Bridging the race and class divide is a tall order –– and
a critical challenge for our movements. It requires that
we dedicate time and space for serious analysis, open
conversations, internal struggle and deliberate action. It
requires that we carefully explore the centrality of race in
shaping the history of this country and its institutions, the
legacy of slavery and imperialism, and the persistence of
ideas around white supremacy and cultural dominance.
Likewise, we need ways of examining the long history of
class exploitation and the often hidden injuries of class in
our society. We must seek ways of talking about the inter-
sections of race and class that lift up our similarities while
honoring our differences.
We offer here a framework for analyzing the ways in
which our society’s major institutions create and perpetu-
ate dominance and oppression. What we like about this
framework is that it focuses on the ways in which people
experience oppressive conditions in their daily lives. It
helps us lift up the hidden as well as visible injuries of
racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and all the other
–isms in our society and to name the structural nature of
these injuries. This framework offers an alternative way for
people to make sense of their experiences and frustrations
in our corporate-dominated, market-driven society. Please
note that this analysis is not a substitute for a careful study
of the history of racism and white supremacy, nor does
it address the need for taking a closer look at the ways in
which our own organizations may perpetuate experiences
of domination and oppression.
When they hear the word “oppression,” many people
think of conditions in distance places and times: it
is what brutal dictators and totalitarian governments do
to their subjects or to the people they have conquered.
People do not think of oppression as something that
happens in open and democratic societies, partly because
A Structural Analysis of Oppression
they associate oppression with an ‘intent’ to oppress. And
yet, oppressive conditions exist in liberal, democratic
societies, not as part of intended policies or practices, but
as something that has been woven into the fabric of our
major economic, political and cultural institutions.
A person lives within structures of domination and
oppression if other groups have the power to determine
her actions. Individuals experience oppressive conditions
because they are part of a group that is defined on the
basis of shared characteristics such as race, class, gender,
ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, age, ability, etc. These
major social groups have specific attributes, stereotypes
and norms associated with them. Individual membership
in these groups is not necessarily voluntary. It is not neces-
sarily acknowledged, either.
In some cases, membership in a social group is pretty
straightforward because people more-or-less recognize
themselves as having something in common with the
group as a whole. For example, African-Americans typi-
cally have a sense of shared experiences and affinities
with other African Americans, and women often see
themselves as having some things in common with other
women. Within any social group, there are even more
layers of divisions and intersections of experience – gay
men and lesbians have different experiences depending
on class, race, ability, gender representation, etc. Likewise
with people of color and class, and with the intersections
and differences among women’s experiences based in
race, class, marital status, occupation, etc.
Less straightforward are group identities based in
class. This is especially true in our society, where we live
with the prevailing myth that we are a ‘classless’ society,
and that class does not matter much, if at all, in determin-
ing our life-chances and choices.
The ruling class sees itself as, and acts like a social
group whose members have shared interests and goals,
similar cultural interests and expressions, and a shared
worldview. The working class is divided into many ‘seg-
1ments’ based on occupation, skill level, income level, con-
sumption patterns, race, gender, immigrant status, union,
non-union and more. Fragmentation of the working class
is related to the ways in which the organization of labor
markets creates and perpetuates oppressive conditions for
many kinds of workers. Exploitation creates unjust power relations when
workers’ energies and capacities are controlled by, and
appropriated for the benefit of other people –– in most
cases, a few ‘haves’ who maintain and increase their power,
wealth and status at the expense of the many ‘have-nots.’
This is one way that people experience oppression.
Five Forms of Oppression As organizers, we need to understand the ways in which
different social groups and segments of workers experience
exploitation in very particular ways. Here is an overview of
how exploitation is related to class, race and gender:
As members of certain social groups, people usually
experience oppression as one or more of the follow-
4. Cultural Dominance
l Exploitation and conflict are built into the profit mo-
tive and labor relations.
l Exploitation occurs mainly through the process of
transferring the value of worker’s productivity from
the workers themselves to owners, managers and
l It reflects and reinforces dominant power relations in
society as the energies of the ‘have-nots’ are appropri-
ated to maintain the status, wealth and power of the
l To counter the power of the ‘haves,’ workers must join
together, and see themselves as members of a class
that, like the ruling class, has shared interests.
We will look at examples of each of these conditions.
We will seek to understand them in terms of the ways in
which they are embedded in social and economic struc-
tures of society. We will use this understanding to explore
what justice demands of us, as social change activists
who are struggle to build a more democratic and humane
“Oh, dear me. This world is ill divided. Them that
work the hardest are the least provided.”
English Folk Song, early 19th Century
In a market economy such as ours, labor is a com-
modity. The people who own the means of production
–– that is, the owners of the raw materials and the tools,
equipment and facilities that convert raw materials into
products –– need labor power, which refers to the time,
skills and energies that workers expend in the produc-
tion process. If you are an owner, most of your profit is
derived by getting more from the results of your workers’
labor power than you are paying in actual labor costs. You
want to keep the surplus that results from the difference
between worker’s productivity and their wages. If you are
a worker, then you seek to increase what you get paid for
your labor power, and you probably have a different sense
of what is a ‘fair’ wage than your boss does. Because of the
nature of profit, exploitation is built into the relationship
between owners and workers.
In any society, the extent of the gap between the
wealthy owners and the masses of working people is an indi-
cation of the degree of exploitation that exists in that society.
l Historically, race-specific exploitation has existed
within the capitalist system in the U.S, and elsewhere.
l Capitalism seeks to keep a segment of the labor
market stuck in, or desperate for, low-paying, low-skill
jobs. People of color make up the bulk of this segment
of the labor market.
l Race-based segmentation of workers continues to
make it harder for workers of color to get higher pay-
ing, higher skilled jobs.
l For many Asian immigrant communities–– Vietnam-
ese, Laotian, Hmong –– social isolation and invisibility
reinforces race-specific exploitation.
l Discrimination in other spheres, such as housing and
education, ensures the continuation of race-based
labor market segmentation.
l As better-paying jobs become more scarce, and as
competition intensifies, people of color with good
jobs experience more resentment from white workers
who think they got the job through ‘affirmative action.’
A Structural Analysis of OppressionGender:
Historically, capitalist production has joined with
patriarchal traditions and beliefs to create gender
l When a man’s status, power and independence is sup-
ported by unappreciated and undervalued “women’s
work,’ paid or unpaid, it is a form of gender exploitation.
l Occupations that are associated with “women’s work”
are lower-paying. These jobs usually involve nurturing
and caring for others.
l Sometimes women break into a male-dominated oc-
cupation. Usually, once women enter in large num-
bers, the occupation becomes ‘de-skilled.’ For example,
clerical workers mostly were men until the early 20th
century. When it became a woman’s job, pay levels,
job status and autonomy went down.
For a fuller understanding of both the similarities and
differences among the majority of people who experience
some form of exploitation, we need to look at the ways in
which exploitation interacts with other forms and condi-
tions of oppression.
Not everyone is able to participate in the labor market
on a regular basis. Some segments of the population do
not possess skills, attributes or characteristics that employ-
ers find useful. For the most part, they are shut out of the
labor market. Their ranks may include the involuntarily
unemployed who have given up trying to find work, the
elderly, the physically and mentally disabled, the mentally
ill, those who have missed out on basic education and oc-
cupational skills-development. These groups of people are
Women on welfare experience marginalization when
they are stigmatized as non-productive members of soci-
ety –– even if they care for children, sick relatives or elderly
parents. Black and Latino youth who cannot get their first
jobs are marginalized in ways that affect their aspirations
for the future. Native Americans on reservations may be
marginalized by high unemployment rates few opportuni-
ties to develop marketable skills. People who remain in
the prison population for any significant amount of time
face marginalization. For many Native Americans in urban
areas, marginality goes hand-in-hand with social and po-
litical invisibility. In many of these cases, race is a factor in
peoples’ experiences with marginalization. Because more
workers get displaced in a changing economy, and as it
becomes harder for them to find new jobs, the experience
A Structural Analysis of Oppression
of marginalization is spreading to more and more groups
of people, including the white working class.
In a society in which peoples’ value and worth is based
in their earning power, those who are shut out of the labor
market are seen as burdens on society. As a result, the
marginalized may feel uselessness, boredom, and a lack of
self-respect. They learn that ‘dependence’ is a dirty word.
Dependency is a basic human condition and it need not
lead to oppressive power relations. Unfortunately, people
who are considered ‘non-productive’ and ‘dependent’ on
others are treated as second-class citizens. In political as
well as economic spheres, they are denied access to the
main outlets through which they can develop their capaci-
ties to the fullest.
This aspect of oppression brings in the important
dimension of ‘status.’ When we add ‘status’ to ‘class,’ we see
that not all working people are the same, in terms of their
power and autonomy. Workers experience powerlessness
when they are routinely shut out of decisions that affect
the conditions of their employment, and, beyond that, the
basic conditions of their lives.
By contrast, professional workers have more relative
social as well as economic power because they enjoy the
l Knowledge, expertise and opportunities to use these
on the job and in their daily lives, as well as opportu-
nities to expand them.
l Autonomy, which means they have a voice in the con-
ditions of their employment. They supervise others,
and many opportunities to exercise their own judg-
ment and to make significant decisions.
l Social respectability, which means that, on the job
and in life in general, professionals enjoy a high social
status. Their opinions are sough after and listened to.
They are seen to be in control of their lives.
Respectability –– who has it, and who does not
–– intersects with class, race and gender in many ways.
Most people of color have to prove their social respect-
ability –– it is not assumed or automatically granted. The
same often is true for women. A working-class white man
may be afforded respectability based on race and gender
biases that work in his favor. But, as soon as it is known that
he is working class, then he loses some of his status and
respectability. This translates into having less political power
–– our democracy is distorted by these kinds of power rela-
tions as professionals have much greater access to political
institutions and politicians than do other workers.
3Most professionals may be unaware that they have
greater political access by virtue of their status, unless or
until they lose their status. Corporate layoffs and downsiz-
ing have expanded the ranks of the powerless.
The first three forms of oppression that we have exam-
ined –– exploitation, marginalization and powerlessness
–– are related to the ways in which economic and social
power are distributed based on peoples’ positions within la-
bor markets. We have explored how these positions affect a
person’s ability to develop her or his capacities and to make
decisions about her or his life conditions. We have explored
the intersections of class, race and gender through these
forms of oppression. Now, we want to bring in an aspect of
oppression that goes beyond a person’s labor market posi-
tion. We are calling it ‘cultural dominance.’
Cultural dominance refers to the way that one group’s
experiences, cultural expressions and history are defined
as superior to all other groups’ experiences and histories.
It is not necessary for anyone to say: “my group’s culture is
superior;” it simply has to be treated as universal –– repre-
senting the best in all of humanity. It is considered ‘normal,’
which means that all others are either ‘strange,’ or ‘invisible’
The dominant culture gets reinforced because mem-
bers of the culturally dominant group tend to control the
means of interpreting, producing and reproducing cultural
goods and products: art, music, literature, film, etc. Cultur-
al differences necessarily get defined as deviant or inferior.
And the cultural differences that the dominant group sees
in others are easily ascribed to physical variations, such as
skin color, ethnicity, accents, gender, sexual identities, etc.
In the mainstream, we find so little about the real,
everyday lives of lesbians and gay men, of working class
lives, of the lives of most people of color in anything other
than stereotyped representations, like Queer Eye for the
Straight Guy, or caricatures, like Archie Bunker, the bigoted
working-class hero, or white washed, as in The Cosby Show.
Those outside the mainstream have to fight for cultural
space. When they get it, they struggle to hang onto
cultural space for more than one representation at a time
–– we can have one gay movie, one black director, one
woman spokesperson at a time.
If you are a member of a group whose cultural ex-
pressions are outside of the norm, you may feel ‘marked
out’ as different. In many social situations, you are seen
as representing your entire group, while members of
the dominant culture are judged as individuals. In other
situations, you may feel invisible because your expres-
sions and experiences are not represented. All of this gets
internalized: you look at yourself through the eyes of the
dominant group. You struggle against stereotypes and the
limits that are placed on you. At the same time, you may
feel a deeper connection with members of your cultural
and social group, and you want to lift up the rich and
meaningful expressions that you and members of your
group create and experience. Those who fit more neatly
within the mainstream culture also miss out –– they lose
opportunities to know more about, connect with, people
who are different from them. They lose some of the rich-
ness of the human experience.
Perhaps the greatest injustice of cultural dominance
is that it allows the dominant group to impose its own
interpretations of social life upon all others. This affects
what is invested in, both in terms of cultural products and
in terms of economic decisions –– how we value some
neighborhoods, cities and regions over others, whether
we see certain uses of public funds as ‘good investments’
or ‘bad investments,’ and whether we value public educa-
tion enough to invest in all children or just some children.
In other words, there are both cultural and material conse-
quences of cultural chauvinism. It reinforces marginaliza-
tion and powerlessness.
Some people live with fear of random attacks that are
meant to humiliate and/or destroy them simply because
they are members of a certain social group. Our nation’s
history is full of examples where violence has been used to
keep a group ‘in its place.’ Racial segregation was backed
up by violence, much of it state-sanctioned. Violence has
been used to end workers’ strikes, to intimidate workers
during contract negotiations and to break up unions.
A few everyday examples of violence as a form of
l Police brutality against Black and Latino men;
l The way in which rape and sexual harassment keep
l Attacks on people of Arab descent (or assumed to be
of Arab descent –– many victims are Asian), especially
l Hate crimes against gays, lesbians and trans-
l Attacks on immigrants at day-labor gathering places.
People do not have to experience outright violence
in order to feel under threat. Equally effective is the kind
A Structural Analysis of Oppressionof ongoing harassment that degrades and humiliates a
person –– it can be verbal, or sexual, it can take the form
of targeting, such as racial profiling. Harassment usually
carries with it the threat of physical attack. Summary
Beyond a ‘Hierarchy’
of Oppression l Understand the social structures that create or per-
petuate oppressive conditions;
l Look critically at how these conditions and experi-
ences affect us –– as members of oppressed groups as
well as members of groups that are conferred cer-
tain privileges and benefits in relation to oppressed
l Understand more about how different experiences of
oppression affect the people we want to stand and
fight with for a different kind of society.
These five conditions are part of a complex analysis that
helps us do the following:
Each of these five forms of oppression overlaps with the
other. Each is related to and reinforced by the many
ideological ‘–isms’ and phobias that exist in our society:
racism, classism, homophobia and heterosexism, xeno-
phobia and extreme forms of nationalism, ageism, and
more. It is part of a larger picture that we need to develop
about racism and how it intersects with class, gender and
other social divisions.
Most people in society experience one or more of
these forms of oppression at some point in their lives.
Most, if not all, working class people experience exploita-
tion and powerlessness. They may not experience margin-
alization, class-based violence, or a sense of being a cul-
tural outsider (though one could argue convincingly that
working-class cultural experiences are under-represented
in the mainstream). People of color experience most of
these conditions, though many avoid marginalization.
Gay men as a group experience cultural dominance and
violence, but they may not necessarily experience margin-
alization or powerlessness. White professional women ex-
perience cultural dominance, fear of sexual violence and,
too often, powerlessness — especially if they constantly
have to prove themselves worthy of their status. And some
people experience all five of these kinds of oppression.
Using these five forms of oppression as a tool for
understanding the structural causes of oppression (eco-
nomic, social and cultural) allows us to look at any social
group’s experiences without necessarily privileging one
particular form of oppression over another, or any groups’
experiences over another’s. At the same time, these five
ways of looking at oppression help us see that people
cannot be divided neatly into the ‘oppressed’ and the
‘oppressor’ columns. Not all people are oppressed to the
same degree. Some do experience more and different
forms of oppression than others, often because of racism.
Understanding these differences is important for us as
organizers. We need to build upon people’s experiences
of oppression to encourage them to get involved in col-
lective action for social change, and to join with others,
whose experiences with oppression may look somewhat
different from their own.
Finally, this analysis of oppression can help us see
more concretely what justice demands of us, toward
finding effective ways to challenge social arrangements
that favor a privileged few over the many, and to replace
oppressive conditions with relationships and experiences
that enable all people to develop their capacities to the
Written by Sandra Hinson with Alexa Bradley
Grassroots Policy Project, March 2006
This essay is based on Iris Marion Young’s article: “The Five
Faces of Oppression” in Rethinking Power, edited by Thomas
Wartenberg, SUNY Press, 1992.
A Structural Analysis of Oppression