Understanding Systems of Oppression

What do we mean when we say that various forms of oppression are "institutionalized" in the United States?

When writing about the social evils of prejudice and oppression, the devil is in the details. Many older studies of prejudice had a "tendency to collapse distinctions between types of prejudice..." observes Young-Bruehl. They assumed "that a nationalism and racism, an ethnocentric prejudice and an ideology of desire, can be dynamically the same..." Furthermore, she writes "there is a tendency to approach prejudice either psychologically or sociologically without consideration for the interplay of psychological and sociological factors." In a complementary fashion, Buechler notes that issues of class, race, and gender are "omnipresent in the background of all forms of collective action" and reflect "institutional embeddedness within the social fabric at all levels." But he adds that these are distinct yet overlapping structures of power that need to be assessed both independently and jointly. To do this it is important "to theorize the different, specific, underlying dynamics that distinguish one structure from another." Ultimately, the successful assertion of "collective human rights" or "group rights" depends on the "linking of ethnicity/race, class, gender, and sexuality," argues Felice, because this linkage "mutes supremacist tendencies by denying the right of any one group to assert supremacy over a different group". For brevity, this constellation of identities sometimes is referred to as race, gender, and class.

To unravel systems of oppression involving race, gender, and class we need a more complex formula that is better at mapping out the dynamics of societal oppressions in ways that resonate with the everyday experiences of our colleagues, students, neighbors, and families. This is especially important in an era of open hostility to discussions of supremacy, domination, and oppression. Developing a concept of "racial formation," Omi and Winant argue that "racial projects" that are "racist" entail a linkage between "essentialist representations of race and social structures of domination." They further argue that "racial ideology and social structure" act in an interconnected and dialectical manner to shape racist projects. Applying these concepts to racism, sexism, and heterosexism, I think it is useful to define societal oppression as the result of a dynamic process involving ideas, acts, and a hierarchical position of dominance that is structural. The dominance enshrined in "social structures of domination" involves both unequal power and privilege. The resulting formula is as follows:

Supremacist Ideology + Discriminatory Acts + Structural Dominance = Oppression.

From: Chip Berlet. 2004. “Mapping the Political Right: Gender and Race Oppression in Right-Wing Movements.” In Abby Ferber, ed, Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism. New York: Routledge.


Systems of Oppression

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