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Old Sunday, May 24, 2015
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Default Oppression; social structure

A Structural Analysis of Oppression
by
Sandra Hinson and Alexa Bradley
Introduction
Bridging the race and class divide is a tall order –– and
a critical challenge for our movements. It requires that
we dedicate time and space for serious analysis, open
conversations, internal struggle and deliberate action. It
requires that we carefully explore the centrality of race in
shaping the history of this country and its institutions, the
legacy of slavery and imperialism, and the persistence of
ideas around white supremacy and cultural dominance.
Likewise, we need ways of examining the long history of
class exploitation and the often hidden injuries of class in
our society. We must seek ways of talking about the intersections
of race and class that lift up our similarities while
honoring our differences.
We are experimenting with a framework based on
the writings of Iris Marion Young. What we like about this
“Youngian” framework is that it focuses on the ways in
which people experience oppressive conditions in their
daily lives. It helps us lift up the hidden as well as visible
injuries of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and all
the other –isms in our society and to name the structural
nature of these injuries. This framework offers an alternative
way for people to make sense of their experiences and
frustrations in our corporate-dominated, market-driven
society. Please note that this analysis is not a substitute for
a careful study of the history of racism and white supremacy,
nor does it address the need for taking a closer look at
the ways in which our own organizations may perpetuate
experiences of domination and oppression.
Defining Oppression
When they hear the word “oppression,” many people
think of conditions in distance places and times: it is
what brutal dictators and totalitarian governments do to
their subjects or to the people they have conquered. People
do not think of oppression as something that happens
in open and democratic societies, partly because they
associate oppression with an ‘intent’ to oppress. And yet,
oppressive conditions exist in liberal, democratic societies,
not necessarily as part of intended policies or practices,
but as something that has been woven into the fabric of
our major economic, political and cultural institutions.
A person lives within structures of domination and
oppression if other groups have the power to determine
her actions. Individuals experience oppressive conditions
because they are part of a group that is defined on the
basis of shared characteristics such as race, class, gender,
ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, age, ability, etc. These
major social groups have specific attributes, stereotypes
and norms associated with them. Individual membership
in these groups is not necessarily voluntary. It is not necessarily
acknowledged, either.
In some cases, membership in a social group is pretty
straightforward because people more-or-less recognize
themselves as having something in common with the
group as a whole. For example, African-Americans typically
have a sense of shared experiences and affinities
with other African Americans, and women often see
themselves as having some things in common with other
women. Within any social group, there are even more
layers of divisions and intersections of experience - gay
men and lesbians have different experiences depending
on class, race, ability, gender, etc. Likewise with people of
color and class, and with the intersections and differences
among women’s experiences based in race, class, marital
status, occupation, etc.
Less straightforward are group identities based in
class. This is especially true in our society, where we live
with the prevailing myth that we are a ‘classless’ society,
and that class does not matter much, if at all, in determining
our life-chances and choices.
The ruling class sees itself as, and acts like a social
group whose members have shared interests and goals,
similar cultural interests and expressions, and a shared
worldview. The working class is divided into many ‘segments’
based on occupation, skill level, income level, con-
Grassroots Policy Project
A Structural Analysis of Oppression
2 A Structural Analysis of Oppression
sumption patterns, race, gender, immigrant status, union,
non-union and more. Fragmentation of the working class
is related to the ways in which the organization of labor
markets creates and perpetuates oppressive conditions for
many kinds of workers.
Five Forms of Oppression
As members of certain social groups, people usually
experience oppression as one or more of the following
conditions:
1. Exploitation
2. Marginalization
3. Powerlessness
4. Cultural Dominance
5. Violence
We will look at examples of each of these conditions.
We will seek to understand them in terms of the ways in
which they are embedded in social and economic structures
of society. We will use this understanding to explore
what justice demands of us, as social change activists
who are struggle to build a more democratic and humane
society.
Exploitation
“This world is ill divided. Them that work the hardest
are the least provided.”
English Folk Song, early 19th Century
In a market economy such as ours, labor is a commodity.
The people who own the means of production
–– that is, the owners of the raw materials and the tools,
equipment and facilities that convert raw materials into
products –– need labor power, which refers to the time,
skills and energies that workers expend in the production
process. If you are an owner, most of your profit is
derived by getting more from the results of your workers’
labor power than you are paying in actual labor costs. You
want to keep the surplus that results from the difference
between worker’s productivity and their wages. If you are
a worker, then you seek to increase what you get paid for
your labor power, and you probably have a different sense
of what is a ‘fair’ wage than your boss does. Because of the
nature of profit, some degree of exploitation is built into
the relationship between owners and workers.
In any society, the extent of the gap between the
wealthy owners and the masses of working people is an indication
of the degree of exploitation that exists in that society.
Exploitation creates unjust power relations when
workers’ energies and capacities are controlled by, and
appropriated for the benefit of other people –– in most
cases, a few ‘haves’ who maintain and increase their power,
wealth and status at the expense of the many ‘have-nots.’
This is one way that people experience oppression.
As organizers, we need to understand the ways in which
different social groups and segments of workers experience
exploitation in very particular ways. Here is an overview of
how exploitation is related to class, race and gender:
Class:
l Exploitation and conflict are built into the profit motive
and labor relations.
l Exploitation occurs mainly through the process of
transferring the value of worker’s productivity from
the workers themselves to owners, managers and
other elites.
l It reflects and reinforces dominant power relations in
society as the energies of the ‘have-nots’ are appropriated
to maintain the status, wealth and power of the
‘haves.’
l To counter the power of the ‘haves,’ workers must join
together, and see themselves as members of a class
that, like the ruling class, has shared interests.
Race:
l Historically, race-specific exploitation has existed
within the capitalist system in the U.S, and elsewhere.
l Capitalism seeks to keep a segment of the labor market
stuck in, or desperate for, low-paying, low-skill jobs.
For historic reasons, people of color make up the bulk
of this segment of the labor market.
l Race-based segmentation of workers continues to
make it harder for workers of color to get higher paying,
higher skilled jobs.
l For many immigrant communities, social isolation and
invisibility reinforcs race-specific exploitation.
l Discrimination in other spheres, such as housing and
education, ensures the continuation of race-based
labor market segmentation.
l As better-paying jobs become more scarce, and as
competition intensifies, people of color with good
jobs experience more resentment from white workers
who think they got the job through ‘affirmative action.’
A Structural Analysis of Oppression 3
Gender:
l Historically, capitalist production has joined with
patriarchal traditions and beliefs to create gender
exploitation.
l When a man’s status, power and independence is supported
by unappreciated and undervalued “women’s
work,’ paid or unpaid, it is a form of gender exploitation.
l Occupations that are associated with “women’s work”
are lower-paying. These jobs often involve nurturing
and caring for others.
l Sometimes women break into a male-dominated occupation.
Usually, once women enter in large numbers,
the occupation becomes ‘de-skilled.’ For example,
clerical workers mostly were men until the early 20th
century. When it became a woman’s job, pay levels,
job status and autonomy went down.
For a fuller understanding of both the similarities and
differences among the majority of people who experience
some form of exploitation, we need to look at the ways in
which exploitation interacts with other forms and conditions
of oppression.
Marginalization
Not everyone is able to participate in the labor market
on a regular basis. Some segments of the population do
not possess skills, attributes or characteristics that employers
are seeking. For the most part, they are shut out of the
labor market. Their ranks may include the involuntarily
unemployed who have given up trying to find work, the
elderly, the physically and mentally disabled, the mentally
ill, those who have missed out on basic education and occupational
skills-development. These groups of people are
experiencing marginalization.
Women on welfare experience marginalization when
they are stigmatized as non-productive members of society
–– even if they care for children, sick relatives or elderly
parents. Black and Latino youth who cannot get their first
jobs are marginalized in ways that affect their aspirations
for the future. Native Americans on reservations may be
marginalized by high unemployment rates and limited
opportunities to develop marketable skills. People who
remain in the prison population for any significant amount
of time face marginalization. In many of these cases, race is
a factor in peoples’ experiences with marginalization. Because
more workers get displaced in a changing economy,
and as it becomes harder for them to find new jobs, the
experience of marginalization is spreading to more and
more groups of people, including the white working class.
In a society in which peoples’ value and worth is based
in their earning power, those who are shut out of the labor
market are seen as burdens on society. As a result, the
marginalized may feel uselessness, boredom, and a lack of
self-respect. They learn that ‘dependence’ is a dirty word.
Dependency is a basic human condition and it need not
lead to oppressive power relations. Unfortunately, people
who are considered ‘non-productive’ and ‘dependent’ on
others are treated as second-class citizens. In political as
well as economic spheres, they are denied access to the
main outlets through which they can develop their capacities
to the fullest.
Powerlessness
This aspect of oppression brings in the important
dimension of ‘status.’ When we add ‘status’ to ‘class,’ we see
that not all working people are the same, in terms of their
power and autonomy. Workers experience powerlessness
when they are routinely shut out of decisions that affect
the conditions of their employment, and, beyond that, the
basic conditions of their lives.
By contrast, professional workers may have more relative
social as well as economic power because they enjoy
the following:
l Knowledge, expertise and opportunities to use these
on the job and in their daily lives, as well as opportunities
to expand them.
l Autonomy, which means they have a voice in the conditions
of their employment. They supervise others,
and many opportunities to exercise their own judgment
and to make significant decisions.
l Social respectability, which means that, on the job
and in life in general, professionals enjoy a high social
status. Their opinions are sough after and listened to.
They are seen to be in control of their lives.
Respectability –– who has it, and who does not ––
intersects with class, race and gender in many ways. Most
people of color have to prove their social respectability ––
it is not assumed or automatically granted. The same often
is true for women. A working-class white man may be
afforded respectability based on race and gender biases
that work in his favor. But, as soon as it is known that he is
working class, then he loses some of his status and respectability.
This translates into having less political power –– our
democracy is distorted by these kinds of power relations
as professionals have greater access to political institutions
and politicians than do other workers.
Most professionals may be unaware that they have
greater political access by virtue of their status, unless or
4 A Structural Analysis of Oppression
until they lose their status. Corporate layoffs and downsizing
have expanded the ranks of the powerless. With recent
attacks on public sector workers, even professional workers
are experiencing increasing levels of powerlessness in
today’s political-economic environment.
Cultural Dominance
The first three forms of oppression that we have examined
–– exploitation, marginalization and powerlessness ––
are related to the ways in which economic and social power
are distributed based on peoples’ positions within labor
markets. We have explored how these positions affect a
person’s ability to develop her or his capacities and to make
decisions about her or his life conditions. We have explored
the intersections of class, race and gender through these
forms of oppression. Now, we want to bring in an aspect of
oppression that goes beyond a person’s labor market position.
We are calling it ‘cultural dominance,’ or, as Young terms
it, ‘cultural imperialism.’
Cultural dominance refers to the way that one group’s
experiences, cultural expressions and history are defined
as superior to all other groups’ experiences and histories.
It is not necessary for anyone to say: “my group’s culture is
superior;” it simply has to be treated as universal –– representing
the best in all of humanity. It is considered ‘normal,’
which means that all others are either ‘strange,’ or ‘invisible’
or both.
The dominant culture gets reinforced because members
of the culturally dominant group tend to control
the means of interpreting, producing and reproducing
cultural goods and products: art, music, literature, film,
etc. Cultural differences necessarily get defined as deviant
or exotic, which often is coded as inferior. And the cultural
differences that the dominant group sees in others are
easily ascribed to physical variations, such as skin color,
ethnicity, accents, gender, sexual identities, etc.
In the mainstream, we find exotic images of ‘the other,’
but rarely in ways that portray people’s everyday lives.
Those outside the mainstream have to fight for cultural
space. When they get it, they struggle to hang onto
cultural space for more than one representation at a time
–– we can have one gay movie, one black director, one
woman spokesperson at a time.
If you are a member of a group whose cultural expressions
are outside of the norm, you may feel ‘marked
out’ as different. In many social situations, you are seen
as representing your entire group, while members of
the dominant culture are judged as individuals. In other
situations, you may feel invisible because your expressions
and experiences are not represented. All of this gets
internalized: you look at yourself through the eyes of the
dominant group. You struggle against stereotypes and the
limits that are placed on you. At the same time, you may
feel a deeper connection with members of your cultural
and social group, and you want to lift up the rich and
meaningful expressions that you and members of your
group create and experience. Those who fit more neatly
within the mainstream culture also miss out –– they lose
opportunities to know more about, connect with, people
who are different from them. They lose some of the richness
of the human experience.
Perhaps the greatest injustice of cultural dominance
is that it allows the dominant group to impose its own
interpretations of social life upon all others. This affects
what is invested in, both in terms of cultural products and
in terms of economic decisions –– how we value some
neighborhoods, cities and regions over others, whether
we see certain uses of public funds as ‘good investments’
or ‘bad investments,’ and whether we value public education
enough to invest in all children or just some children.
In other words, there are both cultural and material consequences
of cultural chauvinism. It reinforces marginalization
and powerlessness.
Violence
Some people live with fear of random attacks that are
meant to humiliate and/or destroy them simply because
they are members of a certain social group. Our nation’s
history is full of examples where violence has been used to
keep a group ‘in its place.’ Racial segregation was backed
up by violence, much of it state-sanctioned. Violence has
been used to end workers’ strikes, to intimidate workers
during contract negotiations and to break up unions.
A few everyday examples of violence as a form of
humiliation include:
l Police brutality against Black and Latino men;
l The way in which rape and sexual harassment keep
women vulnerable;
l Attacks on Muslims, or people assumed to be Muslim,
especially since 9/11;
l Hate crimes against gays, lesbians and transgendered
people;
l Attacks on immigrants at day-labor gathering places,
and the constant threat of workplace raids.
People do not have to experience outright violence
in order to feel under threat. Equally effective is the kind
of ongoing harassment that degrades and humiliates a
A Structural Analysis of Oppression 5
person –– it can be verbal, or sexual, it can take the form
of targeting, such as racial profiling. Harassment usually
carries with it the threat of physical attack.
Beyond a ‘Hierarchy’
of Oppression
Each of these five forms of oppression overlaps with the
other. Each is related to and reinforced by the many
ideological ‘–isms’ and phobias that exist in our society:
racism, classism, homophobia and heterosexism, xenophobia
and extreme forms of nationalism, ageism, and
more. It is part of a larger picture that we need to develop
about racism and how it intersects with class, gender and
other social divisions.
Most people in society experience one or more of
these forms of oppression at some point in their lives.
Most, if not all, working class people experience exploitation
and powerlessness. They may not experience marginalization,
class-based violence, or a sense of being a
cultural outsider –– though one could argue convincingly
that working-class cultural experiences are under-represented
in the mainstream. People of color experience
many of these conditions. Gay men as a group experience
cultural dominance and violence, but they may not necessarily
experience marginalization or powerlessness. White
professional women experience cultural dominance, fear
of sexual violence and, too often, powerlessness -- especially
if they constantly have to prove themselves worthy
of their status. And some people experience all five of
these kinds of oppression.
Summary
These five conditions are part of a complex analysis that
helps us do the following:
l Understand the social structures that create or perpetuate
oppressive conditions;
l Look critically at how these conditions and experiences
affect us –– as members of oppressed groups as
well as members of groups that are conferred certain
privileges and benefits in relation to oppressed
groups.
l Understand more about how different experiences of
oppression affect the people we want to stand and
fight with for a different kind of society.
Using these five forms of oppression as a tool for
understanding the structural causes of oppression (economic,
social and cultural) allows us to look at any social
group’s experiences without necessarily privileging one
particular form of oppression over another, or any groups’
experiences over another’s. At the same time, these five
ways of looking at oppression help us see that people
cannot be divided neatly into the ‘oppressed’ and the
‘oppressor’ columns. Not all people are oppressed to the
same degree. Some do experience more and different
forms of oppression than others, often because of racism.
Understanding these differences is important for us as
organizers. We need to build upon people’s experiences
of oppression to encourage them to get involved in collective
action for social change, and to join with others,
whose experiences with oppression may look somewhat
different from their own.
Finally, this analysis of oppression can help us see
more concretely what justice demands of us, toward
finding effective ways to challenge social arrangements
that favor a privileged few over the many, and to replace
oppressive conditions with relationships and experiences
that enable all people to develop their capacities to the
fullest.
This essay is based on Iris Marion Young’s article: “The Five
Faces of Oppression” in Rethinking Power, edited by Thomas
Wartenberg, SUNY Press, 1992.

Last edited by Amna Noor; Sunday, May 24, 2015 at 02:40 PM. Reason: repetition
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Old Friday, June 19, 2015
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i have opted GS for CE-2016. please more notes required
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Old Friday, June 19, 2015
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Any good book that covers most of the topics given in fpsc syllabus?
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Old Wednesday, August 05, 2015
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@aclock..:Get book of Jahangir Publishers.it is comprehensive.
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