Race and Oppression
African-Americans have a long and very painful history of oppression and discrimination in the U.S. First it was slavery that oppressed them and kept them in a position of subordination and extreme poverty. Once slavery was abolished, race relations took on another turn as racial discrimination was used as a tool of oppression. Blacks who should have been free and equal now were still treated as slaves and gifts of equality and freedom were never granted to them willingly. This led to troubles of extreme nature that involved, kidnapping, lynching and killing of blacks in some areas while in others they were oppressed through other subtle means such as racial segregation and discrimination in the areas of jobs and education. The tactic used by whites was fear. Lynching and other violent activities were the norm prior to 1930. In the book, “Southern Horrors and other Stories,” Ida Wells wrote: “Brutality still continued; Negroes were whipped, scourged, exiled, shot and hung whenever and wherever it pleased the white man so to treat them, and as the civilized world with increasing persistency held the white people of the South to account for its outlawry, the murderers in. vented the third excuse-that Negroes had to be killed to avenge their) assaults upon women. There could be framed no possible excuse more harmful to the Negro and more unanswerable if true in its sufficiency for the white man.” (a Red Record, the case Stated, Pg. 11)
Fear and violence were thus the main tools of oppression from 1840s to 1930. This helps us understand the psyche of the oppressor. While he tries to control the body, mind and spirit of the oppressed through various means, he usually does that with the help of fear that serves as a vital tool. Bell Hooks (2000) in her book ‘All About Love’ explains:
Cultures of domination rely on the cultivation of fear as a way to ensure obedience… As a culture we are obsessed with the notion of safety… Fear is the primary force upholding structures of domination… When we are taught safety lies always with sameness, then difference, of any kind, will appear as a threat.” (34)
Oppression refers to unequal distribution of resources and in some cases use of violence. This definition is derived from the works of Moss (1991), Blauner (1972), and Serrano-Garcia & Lopez Sanchez (1992). Blacks became victim of this form of oppression consistently when they were subjected to discrimination and violence even after they were supposedly free. It must be borne in mind that oppression works because it affects the minds and souls of the oppressed. White people used these tactics to weaken the minds of blacks and to make them believe that they were born inferior. Woodson observed that:
Starting out after the Civil War, the opponents of freedom and social justice decided to work out a program which would enslave the Negroes mind inasmuch as the freedom of body had to be conceded…. If you can control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself. If you make a man think that he is justly an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door. He will go without being told; and if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.” (Woodson, 1933, p. 84-85)
Steven Biko (1978), a South African social activist, also supported this viewpoint and asserted that “The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed” (p. xix). Oppression is thus the unjust and brutal exercise of power that is targeted against weaker people and aims to maintain control of all possible means and resources of success and growth. By denying blacks their rights to good education, voting and jobs they were deliberately kept away from participating in economic progress which could mean success for them too. Whites maintained control of all national resources in order to be able to create an unequal social order where blacks suffered repeatedly and for a very long time. Oppression is thus a process that works in a certain manner. It is used for the primary purpose of maintaining and sustaining injustice and inequality. The outcome thus include multigenerational extreme poverty, drug abuse, criminal and antisocial behavior, and disruptive mental state. Martin Luther King Jr. (1958) understood this process clearly as he once observed: “There must be a rhythmic alteration between attacking the causes and healing the effects” (p. 224).
Racial discrimination and denial of civil rights were main weapons of oppression in the aftermath of Civil War. However things did not change much even after the reforms and superficial changes of 1960s and 1970s because it is found that oppression in the form of discrimination is still a pervasive problem in American society. While some effort was made to modify the social norms and behavior after Civil Rights era, many still believe that.”.. problem of racism has never really been resolved in American society” (Cox, 1990) or few have ever questioned the veracity of the claim that:
Whites in all strata of American society manifest perceptions (against Blacks) of a distorted and misanthropic nature that have a greater breadth, depth, and durability than those held about other discriminated against minorities who constitute the American mosaic” (Franklin, 1991).
Oppression now has a new face and it surfaces in many different forms. It must be remembered that while inequality and injustice are supposedly removed from the society with the help of various amendments and legislation, oppression is still being practices in two important forms. These two forms were pointed out by Thomas and Sillen (1971) in their research on racial oppression: “The first is that black people are born with inferior brains and a limited capacity for mental growth. The second is that their personality tends to be abnormal, whether by nature or by nurture. These concepts of inferiority and pathology are interrelated and reinforce one another.”
To think of someone as inferior or less intelligent than others is a tactic of oppression widely practiced today in the American society. These biases have also been found in researches and studies conducted to address this problem. The result of course has been predictable and expected. Stanfield and Dennis (1991) explain:
the study of racial and ethnic issues in the social sciences has remained deeply grounded in societal folk beliefs. Thus conceptualizations of research problems and interpretations of collected data in racial and ethnic research often have been preceded by a priori ideological and cultural biases that determine the production of ‘objective knowledge.'”
African-Americans were slow to resist and this is one reason they suffered injustice for so long in this country. According to Bauer resistance is “any group action consciously taken in opposition to known or surmised laws, actions, or intentions directed against the Jews by the Germans and their supporters” (p. 27). The process of resistance once triggered continued to affect the established social order and things continued to change even though racism and oppression still persist in milder and subtler forms. Resistance was first and most powerfully launched in the form of writings. It was with the help of literature that blacks challenged the established social norms. Resistance was thus gradually started to challenge and alter the status quo. Educated black people began raising voice against injustice and inequality suffered by them and this slow resistance gained power and momentum when people Martin Luther Jr. And Malcolm X joined the process. These people came with a powerful mandate and worked ceaselessly to “challenge, disrupt, or invert prevailing assumptions, discourses, and power relations” (Folger & Skarlicki, 1999, p. 36). Civil Rights era marks the beginning of powerful resistance against oppression. Blacks from all over the country awoke to the reality and ugliness of the situation and their effort bore fruit when Civil Rights Act of 1964 was promulgated. Resistance has had some impact on social system. Discriminatory practices are not as obvious as they once were. People and organizations understand the repercussions of discriminating on the basis of race and color. However African-Americans still have a long way to go before they can consider themselves free and equal in true sense of the term.
Biko, S. (1978). Steve Biko: Black Consciousness in South Africa. M. Arnold (Ed.). New York: Random House
Blauner, R. (1972). Racial oppression in America. San Francisco: Harper & Row.
Folger, R. & Skarlicki, D. (1999). Unfairness and resistance to change: hardship as mistreatment, Journal of Organizational Change Management, 35-50.
Franklin, R.S. (1991). Shadows of race and class. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
Hooks B. (2000) All About Love Harper Collins
Jacqueline Jones Royster, (Editor) Southern Horrors and Other Writings the Anti-Lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892-1900
Moss, J. (1991). Hurling oppression: Overcoming Anomie and self-hatred. In B. Bowser (Ed.), Black Male Adolescents: Parenting and education in community context. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Stanfield, J.H., & Dennis, R.M. (Eds.). (1991). Race and ethnicity in research methods. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications
Thomas, a., & Sillen, S. (1971). Racism and psychiatry. New York: Carol Publishing Group
Woodson, C.G. (1933). The Mis-Education of the Negro. New York: AMS Press.
Yehuda Bauer, the Jewish Emergence from Powerlessness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979)
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