that the protest has spurred some minority groups to become engaged in the movement. For instance, minority activists formed New York-based groups, Occupy the Hood and the People of Color Working Group, which are mobilizing people of color to participate. Thus far, mostly minority media and websites are reporting on their activities.
A month ago, when Chloe Hilliard, editorial director of website TheLoop21.com, saw a Tweet about Occupy the Hood, she jumped at the chance to profile them on her site. The story served two functions. It highlighted the efforts of people in the inner city participating in Occupy Wall Street and also served as a way for TheLoop21’s readership to take interest in the movement. Hilliard says that urban audiences may not connect to language such as “the 99 percent” but are more likely to take an interest in the Occupy movement from a human-interest standpoint.
“It’s hard to tell someone who is unemployed or who can barely pay their rent to start pontificating about the economic reasons the country’s in the recession,” Hilliard says. “They can’t stop their life to analyze that.”
Hilliard says that conversations from people of color about Occupy Wall Street are growing among Facebook and Twitter audiences, so she advises journalists to review those posts to learn more about how people of color feel about the protest.
Moreover, the media can also learn more about how communities of color feel about the protest by contacting minority organizations.
For instance, the black political group, ColorofChange.org, is surveying its membership about Occupy Wall Street. The group’s campaign manager, Dani McClain, says that much of the membership supports the Occupy movement, but some have indicated that they do not feel comfortable sleeping outside in tents.
“Just because the images are of mostly young white people doesn’t mean the concerns that are being raised aren’t reflective of people of color,” she says. “I think this general desire to see higher accountability among our banks and our financial institutions is definitely a concern that black people have.”
It’s interesting that right-wing commentators, such as Rush Limbaugh and Michelle Malkin, have been quick to say that the Occupy movement doesn’t represent most Americans as a way to attack the protests.
But now the mainstream media can do a public service by explaining why.
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