Oppression in America, Its Traits and Etiology

What is an Oppression

Over the recent decades, there has been a considerable improvement in regard to human rights and equality. Despite that, classism, discrimination, and racism continue to flourish in almost every societal structure, even in such progressive countries as the United States. Democratic aspirations are often stifled by corrupted governments, discriminatory immigration policies, as well as racially-motivated violence. While there has certainly been substantial progress, it is apparent that social inequality is present in all kinds of modern societies. The purpose of this paper is to identify the main traits and causes of oppression in order to offer applicable and efficient solutions to dismantle it.

Oppression is an intricate web of social norms, institutional regulations, and individual assumptions which dictate the superiority of one group over the other. Social groups are perpetrators of oppression and the primary targets of subordination as well. Taylor (2016) labels oppression a unique social phenomenon that “occurs when a particular social group is unjustly subordinated, and where that subordination is not necessarily deliberate but instead results from a complex network of social restrictions” (p. 520). These limitations vary from legal regulations and policy to internalized biases and harmful stereotypes. Thus, there may not be a deliberate effort to force one group into subordination. Nonetheless, the fact that one population is far superior to another one in terms of social recognition, rewards, benefits, and rights implies the existence of an oppressive system.

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Oppression is not only the phenomenon itself but the methods employed to sustain unjust authority. Thus, Rothenberg and Hsu Accomando (2020) argue that a key feature of such a structure is hierarchies and specific social systems that exercise power and ensure the maintenance of economic, cultural, and other types of control. Marsiglia et al. (2021) add that oppression is essentially a pervasive tendency, which is characterized by unfairness, inequality, and injustice. This can be expressed through cultural practices that put one group at a disadvantage, reinforce negative stereotypes, or benefit a certain population more than others.

It is crucial to recognize that oppression is a multi-leveled phenomenon that occurs on the personal, group, institutional, and, finally, cultural levels. Firstly, each individual has their own set of beliefs, principles, and values, which accounts for level 1. Secondly, groups of people form the standards of behavior and language. Thirdly, the federal and local governments initiate regulations, laws, and procedures, which is considered level 3. Lastly, society as whole forms the notions of right and wrong, beautiful and ugly, as well as fair and unfair. These four levels are closely intertwined to create an elaborate system of oppression, which involves classism, racism, and discrimination.

The targets and agents of oppression are relatively similar as both are members of groups within a given society, which determine their identity. However, the ones who are targeted are those who are a part of groups that face exploitation and victimization at the hands of dominant groups. These people are usually considered unworthy of all the basic human rights, replaceable, and faceless as their individual identities are stripped from them. The group as a whole has its own set of roles, which implies that each member is confined to their narrowly defined place. As a result, targets of oppression often become the primary victims of marginalization, discrimination, and abuse. Interestingly enough, individuals who are undeniably the targets of oppression fail to recognize it as they are conditioned to believe that it simply does not exist. The agents of oppression usually deny any preferential treatment or privilege and blame the targets instead.

Regarding the agents of oppression, they are individuals who are a part of dominant social groups. They might knowingly or unknowingly exploit others because of their status or highly-regarded traits. In the United States, the agents of oppression are predominantly White, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual Christian males. Inadvertently, even if a group exercises dominance over another group, it is still trapped in the cycle of oppression supported by governmental institutions and cultural norms. The agents of oppression have the ultimate influence to define the “norm,” which forces other groups to adapt in fear of being denied opportunities on the basis of their deviance or abnormal

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The Traits of Oppression: The Traits of Stigma and Prejudice

Classism

Definition

Classism implies the act of differential treatment towards someone based on their social-economic status or perceived social class. Dominant groups abuse and exploit subordinate groups with the assistance of the existing systematic classist structure. Tizon (2019) defines racism as “collective prejudice formed into a system of inequality that is based on socioeconomic stratification” (p. 8). There is a need to acknowledge that even the modern Western society perpetuates certain cultural narratives, which insinuate that one class has the right to dominate another one.

The notions of class stratification date back to the first civilizations. However, Marx and Engels were the ones who popularized the diction related to class struggle, focusing primarily on the battle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (Tizon, 2019). Classism can be expressed through individual assumptions, group attitudes and behaviors, institutional policies and regulations, as well as culture, which reinforces wealth inequality. Members of capitalistic societies rank others in accordance to their economic status, heritage, lineage, educational level, or other types of division. Thus, people who are a part of dominant classes are seen as better, smarter, and more worthy of certain benefits. Working classes often internalize such beliefs and accept classist attitudes as the norm.

Example

An example of classism could be the assumption that if someone does not eat organic foods exclusively, they are neglectful of their own and health and, thus, should be held accountable for their unhealthy choices. In comparison to non-organic produce, organic options are usually much more expensive, which makes it relatively impossible for people earning minimum wages to introduce them into their diets. Such harmful perceptions go beyond food and involve numerous assumptions about a person based on the brands they shop or the car they drive.

Racism

Definition

The concept of race is relatively self-evident, although it is important to acknowledge that the modern definition of “race” is an invention, which is rooted in the practices of colonialism, slavery, and segregation. With the expansion of European colonial rule throughout the world, the race became a social-biological factor, which differentiated between groups and legitimized White superiority. However, to acknowledge that race is a mere invention does not justify ignorance towards the existing systems of oppression, which continue to flourish in the United States. Grosfoguel (2016) defines racism as “a global hierarchy of superiority and inferiority along the line of the human that has been politically, culturally and economically produced and reproduced for centuries” by capitalistic and patriarchal institutions (p. 10). Thus, those individuals who are deemed worthy of being on the line of human enjoy fair treatment and access to civil rights and liberties. On the other hand, members of certain groups are somehow below the line of humans and considered sub-human, which gives those in power the right to abuse and exploit them.

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Throughout the history of colonial rule in North America, Whites maintained dominance over other racial populations through military superiority, institutional structures, as well as a variety of attitudes, which put racial minorities at a disadvantage. Racism creates a social system, which creates the optimal conditions for unequal distribution of resources, privileges, and recognition. In addition, Grosfoguel (2016) mentions that while color has been the predominant marker of racism, this type of oppression is not exclusive to physical features. Racism is often defined by one’s religious affiliation, ethnic background, or cultural association.

Example

Racism goes beyond stereotyping and harassment and often seeps into the criminal justice system or healthcare. For example, racial minorities do not have access to the same quality of care as Whites in the United States, which has been demonstrated by numerous studies, including the work by Alang (2019). American Black population mostly has similar or lower rates of mental health conditions (Alang, 2019). Despite that, mental disorders among African Americans usually have more severe outcomes. There are multiple reasons for that, including the fact that Blacks are less likely to utilize mental health services as well as the fact that the quality of psychiatric care is usually lower for people of color. Alang (2019) concludes that quality medical assistance for Blacks is associated with discrimination, which puts minorities at a disadvantage in regard to access to resources. Another important aspect is “the internalization of racist stereotypes, which induce emotional and physiological responses” (Alang, 2019, p. 347). Health inequities are a descriptive example of racism, which extends to federal institutions.

Discrimination

Definition

Discrimination is another trait of oppression, which puts certain groups at a disadvantage compared to others. It involves stereotypes and assumptions about a specific population, which translates into their unfair treatment. For instance, an individual’s merits are judged under the prism of their race or gender. Amnesty International (2021) categorizes discrimination into three distinct forms: direct, indirect, and intersectional. Direct discrimination implies a clear distinction between members of different groups, which prompts the denial of benefits or basic rights. Indirect discrimination involves subtle regulatory unfairness, which is when “a law, policy, or practice is presented in neutral terms (that is, no explicit distinctions are made), but it disproportionately disadvantages a specific group” (Amnesty International, 2021, para. 4). Intersectional discrimination is a combination of stereotypes, harmful assumptions, and discriminatory laws, which puts a certain group of individuals at a greater disadvantage.

Example

An example of discrimination can be the denial of employment opportunities on the grounds of gender and fertility. A group of German researchers has conducted a study to assess factors influencing an employer’s decision to hire a woman. Becker et al. (2019) have concluded that employers were less likely to hire a woman if they assumed she would start a family soon. Thus, married women who do not have children are at a disadvantage while seeking part-time employment. In comparison, married, older women with multiple school-aged children are more likely to get a callback after the initial interview. Employers regard childless women as a risk because they might potentially get pregnant soon. It is apparent that a job candidate’s gender, age, and fertility might put them at a disadvantage because of discriminatory policies implemented by companies or individual assumptions of those involved in the hiring process. At the heart of such discrimination is prejudice against women, which is even more unfortunate for businesses that claim to be “family-friendly.”

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The Cause of Oppression

Considering the scale and scope of such a global issue as oppression, it is evident that the causes for discrimination, classism, and racism are multi-leveled and complex. Since the pre-historic epochs, certain groups established dominance over the other, which has resulted in the current systems of patriarchy or White superiority. Thus, such phenomena as religious persecution, nationalism, or ableism can be considered direct instant actions of this millennia-old process of separating dominant groups from subordinate ones. Regarding the roots of oppression, there is a social dominance theory, which states that “the exact degree of group-based social hierarchy in a given social system at any given time will be the point of equilibrium between two opposing social forces” (Sidanius et al., 2017, p. 150). These forces include hierarchy-enhancing (HE) and hierarchy-attenuating (HA) traits of a certain social group. Both HE and HA forces have multiple levels to them as they consist of individual dispositions in regards to hierarchy, group-based assumptions, and behaviors, as well as institutional codes of conduct (Sidanius et al., 2017). Therefore, the cause of oppression is the dominance of hierarchy-enhancing forces.

Social institutions and political ideologies (level 1) initiate hierarchy-supporting group attitudes, which are, in turn, reinforced by individual predispositions in favor of subordination. Consequently, society develops a system of oppression, which is hardly possible to recognize, especially for those in power. Discrimination is rarely acknowledged by those privileged enough to avoid it as they are rarely in the midst of it. Furthermore, underprivileged groups forced into subordination often do not have the resources needed to educate themselves on the systems of oppression that exist. Hence, this gives rise to a phenomenon labeled as internalized oppression, where subordinate individuals fail to recognize or their place in the hierarchy or simply refuse to fight against the discrimination they face.

Dismantling Oppression

Dismantling oppression requires the resistance of the masses, particularly targets of oppression. Vasanthakumar (2020) argues that in the modern political debate, there has been a rise in the popularity of the arguments that victims of oppression have duties to their self-respect and dignity to remain self-aware. Thus, ending oppression relies on the targets recognizing the instances of unfair treatment they are subjected to as the first step in gradually dismantling the social structure discrimination, classism, and racism are perpetrated by. Oppressors are far less likely to acknowledge their own privilege and initiate the implementation of solutions as long as the system in place benefits them. Therefore, the only group that can start the change needed is the victims. In order to help the targets of oppression recognize the narrowly defined social roles, they are forced into, it is crucial to educate them. The process of educating underprivileged populations may involve community-based programs, mentorship initiatives, as well as youth workshops.

While selecting the most appropriate ways to dismantle oppression, it is important to utilize research in order to assess the effectiveness of certain solutions. Research studies indicate that educational initiatives, particularly targeted at youth, produce the best outcomes in terms of fostering cultural competence and social justice awareness. For instance, the study conducted by Ngo et al. (2017) demonstrates that community-based arts programs designed for minoritized children are exceptionally effective at fostering sociopolitical consciousness, including such dimensions as “identification, mobilization, and cosmopolitanism” (p. 358). It is evident that raising a new generation of adults who are aware of the oppressive systems functioning in modern society can help to dismantle classism, racism, and discrimination.

References

Alang, S. M. (2019). Mental health care among blacks in America: Confronting racism and constructing solutions. Health Services Research, 54(2), 346–355.

Amnesty International. (2021). What we do: Discrimination. Amnesty. Web.

Becker, S. O., Fernandes, A., & Weichselbaumer, D. (2019). Discrimination in hiring based on potential and realized fertility: Evidence from a large-scale field experiment. Labour Economics, 59, 139–152.

Grosfoguel, R. (2016). What is racism? Journal of World-Systems Research, 22(1), 9–15.

Marsiglia, F. F., Kulis, S. S., & Lechuga-Peña, S. (2021). Diversity, oppression, and change: Culturally grounded social work (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.

Ngo, B., Lewis, C., & Maloney Leaf, B. Fostering sociopolitical consciousness with minoritized youth: Insights from community-based arts programs. Review of Research in Education 41(1), 358–380.

Rothenberg, P. S., & Hsu Accomando, C. (Ed.). (2020). Race, class, and gender in the United States: An integrated study (11th ed.). Worth Publishers.

Sidanius, J., Cotterill, S., Sheehy-Skeffington, J., Kteily, N., & Carvacho, H. (2017). Social dominance theory: Explorations in the psychology of oppression. In C. G. Sibley & F. K. Barlow (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of the psychology of prejudice (pp. 149–187). Cambridge University Press.

Taylor, E. (2016). Groups and oppression. Hypatia, 31(3), 520–536.

Tizon, A. (2019). Lifestyles of the rich and faithful: Confronting classism in Christian mission. Missiology: An International Review, 48(1) 6–28.

Vasanthakumar, A. (2020). Recent debates on victims’ duties to resist their oppression. Philosophy Compass, 15(2).

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