Oppression is the prolonged, unjust treatment or control of people by others. In the past, the definition of oppression was limited to tyranny by a ruling group, but overtime it has transformed because governments are not the only people who oppress. Today, oppression “could also mean denying people language, education, and other opportunities that might make them become fully human in both mind and body." This is seen throughout history through the actions of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe, King George III in the United Kingdom and the Thirteen Colonies (the predecessor of the United States of America), and today by observing the actions of people such as Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Although these leaders are separated by nearly fifty years and a few centuries, both are "governmental regimes that deprive people of at least some of their human rights.”
Today, oppression can be seen in the social, institutionalized, and economic spheres across the world. Social oppression can be observed in the form of gendered, class, racial, and sexual oppression. The relationship of social oppression is one of dominance and subordination, in which one party has the ability to maintain its advantage relative over another party. Institutionalized oppression is when "established laws, customs, and practices systematically reflect and produce inequities based on one’s membership in targeted social identity groups."
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Social oppression is the socially supported mistreatment and exploitation of a group of individuals. Social oppression is based on power dynamics and an individual's social location in society. Social location, as defined by Lynn Weber, is "an individual's or a group's social 'place' in the race, class, gender and sexuality hierarchies, as well as in other critical social hierarchies such as age, ethnicity, and nation."[page needed] An individual's social location determines how one will be perceived by others in the whole of society. It maintains three faces of power: the power to design or manipulate the rules, to win the game through force or competition, and the ability to write history.
To delve into the first social hierarchy, “racial oppression is burdening a specific race with unjust or cruel restraints or impositions. Racial oppression may be social, systematic, institutionalized, or internalized. Social forms of racial oppression include exploitation and mistreatment that is socially supported.” United States history consists of five primary forms of racial oppression including genocide and geographical displacement, slavery, second-class citizenship, non-citizen labor, and diffuse racial discrimination. The first primary form of racial oppression—genocide and geographical displacement—refers to 19th century Western European settlers coming to North America and wanting the indigenous population’s land. Many indigenous people, commonly known today as Native Americans, were relocated to Indian Reservations and killed during wars fought over land. The second form of racial oppression, slavery, refers to Africans being the property of white Americans. Racial oppression throughout North America, particularly in the south, was not something that was part of the social environment in which they lived; it was a significant part of daily life and routines. The third primary form of racial oppression, second-class citizenship, refers to some categories of citizens having fewer rights than others. Second-class citizenship became a pivotal form of racial oppression in the United States following the Civil War. The fourth form of racial oppression in American history refers to the linkage of race and legal citizenship status. During the middle of the 19th century, some categories of immigrants, such as Mexicans and Chinese, were denied legal access to citizenship status. The last primary form of racial oppression in American history is diffuse discrimination. This form of racial oppression refers to discriminatory actions that are not directly backed by the legal powers of the state. This can include employers not hiring or promoting someone on the basis of race, landlords only renting to people of certain racial groups and salespeople treating customers differently based on race. Even after the civil rights legislation abolishing segregation, racial discrimination is still a reality in the United States. According to Robert Blauner, author of Racial Oppression in America, Blauner states, “Fundamental to my perspective is the notion that racial groups and racial oppression are central features of the American social dynamic.”
The second social hierarchy, class oppression, also referred to as classism, can be defined as prejudice and discrimination based on social class. Class is a social ranking based on income, wealth, education, status, and power. A class is a large group of people who share similar economic or social positions based on their income, wealth, property ownership, job status, education, skills, and power in the economic and political sphere. The most commonly used class identities include: upper class, middle class, working class, and poor class. Most people in the United States 80% to 90% in some surveys identify as middle class. Class is also experienced differently depending on race, gender, and ethnic backgrounds. Class oppression of the poor and working class can lead to deprivation of basic needs and a feeling of inferiority to higher-class people and shame towards one’s traditional class or ethnic heritage. In the United States, class has become racialized leaving the greater percentage of people of color living in poverty. Since class oppression is universal among the majority class in American society, it at times can seem invisible, however, it is a relevant issue that many suffer from.
Social oppression permeates much deeper than an imbalance in power. It is attributed to the “injustice that occurs when one social group is subordinated while another is privileged, and oppression is maintained by a variety of different mechanisms including social norms, stereotypes, and institutional rules.” As an outcome of these societal views, social oppression exists and thrives through social groups. These ideologies surrounding the dominant group have a direct negative effect on oppressed races, classes, genders, and sexualities that don’t identify with the dominate group.
Many political theorists, including Weber, argue that oppression persists because most individuals fail to recognize it; that is, discrimination is often not visible to those who are not in the midst of it. These inequalities further perpetuate themselves because those oppressed rarely have access to resources that would allow them to escape their maltreatment. This can lead to internalized oppression, in which subordinate groups essentially give up the fight to access equality and accept their fate as a non-dominant group.
Delving further into social oppression on both a macro and micro level, Black feminist Patricia Hill Collins discusses her "matrix of domination". The matrix of domination discusses the interrelated nature of four domains of power, including the structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains. Each of these spheres work to sustain current inequalities that are faced by minority groups. The structural, disciplinary and hegemonic domains all operate on a macro level, and deal with issues of social oppression such as education, the judicial/criminal justice system, and elements of power and control, respectively. The interpersonal domain is guided by perceptions due to the spheres in the matrix of domination, and therefore plays out in everyday life.
The interpersonal domain is situated within the perspective of standpoint theory. Standpoint theory deals with an individual's social location in that each person will have a very different perspective based on where they are positioned in society. For instance, a White male, living in America will have a very different take on an issue such as abortion than that of a Black female, living in Africa. Each will have different knowledge claims and experiences that will have shaped how they perceive abortion. From an oppression viewpoint, standpoint theory proves to be quite pertinent. Oftentimes certain aspects of society, and the knowledge that they hold, are kept suppressed because they are viewed as inferior points of view. Gendered oppression is born through gender norms that have been adopted by society. Throughout history, the majority of cultures believe that the gender norms constitute masculinity as being the dominant gender while femininity being the oppressed. The gendered power differences allow specific groups to thrive in society at the expense of others. “Many have argued that cultural practices concerning gender norms of child care, housework, appearance, and career impose an unfair burden on women and as such are oppressive.” According to feminist Barbara Cattunar, women have always been “subjected to many forms of oppression, backed up by religious texts which insist upon women’s inferiority and subjugation.” Femininity has always been looked down upon perpetuated by socially constructed stereotypes, which has affected women’s societal status and opportunity. In current society sources like the media further, impose gendered oppression as they shape societal views and ideals on each gender. Female roles in pop- culture are being objectified and sexualized, which as a result, degrades the female gender. The development of feminism is the outcome of gendered oppression and has brought a lot of awareness to the issue. Along with females other groups that do not identify with the dominant masculine, male gender are also subjected to oppression. These groups include the transgender community and gender-nonconformists.
The dominant societal views surrounding masculinity have formed a sexuality hierarchy oppressing individuals who do not comply with the social phenomenon of heteronormity. Heteronormity suggests that anyone who does not identify with the heterosexual status is painted as different or abnormal by society. “The patriarchal hierarchies are fundamental to the analysis of sexuality.” The dominant group oppresses those who identify with the non-hetero sexuality status that is prevalent in the current patriarchal system. The oppression faced by the lesbian, gay, and bisexual community comes out of the societal views points attributed to the nuclear family in a capitalist society. Social actions by the oppressed groups like the 1970s Gay Liberation movement have come about in order to evoke change for the oppressed groups. While progress has been made there is still a lot of discrimination and inequality faced by the oppressed groups.
"Institutional Oppression occurs when established laws, customs, and practices systemically reflect and produce inequities based on one's membership in targeted social identity groups. If oppressive consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs, or practices, the institution is oppressive whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have oppressive intentions."
Institutionalized oppression allows for government systems and its employees to systematically favor specific groups of people based upon group identity. Dating back to colonization, the United States implemented the institution of slavery where African Americans were brought to the United States to be a source of free labor to expand the cotton and tobacco industry. Implementing these systems by the United States government was justified through religious grounding where “servants [were] bought and established as inheritable property”.
Although the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments freed African Americans, gave them citizenship, and provided them the right to vote, institutions such as police departments continue to instill oppressive systems against minorities. Police departments train their officers to profile individuals based upon their racial heritage and exert excess force in order to restrain them. Racial profiling and police brutality are “employed to control a population thought to be undesirable, undeserving, and under punished by established law”. In both situations, police officers “rely on legal authority to exonerate their extralegal use of force; both respond to perceived threats and fears aroused by out-groups, especially— but not exclusively— racial minorities”. For example, “blacks are: approximately four times more likely to be targeted for police use of force than their white counterparts; arrested and convicted for drug-related criminal activities at higher rates than their overall representation in the U.S. population; and are more likely to fear unlawful and harsh treatment by law enforcement officials”. The International Association of Chiefs of Police collected data from police departments between the years 1995 and 2000 and found that 83% of incidents involving use-of-force against subjects of different races than the officer executing force involved a white officer and a black subject.
Institutionalized oppression is not only experienced by people of racial minorities, but also affects those of the LGBT community. Oppression of the LGBT community in the United States dates back to President Eisenhower’s presidency where he passed the Executive Order No. 10450 in April 1953 which permitted non-binary sexual behaviors to be investigated by federal security programs. As a response to this order, “More than 800 federal employees resigned or were terminated in the two years following because their files linked them in some way with homosexuality”.
Oppression of the LGBT community continues today through religious systems and their justifications of discrimination based upon their own religious freedom. States such as Arizona and Kansas passed laws in 2014 giving religious-based businesses “the right to refuse service to LGBT customers”. The proposal of Employment Non-Discrimination Act (EDNA) offers full protection of LGBT workers from job discrimination; however, the act does not offer protection against religious-based corporations and businesses, ultimately allowing the LGBT community to be discriminated against in environments such as churches and religious-based hospitals. The LGBT community is further oppressed by the United States government with the passage of the First-Amendment Defense Act which states, “Protecting religious freedom from Government intrusion is a Government interest of the highest order”. This act essentially allows for institutions of any kind—schools, businesses, hospitals—to deny service to people based upon their sexuality because it goes against a religious belief.
The term economic oppression changes in meaning and significance over time, depending on its contextual application. In today’s context, economic oppression may take several forms, including but not limited to: the practice of bonded labour in some parts of India, serfdom, forced labour, low wages, denial of equal opportunity, practicing employment discrimination, and economic discrimination based on sex, nationality, race, and religion.
Ann Cudd describes the main forces of economic oppression as oppressive economic systems and direct and indirect forces. Even though capitalism and socialism are not inherently oppressive, they “lend themselves to oppression in characteristic ways." She defines direct forces of economic oppression as “restrictions on opportunities that are applied from the outside on the oppressed, including enslavement, segregation, employment discrimination, group-based harassment, opportunity inequality, neocolonialism, and governmental corruption.” This allows for a dominant social group to maintain and maximize its wealth through the intentional exploitation of economically inferior subordinates. In indirect forces (also known as oppression by choice), “the oppressed are co-opted into making individual choices that add to their own oppression.” The oppressed are faced with the decision of choosing to go against their social good, and even against their own good. If they choose otherwise, they have to choose against their interests, which may lead to resentment.
An example of direct forces of economic oppression is employment discrimination in the form of the gender pay gap. Restrictions on women's access to and participation in the workforce like the wage gap is an “inequality most identified with industrialized nations with nominal equal opportunity laws; legal and cultural restrictions on access to education and jobs, inequities most identified with developing nations; and unequal access to capital, variable but identified as a difficulty in both industrialized and developing nations”. In the United States, the median weekly earnings for women were 82 percent of the median weekly earnings for men in 2016. Some argue women are prevented from achieving complete gender equality in the workplace because of the “ideal-worker norm,” which “defines the committed worker as someone who works full-time and full force for forty years straight,” a situation designed for the male sex. Women, in contrast, are still expected to fulfill the caretaker role and take time off for domestic needs such as pregnancy and ill family members, preventing them from conforming to the “ideal-worker norm.” With the current norm in place, women are forced to juggle full-time jobs and family care at home. Others believe that this difference in wage earnings is likely due to the supply and demand for women in the market because of family obligations. Eber and Weichselbaumer argue that “over time, raw wage differentials worldwide have fallen substantially. Most of this decrease is due to better labor market endowments of females."
Indirect economic oppression is exemplified when workers perform labor abroad to support their families. For outsourced employees, working abroad gives them little to no bargaining power with not only their employers but with immigration authorities. They could be forced to accept low wages and work in poor living conditions. And by working abroad, outsourced employees contribute to the industry of foreign countries instead of their own. Veltman and Piper describe the effects of outsourcing on female laborers abroad:
- Her work may be oppressive first in respects of being heteronomous: she may enter work under conditions of constraint; her work may bear no part of reflectively held life goals; and she may not even have the: freedom of bodily movement at work. Her work may also fail to permit a meaningful measure of economic independence or to help her support herself or her family, which she identifies as the very purpose of her working."
By deciding to work abroad, laborers are “reinforcing the forces of economic oppression that presented them with such poor options."
Resistance to oppression has been linked to a moral obligation, an act deemed necessary for the preservation of self and society. Still, resistance to oppression has been largely overlooked in terms of the amount of research and number of studies completed on the topic, and therefore, is often largely misinterpreted as “lawlessness, belligerence, envy, or laziness." Over the last two centuries, resistance movements have risen that specifically aim to oppose, analyze, and counter various types of oppression, as well as to increase public awareness and support of groups who have been marginalized and disadvantaged by systematic oppression. Late 20th century resistance movements such as Liberation Theology and Anarchism set the stage for mass critiques of and resistance to forms of social and institutionalized oppression that have been subtly enforced and reinforced over time. Resistance movements of the 21st century have furthered the missions of activists across the world, and movements such as Liberalism, Black Lives Matter (related: Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter) and Feminism (related: Meninism) are some of the most prominent examples of resistance to oppression today.
Liberalism represents a relatively inclusive political philosophy and worldview, and a growing opposition to more conservative perspectives. Classical liberal ideologies consist of political decentralization, separation of church and state, freedom of immigration, cultural and religious tolerance, and the privatization of education systems. Liberalism’s main tenets are liberty, equality, and tolerance, which, in many ways, laid the foundation for movements against oppression. Now, Liberalism is much more than a political ideology; it is a personal outlook on life, encouraging the widespread progression toward social, political, and cultural equality before the law.
Black Lives Matter is a politically charged activist movement that has taken hold in many countries across the world. The Black Lives Matter movement is a later iteration of the black liberation movement, which can be largely traced back to the extensive beating of Rodney King, an African-American taxi driver, by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) on March 3, 1991. This incident, videotaped by a conveniently located observer (George Holliday), resulted in the raised awareness of unjust police brutality against African American individuals, and began the era of modern surveillance by civilians, as well as the intersection of videotaping and resistance to police abuse. The Black Lives Matter movement was formally reignited by the murder of Trayvon Martin in March 2012. After Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, who was initially found to be innocent of manslaughter, activists took to the street in defense of Martin’s name, as well as in defense of African-Americans who have been systematically oppressed and abused by law enforcement. Today, the Black Lives Matter movement “demands an end to the disproportionate killing of black people by law-enforcement...and seeks to root out white supremacy wherever it lives.” Efforts have been made in the form of protest, the seeking of updated local and state legislation, and even social media hashtags. As Black Lives Matter spread across the world, people reacted in one of two ways: they either met the movement with resistance, as exemplified by the origination of the Blue Lives Matter and All Lives Matter movements, or they acknowledged and recognized the movement’s goals and initiatives, as well as how the mistreatment of African-Americans permeated society in a number of ways. Due to the nature of oppression, resistance movements often incorporate intersectionality, and the Black Lives Matter movement in particular is no exception. It’s widespread recognition and advancement has proved beneficial to the advancement of other social justice movements, namely Feminism, through the empowerment and activism of Black feminists.
Although a relatively modern form of resistance, Feminism’s origins can be traced back to the events leading up to the introduction of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1923. While the ERA was created to address the need for equal protection under the law between men and women in the workplace, it spurred increased feminism that has come to represent the search for equal opportunity and respect for women in patriarchal societies, across all social, cultural, and political spheres. Demonstrations and marches have been a popular medium of support, with the January 21, 2017 Women’s March’s replication in major cities across the world drawing tens of thousands of supporters. Feminists’ main talking points consist of women’s reproductive rights, the closing of the pay gap between men and women, the Glass Ceiling and workplace discrimination, and the intersectionality of Feminism with other major issues such as African-American rights, immigration freedoms, and gun violence. Another popular movement has arisen which initially undermined the efforts of feminist thinkers, known as Meninism. However, the Meninism’s initial mockery of Feminism has become a channel through which to voice concerns about the equally unrealistic standards that men are held to in modern society.
- Abuse of power
- Abusive power and control
- Anti-oppressive practice
- Civil rights movement
- Ethnic cleansing
- Oppressors-oppressed distinction
- Political repression
- Police oppression
- Economic oppression
- Privilege (social inequality)
- Racial segregation
- Triple oppression
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