Targeted groups are excluded from basic protections, shared resources, and community services.
A fundamental part of living in a community is that people both contribute to and benefit from shared resources. It would be prohibitively expensive and impractical for every person to build a personal well, a personal water filtration system, and a personal sewer system. Instead, everyone pools their resources to create a municipal water and sewage system. Sharing costs and resources for public projects is generally cheaper and safer. A little cooperation goes a long way to benefit everyone.
In a broad sense, human communities exist in order to offer one another protection and to help one another fulfill their fundamental needs. Oppressed groups are often denied opportunities to fulfill their needs because they are blocked from basic access to the shared resources of the community, including police protection, access to schools, access to health care, and access to banking services. They are also often excluded from participation in political processes (through methods such as voter suppression and gerrymandering).
The mechanisms for denying these resources are woven through multiple public systems. Recognition of the systemic nature of this denial is a key component of understanding systemic oppression and distinguishing it from mere prejudice and bigotry.
Common Community Resources and Protections Stripped or Denied to Targeted Groups Include:
- Police protection
- Underpolicing – Police are not sufficiently present to deter criminal activity. In these cases, people may turn to mafia syndicates who charge high prices for protection and/or participate in vendettas (revenge killings) or vigilantism (seeking justice without the safeguards of the checks and balances of due process)
- Overpolicing – Police are overactive to the point that they deprive citizens of the ability to live normal lives without the threat of police intrusion and harassment.
- In some oppressed communities, citizens are overpoliced for petty crimes like shoplifting or drug use and underpoliced for serious crimes like murder.
- (Ghettoside by Jill Loevy)
- The ability to appeal unjust accusations and arrests (access to due process of law)
- Bank loans and other financial services
- Home ownership (a crucial vehicle for building wealth)
- Access to government assistance programs (e.g. farm insurance)
- Access to fire protection and other emergency services
- Access to quality health care
- Access to quality education
- Access to employment benefits
- Access to affordable insurance policies
- Access to clean water and sanitation
- Bosnian-Serb forces cutting off water in Sarajevo in 1994
- Flint, Michigan
- Freedom of movement
- Freedom of speech
- Political representation and access to political organizations and processes
The targeted group usually pays into the communal tax fund that pays for these resources and opportunities, but various laws and restrictions limit their ability to access the benefits of government services. Ironically, the oppressive majority often points to the relative poverty of the targeted group to argue that they are not responsible enough to handle the resources that could help them.
To put it another way, the oppressed group is crippled by various restrictions put upon them by oppressors, and then their subsequent impoverished condition is used as a justification for those restrictions. Oppressors frequently point to their own wealth (which was built thanks to access to community resources and protections) as a sign of their cultural, racial, or ethnic superiority.
Key Resources and Protections as Human Rights
Human rights can be broken into two categories: negative rights and positive rights. Negative rights is a category of rights that allow people to do whatever they want as long as they aren’t hurting others (see Mill’s Harm Principle.) Negative rights include (among many others) freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly, and the freedom to marry the person you love.
Positive rights is a category of rights that establish what every person deserves from theri community in order to survive and flourish. These rights protect access to key resources, including nourishing food, clean water, safe shelter, and the ability to participate in communal decisions.
Who decides what is a right and what is a privilege? In 1948, delegates representing fifty nations at the newly-founded United Nations drafted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has become one of the most important documents in human history. It offers a meaningful set of standards to measure political health and oppression and has become a crucial tool in international relations. A running debate continues in most countries about the scope of various rights and how they relate to various traditions and the role of government in people’s lives. For example, in most wealthy countries, the right to quality health care has been established through state-run hospitals, but the United States has not established this as a right and the role of government in health care is a major issue in every election.
How Stripping Away or Denying Key Resources and Protections Benefits Those in Power:
- Powerful politicians often rely on the political support of a dominant group, and that support is often contingent on those politicians funneling a disproportionate number of jobs, opportunities, and properties to that group. This leaves fewer resources available to distribute to everyone else.
- Resources and protections are financially expensive. It’s often cheaper in the short term to limit resources to a group, though it’s likely to be more expensive in the long term. For example, a government might cut education funding in a certain area, but will eventually face larger costs connected to high unemployment and poverty.
- Civil liberties like freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial limit the power of those in charge. A significant number of people in the world worship power and work doggedly to maximize their power over others. Once people take hold of power, they often use it to dismantle the mechanisms that offer power to others.
How to Ensure Resources and Protections Are Universal
- It’s critical to teach and celebrate human rights to ensure that people understand what they mean and the consequences if they are denied. People will fight for their rights if they understand them and believe that we are all entitled to basic protections.
- Use domestic legal systems to challenge human rights abuses. Most constitutions offer human rights protections for citizens (see the US Bill of Rights). Lawyers can sue and prosecute people in power for violating these rights.
- Use economic economic pressures (sanctions, boycotts, etc.) to make oppression expensive for people in power. Oppression is ultimately fueled by financial profit, so limiting or erasing that profit is a critical strategy.