Systemic discrimination and the role of oppressor

A couple times now in my academic career, I have encountered the concept of institutional discrimination, or more recently, systemic discrimination, “racism without racists,”[1] that arises not because any individual is racist, but rather, like Adolf Eichmann, people are doing their jobs within a societal structure that targets particular people with structural violence and sometimes more direct violence as in the Oscar Grant case, where a white police officer shot a black man who was face down on a BART station platform.

My professor alleges that intentional racism is now very rare, that few people express derogatory views about “others” based solely on race.[2] But the too-frequent adverse encounters between people of color and the criminal justice system are only one set of examples in which people act in racist ways and then deny that their behavior enacts racism. It strikes me that the claim of “systemic” or “institutional” racism exempts people from individual blame who demand the ultimate retribution from “other” individuals with little or no regard for social factors.

To limit this discussion to race, however, obscures a larger pattern in which many subaltern individuals face an ongoing violence[3] This appears in many subtle cases. Consider for instance the case of a “red lock” I found on my storage locker yesterday.

The latches on storage lockers typically come with two holes for locks. The customer puts a lock through one of the holes, leaving the other one available for management to insert an additional “red lock” should s/he fall behind on rent. In this particular case, I had actually paid in advance, through March. It is February, so the presence of the lock was a “mistake.”

But to view this as simply a mistake is to ignore numerous other factors. I have been unemployed since I graduated with a Master’s degree, nearly two years ago. This follows decades in which my experience of a so-called “equal opportunity” society has been of anything but. In the job market, I increasingly face 1) age discrimination,[4] 2) discrimination against the unemployed,[5] 3) a gross disproportion between job seekers and and openings,[6], and 4) my own profound disdain for any form of marketing.[7] Even if I complete a Ph.D., my prospects seem unlikely to improve because notwithstanding Barack Obama’s remarks about a “Sputnik moment,”[8] this country’s political trajectory leads to decreasing funding for education. Because capitalism is even more an ideology than an economic system in U.S. society, I face structural violence, endure considerable stigma, and join other subaltern people in having very little social capital. In itself, this amounts to a disabling condition in a way that people who do not share the experience of long-term unemployment are unlikely to appreciate.

In viewing the situation of the storage locker, there were three possibilities: 1) that the storage place manager had failed to fully credit me for the rent I had paid in advance, 2) their record of my payment had somehow been misplaced, and 3) that it was an “innocent mistake.” In actuality, the cost to me was the inconvenience and cost of having to get up early in the morning so I could make an additional trip to meet the manager during her restrictive office hours, and the cost to her was the humiliation of an apology.

But because I approach the situation from a position of debility, with an experience of the extreme injustice of this socioeconomic system, an injustice which leaves me vulnerable, I had to be prepared to respond to the actuality of their bullying over property—in which they improperly asserted their property rights to deprive me of access to my property—with the few weapons at my disposal. It is a situation in which I actually have no recourse but to pay whatever amount of money the storage company demands and in which I have no absolutely assurance that they will not act similarly, whether from malice or by mistake, in the future. The power dynamics demand that I assert what few privileges I possess in response to their privileges.

As an anarchist, this is not a position I relish. It compels me to be a hypocrite, enacting a form of violence in self-defense, because I lack the privilege to be conciliatory. While I barely raised my voice, I inherit from my extremely patriarchal, controlling, and abusive father a tone of voice that cannot be mistaken. Should the manager have asserted that I actually hadn’t paid—I had already requested a copy of the check, which I will pay the bank a fee for, but I cannot expect it to arrive for ten days—I was also prepared with arguments which conceivably could have reduced her to tears, exposing her personal responsibility for the error, a responsibility I was unwilling to allow her to attribute to her employer for the very same reason that I question the attribution of racism to systems or institutions.

This is, of course, a response to oppression. And it illustrates the difficulty of so-called “systemic” or “institutional” discrimination. Employees at the storage place, all working low level jobs, face considerable alienation from their labor. That alienation likely produced the mistake that resulted in the placement of a “red lock” on my storage locker. The source of that alienation is the abusive treatment that low-level workers seem universally to face. Thus the crime their employer commits against them became a crime against me. But because they act as agents for their employer, I can only acknowledge their victimization if I have sufficient privilege to accept the risk that a conciliatory response might fail. And, short of locating their employer at some other address than at their location and having the privilege to be able to afford to wait for access to my property, there is no other direction for the expression of my indignation but towards them.

This is a socioeconomic situation in which I felt compelled to act as I did and yet one in which their actions are in fact understandable if not excusable. But my only solution requires me to hold them individually responsible. Because it is only through the assumption of individual responsibility as actors in the role of oppressor, that oppression can be identified and ended.

  1. [1]Richard Shapiro, lecture, “Secular/Post-Secular? Emancipatory Jewish Thought,” California Institute of Integral Studies, February 7, 2011.
  2. [2]Shapiro
  3. [3]Please see the discussion of structural violence on EarthWiki.
  4. [4]Arthur Delaney, “AARP: Unemployment For Older Americans Surged 331 Percent Over Past Decade,” Huffington Post, March 5, 2010; Annie Lowrey, “‘Too Young Not to Work but Too Old to Work’,” Washington Independent, June 17, 2010;Patrick May, “Americans in their 50s especially hard-hit by recession,” San Jose Mercury-News, September 4, 2010; Motoko Rich, “For the Unemployed Over 50, Fears of Never Working Again,” New York Times, September 19, 2010
  5. [5]Laura Bassett, “Disturbing Job Ads: ‘The Unemployed Will Not Be Considered’,” Huffington Post, June 4, 2010; Laura Bassett, “Employers Continue to Discriminate Against Jobless, Think ‘The Best People Are Already Working’,” Huffington Post, October 8, 2010; Laura Bassett, “Employers Won’t Hire The Jobless Because Of The ‘Desperate Vibe’,” Huffington Post, December 3, 2010
  6. [6]Andy Kroll, “Unemployed Stranded on the Sidelines of a Jobs Crisis,” TomDispatch, October 5, 2010,_the_face_of_an_american_lost_generation/
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Getting it backwards on a right to work,” March 13, 2010; David Benfell “The prospects of publicity and the prospects of qualification,” March 23, 2010
  8. [8]Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in State of Union Address,” January 25, 2011

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