Is Occupy Wall Street Too White?

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

"Occupy the Hood" started on Facebook as an attempt to diversify the Occupy Wall Street protesters, shown here in Zuccotti Park on Oct. 14.

The Occupy Wall Street movement that has spread beyond New York’s financial district to cities all over the country and even beyond the U.S. has one glaring shortcoming, according to some activists: It’s too white. According to the Village Voice, New Yorker Malik Rhasaan launched a Facebook page for Occupy The Hood after observing what he sees as a lack of racial diversity among OWS protesters. “I noticed there isn’t a strong black and Latino presence. … People don’t know why Wall Street affects them. It affects us the most when we’re not knowledgeable about it,” he told the newspaper. As of Wednesday, the Facebook page had nearly 6,700 followers, and Rhasaan had paired with Detroit-based community activist Johari Uhuru to help spread the word in other cities.

While it’s impossible to precisely measure the racial makeup of the deliberately leaderless Occupy movement, most of the images and video clips that have garnered media attention do indeed seem to feature mostly whites. Occupy The Hood leaders say their role is necessary because the more established protest movements don’t do enough to address racism in financial industry misdeeds. “They’re gonna have a problem with people of color [getting involved] if they don’t connect the effects of capitalism to racism,” Uhuru told the San Francisco Bay View newspaper.

(MORE: Great Recession Drives Financial Wedge Between Whites, Minorities)

One could indeed make the case that minorities have distinctive reasons to call attention to the shortcomings of the financial services  industry. The mortgage industry frequently targeted minority homebuyers with predatory loans, a 2010 study published in the American Sociological Review concluded.

In 2009, a former Wells Fargo employee-turned-whistleblower accused the bank of targeting minorities for subprime lending. “Wells Fargo mortgage had an emerging-markets unit that specifically targeted black churches, because it figured church leaders had a lot of influence and could convince congregants to take out subprime loans,” she told the New York Times.

Minorities also have been more deeply affected by cutbacks in banking services and branch closures. Research published by the FDIC at the end of 2009 found that minorities were less likely than whites to be customers of a bank  and therefore needed to rely on “subprime” products like check-cashing storefronts or fee-laden prepaid debit cards as a result. The research found that 22 percent of black households and 19 percent of Latino households are “unbanked,” compared with 3 percent of white households.

(MORE: Why Do Investment Results Differ Dramatically By Race?)

A report by the Chicago-based Woodstock Institute earlier this year found that people in African-American communities who file for bankruptcy are more than twice as likely to file for Chapter 13 bankruptcy as residents of predominantly white communities. Chapter 13 doesn’t discharge nearly all debts the way a Chapter 7 bankruptcy does. “These findings raise concerns that bankruptcy filers in African-American communities may not be getting the best outcomes and economic benefits from the bankruptcy process,” the report noted.

Even if minorities do have a distinct set of grievances against the financial sector, however, it’s unclear that launching a splinter movement will prove an effective way to see them addressed. Also unclear: Will Occupy Wall Street see it as its duty to incorporate the combating of racial bias in financial services into its already amorphous set of goals?

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