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Words have meanings. They may change over time due to various conditions, but the existence of definitions is real. Consistent and agreed-upon ones are important to all areas of study so knowledge may be exchanged. When working to understand sociology, learning and using its terms correctly makes it easier to comprehend the material that it analyzes and describes. One word that comes up when discussing race or class is “oppression.” Despite its casual usage when discussing anything from a heat wave to a significant amount of homework, its meaning has to be clear and distinct when discussing its effects on classes of people. This is why I have come to understand oppression as meaning, “the consistent and systemic application of laws and social norms to suppress the economic and political power otherwise obtainable by the members of a class of people seen as unworthy of them by the people who control the dialog in a given society.” This definition is easily demonstrated by examining the legal and economic status of black people during the history of the United States of America (USA).
Before going into the area of legal controls on black Americans, an examination of how the definition of blackness was formed and enforced is needed. The separation of white from black opened the door to all of the following laws and behaviors aimed at keeping the latter group subdued and dependent. Pem Davidson Buck’s essay, “Constructing Race, Creating White Privilege” explores the history of its creation in the USA, starting with the late 17th century laws forbidding white women and black men from marrying each other (2001, p. 21). This was seen as necessary to prevent the blurring of lines between the two groups of servants that was occurring in keeping with prior belief that darker-skinned people were not significantly different than their paler counterparts (Buck, 2001, p. 21). Accompanying this divide was the growing assertion that enough black ancestry, often 1/32 as in a South Carolina law which described how to determine a child’s race for their birth certificate (Omi & Winant, 1986, p. 11), made someone wholly black. This was independent of their physical appearance.
The legal ramifications of being defined as black were enormous after Emancipation, especially in the former Confederacy. Aside from the aforementioned laws banning interracial relationships, those several states passed what were called the Black Codes. Their stated intent was to maintain order in the new world of freed blacks, but they more often served to keep anyone deemed black restricted to extremely confined roles. They also caused their freedom of movement and ability to change jobs to be all but eliminated. Vagrancy laws were a case in point. According to W.E.B. DuBois, any black person found wandering alone and unable to present proof of gainful employment on request could be arrested (1962, p. 503). This required a black person to secure a new job before leaving the old one, an act which was nearly impossible in that day and age for working-class people. Similar laws arose post-Reconstruction and were dubbed the Jim Crow Laws. One example of these was the creation of separate rail cars for black and white passengers. A mixed-race man named Homer Adolph Plessy sued after he was forced to sit in the black area of a train instead of the first-class (read white) accommodations for which he paid. He lost in the 1896 Supreme Court decision called Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the court opined that while blacks were equal to whites, legally enforced separation of the races did not constitute an undue burden to said equality (Brown, 1896, p. 516). Similar legal refusal to grant black people equal accommodation occurred after World War II, when the G.I. Bill of Rights was passed in 1944 to assist white veterans and their families in areas ranging from college tuition to home-buying (Brodkin, 1998, p. 27). Already economically deprived black Americans were shut out of the housing boom that followed by Federal law and more local regulations and practices (Brodkin, 1998, p. 33).
The constraints imposed by centuries of enslavement and discrimination continue to have a stunning effect on black Americans’ ability to stand as equals to whites. As our class website notes, unemployment rates for blacks are significantly higher than for whites. Black men aged 18-29 with a high school diploma faced a rate of 40.7 percent in 2010 while white men in the same situation had a 25.6 percent rate (Epstein, 2017). Higher unemployment rates and a higher rate of urban living since 1970 (Omi & Winant, 1986, p. 11) can be seen to lead to lesser skills in the area of entitlement and asking to have one’s needs met in schools and other institutions due to the black population of the USA being significantly more working-class or poor than their white peers by a percentage basis (Lareau, 2011, p. 167). And even with the legal constraints officially removed, policies such as anti-drug laws and their enforcement have led to much higher incarceration rates than college enrollment numbers for black men (Alexander, 2010, p. 264). This leads to more black men being shut out of the job market than able to take better advantage of it.
In short, black Americans are significantly disadvantaged compared to white people, even in this day and age. Their ability to rise out of poverty for those who face it is severely curtailed. The burden of centuries of legalized discrimination and enforced servitude has not been lifted to any real degree. And all of this can be traced to the creation of the concept of the white race and the ensuing bigotry directed at everyone not deemed to belong to it. If that is not oppression, I truly cannot find word to say what is.
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