ATLANTA—Jason Woody immediately recognized a shared struggle with many of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators: The 2007 college graduate has been out of work for two years, and it’s been longer since he’s seen a doctor. He also noticed something else — the lack of brown faces on the front lines of the Occupy movement.
“When I started out here … I realized there was not a lot of diversity out here,” said Woody, who is black and graduated from Morehouse College and has camped in a downtown Atlanta park with other protesters for more than a week. “It’s changed in the course of the past week. I’d like to see that grow.”
The outcry against the nation’s financial institutions that has swept the country in recent weeks has crossed many boundaries, including class, gender and age. But a stubborn hurdle in many cities has been a lack of racial inclusion, something noted by organizers and participants alike.
“We, the 99 percent, have to be reaching out to the cross section of the communities that we live in,” said Tim Franzen, one of the organizers of the Occupy Atlanta movement. “If you come down to the park and spend a day I think you might have a hard time saying this is an all-white movement. We are reaching out, but we’ve got some bridges to build.”
The absence of diversity is particularly notable given that some of the larger issues surrounding the Occupy movement — including the economy, foreclosures and unemployment — are disproportionately affecting people of color. And the legacy of activism present in some minority communities seems a natural segue for such a cause, which has been linked to the strategies of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
African-Americans are more inclined to rally around social justice than financial literacy causes, said John Hope Bryant, founder and chief executive officer of Operation HOPE, a non-profit organization that educates underserved and low-income Americans about personal financial responsibility.
“If this was about someone unjustly being brutalized, that’s an easier thing for us to mobilize around,” said Bryant, who is black, citing the recent Troy Davis death penalty case in Georgia, a diverse protest that attracted global attention last month.
The Occupy Wall Street protest in New York has been more diverse than other cities. Although the majority of protesters are white, many blacks and a smattering of Asians and Latinos have participated.
Among them is Omar Henriquez, a Long Island resident who emigrated from El Salvador. He passed out Spanish-language copies of the Occupied Wall Street Journal on Friday. He has been taking the newspaper to Latino and immigrant rights groups. He also is unemployed.
“That’s why I’m here,” said Henriquez, 55. “It’s incumbent on us, Latinos here, to bring more Latinos here. We don’t have to be invited to come, we just come.”
On Saturday, the nation’s capital provided a sharp contrast: A few dozen white protesters were camped out in Washington’s Freedom Plaza. They were separate from Occupy DC but hold similar ideals. Not far away, thousands marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Their rallying cry was similar, if not identical — yet the vast majority were black.
A few men played the bongo drums at Freedom Plaza, while a band at the nearby rally led by the Rev. Al Sharpton near the Washington Monument played a soulful, jazzy rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” — albeit with a white saxophonist — and the crowd sang along knowingly as a speaker recited the catchy intro to the “Tom Joyner Show.”
Phil Calhoun, 44, an engineer from Crofton, Md., who was checking out the various protests, marveled at the racial disparity between the two groups even though they were preaching similar ideologies.
“Maybe it’s just the nature of our society, set this up this way,” he said. “But it’s one thing I think we need to bridge. We need to bridge that gap.”
In Baltimore, there are people representing different racial, ethnic, age and income groups, but not in proportion to the city’s population. Occupy Baltimore group organizer C.T. Lawrence Butler, who is white said there has been talk of going out to communities around the city to try to attract more people, but the group is just building steam and hasn’t had a chance to put together official outreach. Instead, individuals have been reaching out to communities on their own, a strategy that may work better.
“Everybody would like more diversity,” Butler said. “The group is focusing on creating a place where everybody can feel safe speaking up.”
Most of the people at Occupy Boston on Friday appeared to be young and white, with just a handful of blacks, Latinos and Asians in an area not far from the city’s Chinatown neighborhood. Anthony Messina, a 19-year-old biotech student at Middlesex Community College who is white, said he sees the beginnings of racial diversity at the protests, but that the numbers are nowhere near where they should be.
“It’s not a representative group, and I don’t think anyone would lie and tell you that it is,” Messina said, adding that whites have to be careful when reaching out to minorities to join the movement. “You don’t want to come off like you’re preaching that you know what’s good for them.”
Bryant, of Operation HOPE, added that while the economic crisis has hit the middle class hard, blacks have reacted differently than whites, equating money with self-image and feeling ashamed and responsible for their financial situation, rather than angry.
“Money for us is a badge,” Bryant said. “Money for them is a vehicle. We don’t want to be seen. We just want to hide, and hope the storyline changes.”
Blacks also don’t want to be seen as just complaining. Former activists like Ambassador Andrew Young have pointed out that the Occupy movement is still in a nascent stage, with protesters more focused on what they’re against rather than what they’re for.
Robert Zachary, a black, 61-year-old chaplain who has participated in the Occupy Asheville protests in North Carolina, noted the lack of diversity there.
“What we really need to do is build inroads and to speak to their needs, to show that their needs and everybody else’s needs are basically all the same,” he said of outreach to the black community.
In Atlanta, Woody said the word didn’t get out clearly enough to African-Americans when the movement began. Now, he’s trying to get more historically black colleges involved, such as his alma mater.
“I felt that my voice should be represented,” Woody said. “A lot of people feel like it won’t make a difference. I wish more people would realize that the more support we can show, the more powerful it makes our movement.”