On Sunday, my editor sent me an email. The essential message: go to the site of the Occupy Wall Street protests. Figure out the state of affairs between the city's low-paid police and protesters outraged about ordinary Americans' economic prospects. Not long after I got there, I felt as if I had stepped off the subway, walked a few blocks in Lower Manhattan and returned to college.
It wasn't the nine white people I spotted with dreads that reminded me of campus. And it wasn't the woman circling the park with a sign that read "Free Hugs." It was the fact that in the span of four hours, five different photographers took my picture then asked my name. They needed it for the captions of Zucotti Park protest pictures they hoped to sell or publish.
I wasn't carrying a placard decrying the evils of corporate greed or growing income inequality, just my standard equipment -- a notebook, my oversized purse and a pen. And, I was there.
"Oh, well, that's OK," one photographer said when I told him that I was just a reporter and probably not the best person to mention in his caption. "I want to convey the fact that there are some black people here."
The conversation was a reminder of the often simplistic, sometimes exasperating way that diversity is thought about, handled and cultivated in America.
On many college campuses around the country and apparently in Zuccotti Park, there is so little diversity that professional storytellers determined to convey the fact that there are SOME people of color present, sometimes wind up painting a distorted picture.
I've been here before. During my four years on a small liberal arts college campus in New York, my picture or that of my Afro-Panamanian roommate appeared in the course catalogue, student handbook and on the school's website at least eleven times. Admittedly, their options were limited. It was the early 1990s and there were only about 200 students of color on the 2,600-student campus. But our unplanned encounters with the college's photographers were so frequent that my roommate and I used to joke - especially when in mixed-race groups -- that we should not leave the dorm without our IDs and a tube of lip gloss.
I have heard similar stories from friends who attended mostly white colleges and sources who are people of color working in fields like astrophysics, economics and agribusiness that remain overwhelmingly white.
At the park on Sunday, a scan of the crowd for people of color didn't yield a lot of options either. There was me, a black cameraman from a local news station, and an older black woman with grassroots organizing experience and silver hair. She had come in that day from Chicago with a list of concerns for the nation's poor. She was there to get involved in the protest, she said. There was also a black man who was already all the way in. He was holding a sign over his head that cried out for questions: Hitler's Banker's -- Wall Street. I saw a few photographers snap his picture too. But, I couldn't get his attention so that I could ask why he was there.
There's been a lot made of the ideological diversity in Zuccotti Park. And ideas can certainly have meaning across racial, ethnic and sometimes even class lines. The best ones often do. But, the near absence of racial and ethnic diversity in the park is also worth noting. Blacks and Latinos together make up about 40 percent of the nation's unemployed but only 29 percent of the total population. And, there is plenty of evidence that while the years leading up the recession weren't really very good to anyone -- income inequality expanded and most workers' wages stagnated -- black and Latino families are facing such a crisis of unemployment, increased poverty and depreciated or altogether lost assets that the country will feel this recession's impact for decades to come, Harvard University labor sociologist William Julius Wilson told me last week. Without an economic fix that includes and specifically targets people of color we may soon find ourselves living in an America that we do not recognize, he said.
The economic state of non-white America matters. In 2050, the United States is expected to become a county where minorities are the majority.
The problem with the there's-one-let's-get-her-picture-school-of-reporting isn't just that it's annoying. The problem is that this can paint a false portrait that shields the possible shortcomings of an allegedly inclusive movement. And, it can obscure the real reasons the dire economic condition of some Americans have long been ignored. These are issues that need to be covered with just as much creativity, vigor and depth as the substance of protester's demands and the ingenious way that the people occupying Zuccotti Park have devised to make public speeches without breaking New York City's amplified sound laws.
Beyond that sort of creativity and the movement's obvious penchant for political theater, the scene in Zucotti Park this weekend didn't look much like America. And, we should all wonder why.
One reason might be the movement's origins. Occupy Wall Street began with an ad in the ironically named, Adbusters magazine and a series of tweets sent out by the hacker group Anonymous. The ad and the tweets announced the date the protest would begin in Lower Manhattan. The magazine's website describes the audience as "a global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows." And to its credit most of the articles are available in both English and Spanish. For obvious reasons no one can say much about Anonymous. Of course, that's by design. But it is fair to say that there probably aren't many members of either group who have a lot of direct experience organizing and working in communities of color -- offline.
The protesters in Zuccotti Park are aware of the problem. Among the many committees that meet regularly to discuss Occupy Wall Street action, strategy and recruitment is one called, "Communities of Color." In the group's most recent meeting Monday, they talked about approaching black politicians, unidentified celebrities, unions, churches and groups already organized around issues like the fight for a living wage or housing matters. The big test will be how many of these institutions and individuals -- many of which are steeped in by middle class experiences -- will recognize a common cause with the folks in Zuccotti Park concerned about growing economic disenfranchisement. One thing is already clear. The unions are coming. On Thursday afternoon, a collection of union workers and grassroots political organizers are planning to march from New York's City Hall to Zuccotti Park. And while it is true that union membership is sinking, falling just below 12 percent this year, black workers are more likely than others -- white, Latino or Asian -- to hold a union card. The same is true of workers of all races, ages 55 to 64 years old.
As with almost everything else related to Occupy Wall Street, it's anyone's guess what will happen next or whether expanding the group of people involved will ultimately matter at all.