Built-In Oppression: It’s Just Below the Surface

Debbie is one of my best friends.  She lives in Texas.  She is educated, middle-class, works at the University, and is somewhat of a new home owner.  She called me about a month ago incredibly upset.  She had received a letter stating that her mortgage company had miscalculated her escrow and that she would need to either write them a check for $2,500 by March 1st or else her mortgage would effectively be doubled for the rest of the year.  My initial reaction was to tell her to call an attorney, the ACLU, anyone–that this had to be a scam! I know very little about escrow or home buying, but this just sounded too ridiculous to be real.  She investigated further only to find out that it was not scam, that it was a combination of raised property taxes and a miscalculation by her mortgage company.

“You need to write about this in your blog,” she told me, “this would be a perfect fit for your brand.”  I paused, trying to think of a diplomatic way to say that she might have misinterpreted the mission and goal of my blog, that real estate was really not my forte (and holy crap I was going to get a horrible grade in my Personal Branding class). “I would be screwed if I were on a fixed income, or barely making ends meet.  Can you imagine,” she continued, “what is going to happen to all of the low income people in the neighborhood?”

As she continued to elaborate on the dynamics of her neighborhood, the topic of gentrification quickly came to the forefront of the conversation.  “The whole neighborhood is changing” she told me, “they are building a nice shopping center where there used to be a dilapidated building.  It’s going to be different…a different crowd, different demographics.”  What Debbie was saying, in layman’s terms, is that the neighborhood is becoming more affluent, and she believes that the poor are being systemically pushed out by the raising of property taxes.  

I absolutely do not know enough about the specific situation to be able to confirm or deny this belief, but it did get me thinking about our country’s long history of using established, legal systems to oppress and disenfranchise the poor*.  A direct example of this “built-in” oppression can be seen after the Civil War, with the passage of the 15th Amendment which gave former slaves the right to vote.  Immediately after the advancement of this amendment came the creation of poll taxes and literacy qualifications as prerequisites to vote in various states.  These legal systems, upheld by the United States Supreme Court in the ruling of Breedlove vs Suttles in 1937, were unequivocally created and implemented to keep African Americans from voting.  

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Another example of “built-in” oppression can be seen in our criminal justice system.  According to Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, there are currently more black men behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850.  Alexander argues that our criminal justice system serves as a modern day, redesigned version of the caste system.  She points to the vicious perpetuation of this system saying, “… that it shuttles our [African American] children from decrepit and under-funded schools to brand-new, high-tech prisons.”  Alexander additionally argues that incarcerating someone essentially serves the same function as slavery did before the Civil War: it creates (legal) job discrimination, (legal)housing discrimination, and (the legal) denial of the right to vote.

So whether it is the raised property taxes of your best friend that consequently forces out her low-income (minority) neighbors, or a big-business, federally enforced entity that you are familiar with just from the evening news, it is your responsibility–our responsibility–to question these systems.  In our age of free, accessible information it no longer is acceptable to use ignorance as an excuse.  Be informed.  Look at things, everything, from the perspective of someone who is nothing like you.  And as you go about your day today, think carefully about the social systems you have always taken for granted.  Why were they created?  Who do they benefit?  Who do they hurt?  And most importantly, what do they have built-in just below the surface?


*As we discuss this topic of the poor, it is, unfortunately, important to know that we are talking, in most cases, about the socially constructed concept of race.


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