On the subject of categorical oppression and inequality

Inspired in part by this concurrent thread about white people and privilege, but something I’ve been thinking about for a long long time…

DOES ANY GOOD come out of maintaining a list of categorical oppressions and making referece to that list to modify or contextualize what would otherwise be a standard of “treat everyone as equals, same rules for everyone”?
Discussion points, in favor of: We all want a world in which everyone is treated equally and fairly. (Or at least we believe we’ve established that much as a common goal and reject any dialog with people who think otherwise and consider them no longer relevant to the moral and ethical discussion). But we do not as of yet live in such a world, and to go forth and treat everyone equally without regard for what they have been through, their contextual situation, assuming that they got to where they are now strictly as a consequence of their character and their behavior and their innate abilities is ITSELF unfair; it lets those who come from a more privileged background benefit from that privilege as if all the advantages that privilege conveys were the result of personal effort and character and other individual characteristics, when that is not in fact the case. We DON’T all start off from the same starting line and we don’t get to operate in the same context; therefore we SHOULD be aware of the various categories by which the world of people is divided into privileged versus disempowered, and take the fact of a person’s membership in those various categories into account when we view them, their immediate situation, and their current behaviors and so on.
Discussion points, in opposition: We all want a world in which everyone is treated equally and fairly, where there remains no categorial identity to which an individual could belong that would cause identical or comparable characteristics or behavior to be viewed more favorably or less favorably than those same characteristics or behavior when evidenced by someone who did not belong to that same category. We do not as of yet live in that world, but it is questionable that one can proceed towards it while insistently hanging on to those very categories as fundamental identity factors in order to speak of current and past inequities and unfairnesses. Certainly, indisputably (or at least we’ve established that much as a shared understanding and reject any dialog with people who would dispute this), there are indeed and have been such categorical oppressions and inequalities, and it could not have been possible to do anything to stop those oppressions and inequalities without speaking of them, to draw attention to them, since merely stating a wish for equality and fairness did not make everyone aware of those patterns as unfair patterns. And it is reasonable to posit that treatment of those disenfranchised by such inequities needs to be remedial — in the sense of seeking to remedy — before a subsequent world in which equal and fair treatment is itself fair and possible, but if and only if such remedial treatment is temporary. If it becomes ensconced as a permanent understanding, it reifies the very category across which the original inequity existed. The other problem with this category-conscious approach to fairness and equality is that it makes the tacit but unreasonable assumption that there are a finite number of categorical oppressions and that we happen to know them all. The history of social justice does not support that attitude. From decade to decade and era to era, we have identified new categories across which unequal and unfair treatment has been newly recognized, meaning that ways of treating people that would not have formerly been noted as instances of unfairness now get seen as such. Hence a person who might currently be understood to be a victim of categorical oppression might have been viewed by the same people as one of the privileged just a decade or so earlier. Hence there should not be a societally maintained list of the oppressions and who have been oppressed by them, but rather such assessments need to be refreshed and replenished anew.

Example (just to have an example): I believe affirmative action is a good and reasonable policy, to address a real and unfair social inequality. I believe affirmative action absolutely has to be a TEMPORARY redress — to posit it as permanent is to ensconce inequality in stone. Therefore there shall come a time when affirmative action should be closed out and allowed to expire, as attitude, as policy, as anything other than a closing chapter to the oppression it worked to remedy. I don’t think that time HAS in fact come yet but I think it is important at this point to emphasize its temporary nature.

Your initial premise is wrong.

This isn’t true, never has been true, and probably won’t be true in the future. You and I both want it, and maybe most of the Dopers want it, but there are million and millions of people who don’t – I don’t know the stats, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if an absolute majority of people in the world don’t want this. And getting there implies far more change than most people would even imagine, from individual attitudes right on through the structure and society, the relationship between individuals and government, and the structure of government itself.

By the nature of the second paragraph of your OP, you seem to be addressing America, and America only, and maybe even American citizens only. Should everyone in America, citizen or not, legal resident or not, have the same rights? If not, why not? And why should someone living two feet outside America’s borders have a different set of rights?

The main question I have for the OP is – who is “We”? As long as there’s a ‘we’ that accepts the coexistance of a ‘them’, ‘we’ are going to be ok with having things better than ‘them’ (or imagining that’s the case), and ‘we’ are gonna be pretty pissed off if ‘they’ are better off than ‘we’ are.

Interesting OP. While I think a fine argument can be made that some type of AA may be called for at some point in time, the bar I have for it being present is MUCH higher than yours. Part of the reason is that I think that simply having ( for example) raced-based programs in place helps to continue the conceptual divide that the two races are different.

If you want equality, or maybe I should say, “when you have equality”, race is not a factor. So the longer you have race-based programs in place, you postpone the day you want to see coming.

I look at two scenarios, each beginning in June of 2012. Scenario A has race-based programs in place to some degree. Scenario B has zero race-based programs in place. In fact they are against the law. I fervently believe that the future that you want, one of true equality, will come sooner in Scenario B.

Whew, what a broad topic! But I think I see a fly in the ointment of your reasoning…

Look at this comment of yours: "It lets those who come from a more privileged background benefit from that privilege as if all the advantages that privilege conveys were the result of personal effort and character and other individual characteristics, when that is not in fact the case. We DON’T all start off from the same starting line and we don’t get to operate in the same context; therefore we SHOULD be aware of the various categories by which the world of people is divided into privileged versus disempowered, and take the fact of a person’s membership in those various categories into account when we view them, their immediate situation, and their current behaviors and so on.

Now, everyone seems to understand that statement in the context of racial and ethnic class differences. But reread that statement in the context of, say, upper- and lower-class people of the same race! The upper-class white male Anglo-Saxon in America is greatly privileged and empowered in comparison to millions of “po’ white trash” in America who have exactly the same colour and ethnic background as the upper-class guy. So should affirmative action set aside jobs for people who can prove a “white trash” origin?

Then there is the whole concept of “reparations” for past injustices. There are people who seriously demand that African-Americans be compensated for slavery. Hilariously enough, Obama would NOT be compensated because he is not personally descended from slaves IIRC.

In Canada, there have been demands not only for reparations for Japanese Canadians interned in World War II, but also for Canadians of Ukrainian origin whose grandparents were interned by Canada in World War I!

Do the Welsh have a right to be compensated by the Anglo-Saxons who stole Roman Britain from them? Should I demand compensation from Italy for the Roman conquest of Gaul and the enslavement of my Gallic ancestors? Of course, considering that the Italian government doesn’t seem to have a pot to piss in. . . . . :smiley:

Hence my argument that such reparations must be time-limited.

I think such programs can be helpful in the medium-short run.

There has to be room in political conversation to say “I think we should end this one” without it being political anathema equivalent to saying “I don’t think that category of people is or was oppressed”. To my way of thinking, anyone who believes in fundamental equality has to believe in at least the prospect for actual contextual equality; hence, there has to be room for saying “we’ve reached it now” or “hey let’s talk about how much longer we’re going to continue this one” or whatever.

Did you miss where I qualified it?

No, I didn’t.

Who is the “We” in your OP? Is it simply a list of everyone who agrees with the premise of the OP? If that is the case, then “we all” is a pretty presumptuous term for what may in fact be a relatively small number of people. And I will repeat my question about what constitutes the scope of “we all” and “everyone”, which your example suggests means Americans, or American citizens, or who, exactly? Do you believe Americans are entitled to a different set of rights than everyone else in the world? If you do, IMO that pretty much undermines the idea that you personally believe in the goal you advocate in the OP.

Yes, Virginia, there is (still) such thing as white skin privilege.

Also white flight/separatism.

OTOH, people of the same class but different “races” are not equally privileged; this holds true even at the upper-class level, to some extent – and, to the extent that nonwhite upper-class Americans exist. In fact, the further you go up the class ladder, the fewer nonwhites there are. From The Next American Nation, by Michael Lind:

For purposes of this thread, consider “we” to be those people who do indeed think in those terms and agree with the premise. A smug and arrogant bunch, perhaps, but let’s also posit (for purposes of this thread, at least) that we have no interest in bothering to argue with people who aren’t on board with that much.

This is for the purpose of keeping the conversation focused. There are enough people who believe in the importance of ameliorative attention to people’s categories and categorical oppression who don’t even want to engage in serious conversation with those who think we should try our best to be category-blind, and instead dismiss them (and, to a lesser extent, vice versa), and THAT’S all within the scope of folks who ascribe to the thread’s premise. Dragging in the necessity of arguing that equality and fairness are good things to begin with tends to make such conversations bog down completely.

Meant to reply to this earlier.

Don’t put me down as favoring any specific ameliorative process (including affirmative action as it has been implemented at any particular place, time, or situation);

But as a broad notion, one that includes attitudes and recruitment goals and choices of photographs as well as policies and deliberate reverse discriminations and so on, then YES, this is exactly what I was talking about. On ONE person’s map of “existing inequities” the poor white backwoods mountain people of Appalachia, or perhaps the trailer park culture of parts of western Florida, might not appear as a category we should be concerned with; but for someone else (and perhaps for considerably more people if it were to become a cause celebré issue) people who fall into that category might indeed be considered among the left-outs.

Other examples might include disabled/differently abled people, the ancestrally Gaelic families of Britain, dyslexic people, and atheists. They’ve all been disenfranchised in various ways by being treated, on a group level, by membership in those categories, in ways that limited their opportunities.

Why exactly would that be hilarious?

I think reparations were owed in a moral sense but never paid when it mattered, it is laughable when framed in a modern viewpoint though.

I also don’t understand why that’s “hilarious”.

Accepting the premise of who “we” are, I really can’t see a debate.

Assuming we all agree that all people should be treated fairly and equally, then there are two groups among us – those who imagine this is already the case, and those who imagine it isn’t. Obviously, the people who think we’re already there do have any such lists, because they don’t believe such categories exist anymore.

Those who imagined we have not yet attained this state of fairness and equality can be further subdivided. There are those who would like society to make changes to address issues of unfairness and inequality, and they wish to participate (to a greater or lesser extant) in deciding on the nature of changes to make. Essentially, these are the people who make these changes a goal, and want to achieve that goal through one means or another. These people need lists, and they certainly have lists in their heads right now, though different people will have different lists. They have lists because they’ve observed or imagined observing discrimination against people based on these items they’ve put on their lists. If they want to change society to address such discrimination, they absolutely must have a list of problems in order to propose solution. It’s very much like basic math, or logic, or science. First, state the problem, to solve or to research.

But there are other groups of people who, even among those who believe the society should treat people fairly and equally, who don’t really need any lists.

There are libertarian-like people who don’t believe that government should enforce any rules of behavior among individuals and non-governmental institutions such as businesses. Even if they wish for all this justice, their preference for a form of government which does not have the power to make such changes supersedes their other wishes.

There are people who believe human nature in immutable, and discrimination against the “other” is hard-wired in human nature, and there’s nothing effective that can be done about it.

There are also folks who believe that government just fucks up everything it touches, and and attempts to fix anything will ultimately make the problem worse.

And among these final three groups I’ve specified, there’s a whole lot of overlap. Perhaps they came to their political views as a result of their views on human psychology, or maybe the other way around. One person could believe all three of them.

The debate I anticipated would be between those who think maintaining such a list is a good (or even vitally necessary) component of making the necessary changes to make fairness and equality happen, and those who think maintaining such a list gets in the way of embracing a category-neutral way of seeing the world, therefore reifying the problem rather than solving it.

I can’t even conceive of how anyone, given that they believe there are forms of discrimination that exist and need to be addressed, would not also feel that being able to specify those forms of discrimination is a necessary prerequisite to addressing them.

Really, someone who thinks there is discrimination is going on but doesn’t care to say what kind, or against who, or for what reason, and doesn’t even think it’s important to know these things, but still wants (somehow) to fix them, is an idiot.

Maybe you can restate your intent in a way that makes sense to me, because based on my understanding (which I grant may be wrong) I can’t see any rational debate to make against (what amounts to) having a list of social problems that need fixing.