By Jayanti Owens
Despite the fact that we live in a nation that ideologically embraces egalitarian principles, race and class continue to cause controversies throughout most spheres of American life, particularly in education. We convince ourselves that by implementing bureaucratic systems intended to promote ‘equality,’ such as anti-discrimination laws, we are moving towards a completely integrated and just society. At the same time, however, we often contest policies that consider race in admission and hiring policies. In two chapters of her book Justice and the Politics of Difference (1990), Iris Marion Young argues that in order to create a society that is truly inclusive, we must learn to embrace our differences instead of promoting impartiality along racial lines. The strength of Young’s argument is that it can be concretely applied to current situations, such as the case of desegregation in the Boston school system, on multiple levels. Young’s theory reveals the contradiction that exists between the American ideal of justice and the structures and policies intended to uphold justice through impartiality. I use Young’s theory and recent articles in The New York Times to elucidate the current debate concerning integration within Boston public schools. In the Boston case, race is made out to be the single primary factor leading to conflict. In analyzing the nuances involved in the case of desegregating Boston’s public schools, I will argue that issues of race are compounded by issues of class. I will also argue that Young’s theory is limited because it fails to analyze the complexities that arise when a group of people are privileged because of one characteristic but simultaneously oppressed because of another.
As Americans in the twenty-first century, we are taught to believe our nation extends justice to all people regardless of their race. When we examine the social structures meant to uphold justice, however, it is apparent that institutionalized oppression is being normalized into supposedly just laws and processes. Even though events such as the civil rights movement have led Americans to value the ideals of justice through racial equality, Young argues that simply adhering to this idealistic notion of justice actually limits us (Young 3). Members of the dominant group may honestly believe in the ideals of equality, justice, and fair treatment, but often do not see how oppression is systematically expressed through false notions of universality and impartiality on the part of individuals, bureaucratic institutions, and societal organizations.
Due to the pluralism within America, it is impossible for Americans to unite under a single ‘universal’ identity that allows all people to claim their differences (Young 3). Because groups in America are targeted with different forms of oppression, we cannot claim to be able to ignore these differences and adopt an impartial treatment of all people. Our understanding of justice is incorrectly assumed to be synonymous with ‘same treatment’ and ‘impartiality.’ Justice actually involves offering individuals or groups the support and treatment they need in order to have equal opportunity and agency within society. Therefore, we need to extend to various groups different treatment if we desire justice to completely permeate American society.
In order to use the desegregation of Boston’s public schools to exemplify the strengths and limitations of Young’s theory, we must understand how systemized oppression works against the American ideal of justice. Young asserts that oppression manifests itself in several forms, including marginalization and cultural imperialism (Young 40). Our capitalist structure marginalizes underprivileged people by preventing them from participating in political processes, partly because oppression leads them to internalize the notion that they cannot make a difference. Members of marginalized groups who do try to make their voices heard may not be listened to by the privileged people who hold positions of power. Marginalized groups therefore further internalize their inferiority and powerlessness. Marginalization can ultimately lead underprivileged people to accept the limitations that thwart them from participating in the sections of society historically dominated by privileged people.
Since marginalized groups do not fit the universal of the dominant group to which our society caters, they are afflicted by cultural imperialism and do not have a significant presence at all levels of society. Cultural imperialism acts hegemonically by framing a master narrative, an ideology that imposes the dominant, white perspective on society as the only way of the society. This master narrative claims to be impartial and represent the ‘universals’ of society when in reality it only represents the perspective of the dominant group. Our ‘impartial’ society actually adopts the perspective of the dominant group and claims this perspective as ‘universal’ by disregarding all others.
Impartiality, which the government claims to be the just way, is impossible because decisions are made by humans who can never be completely objective. Until we derail modes of oppression and domination, seeking ‘unity’ will simply mean acknowledging the dominant mode as the single universal (Young 100). Because the dominant narrative is normalized and firmly rooted in society, it also influences the judges, lawyers, and juries that determine what is ‘just’ and what is not. As a result, marginalized groups must find a way to voice their complaints in a way that either works within the limitations set by the master narrative, or only slightly questions the narrative so that their critiques will be listened to and their claims taken seriously. As I will demonstrate through articles on desegregating the Boston public schools, marginalization and cultural imperialism continue to play off of each other so as to prevent marginalized groups from breaking through the rigid system which keeps oppression in place.
In analyzing the ways in which race and class have contributed to perpetuating oppression in the process of desegregating Boston’s public schools, I will turn to The New York Times’ February 11th article entitled “Suit Challenges School Policy Over Race Issue” (Associated Press). As the city of Boston attempts to provide a ‘just’ education for all residents, Americans are having difficulty translating the ideal of justice into reality. After the civil rights movement during which the courts ruled that separate but supposedly equal educational stratification was unconstitutional, Americans have come to acknowledge that Boston neighborhoods, like many neighborhoods throughout the country, tend to be separated by class. Neighborhoods are generally quite racially homogenous because many minorities are of lower classes and live in poorer neighborhoods than many whites. This stereotype of white privilege and black poverty has resulted in the societal normalization of a limiting binary. While this binary accounts for the European-Americans that come from privileged backgrounds and the African-Americans that come from underprivileged backgrounds, it leaves out the significant numbers of white Bostonians who are poor and black Bostonians who are wealthy. In reality, racial segregation often precedes class segregation; most neighborhoods are separated by class and race. In order to fully understand Boston school district’s desegregation case in an age in which equality is the ideal towards which Americans openly claim to strive, we must move beyond this static binary and recognize the complexities that arise as a result of race and class issues.
In an attempt to address the issue of racial segregation by integrating neighborhood public schools, in 1999, the Boston school district deployed a policy intended to ensure diversity within the district’s neighborhood schools. The district administrators required all neighborhood public schools to open half of their enrollment to students living outside the neighborhood. This policy was intended to make neighborhood schools more racially and socio-economically diverse because students from diverse class-backgrounds would attend the same school. In theory, African-American parents, specifically, would have the ability to send their children to schools located in predominantly white neighborhoods that have higher percentages of college-bound students.
Young would argue that the ideal of democracy is distorted when underprivileged people are marginalized because then the only voices being represented are those that are being heard. Cultural imperialism is acting hegemonically over these marginalized communities because, by virtue of the fact that their voices are not being heard in the public sphere dominated by affluent whites, the master narrative of affluent whites continues to be asserted as the universal that represents the perspectives of all people. Another strength of Young’s theory is that it can be concretely applied to see the ways in which racism often goes unnoticed in our daily lives.
The subtleties of language allow us to see how oppression works through cultural imperialism by integrating the narrative of the dominant group into our every day lives. When Michael Williams, the prosecution’s lawyer, stated that, “They have to push children out of the way so they can bring in children of other races,” he was criticizing the integration policies that bridge gaps created by class and race (Associated Press). The racism implicit in his words, however, is exemplified through his usage of the word “other” to describe non-white students. In our society, being white has been normalized to the extent that to be white goes without saying, it is often assumed that a person is white unless it is stated otherwise. Williams, for example, does not say specify that he means ‘they must push white children out of the way so they can bring in children of non-white races.’ In failing to do so, he is participating in the master narrative of dominant society that has become integrated into our rhetoric.
Oppression often works by relegating minorities to the status of ‘Other,’ the marginalized group. Minority groups thus become subordinate to middle and upper-class whites who are privileged because of their race and class. Marginalization of poor people and minorities allows the white dominant perspective to become viewed as the ‘universal’ of which minorities are not a part. This perpetuates non-participation on part of Americans of minority backgrounds. If we embrace our various racial backgrounds, as Young argues we should, we can create policies that reach out to various groups in ways that allow us to approach a truly democratic society in which all voices are heard.
In reviving the decades-long, racially-motivated controversy over the assignment of children to Boston’s public schools, we can see where Young’s theory limits an analysis of the desegregation of Boston public schools. By failing to focus on the ways in which race and class are complexly intertwined, Young does not clearly elucidate the ways in which the ideal of total equality involves issues that go beyond race alone. The policy of opening half of the places in each neighborhood school to students from neighborhoods outside that which the school is located is currently being challenged by ten white families. The charge of these families is that the Boston public school system is considering race in the placement of students into district schools (Associated Press). This situation is convoluted because these ten white families do not come from economically privileged backgrounds. Rather, they are from Boston’s poorer white neighborhoods. This fact is important because it forces us to think beyond a static black-white binary, urging us to take into account the fact that oppression acts not only on poor minorities, but also on poor whites.
Poor whites have a culture and lifestyle distinct from that of middle and upper-class whites. In addition, poor whites also live in different neighborhoods and, until recently, attended different schools than middle and upper-class whites. Interestingly, lower-class whites are often times oppressed severely by middle and upper-class whites who treat them as though they are inferior because of their less-affluent status in society. Because we live in a country in which many Americans are cultured into thinking according to a racial binary, poor, white Bostonians are oppressed and marginalized because being poor defies the normalized association of whites with privilege.
Understanding the ways in which poor whites are oppressed gives us insight into understanding why these poor, white families may be filing the claim against the integration of Boston’s public schools. It is important to note that, although class segregation is prevalent in Boston neighborhoods, racial segregation often precedes class segregation, as seen by the fact that many Boston neighborhoods also separate poor blacks from poor whites. It is largely due to the fact that being lower-class is a societal disadvantage that poor whites may cling to their racial identity because it is a categorical advantage. Lower-class whites are oppressed because of the way society marginalizes people of lower classes, regardless of their race. Because being white is a categorical advantage in our society, however, poor whites may feel that being white makes them different from, even superior to, poor people of non-white backgrounds. Therefore, by integrating neighborhood schools, white children from disadvantaged backgrounds will fall into the same category as poor students of color. Ultimately, it is the class oppression experienced and internalized by poor whites that, when combined with racism, leads some poor whites to desire the perpetuation of social divisions along racial as well as socio-economic lines. The fact that the suing families are themselves the targets of class-oppression, particularly from wealthy whites, adds a new element to the case of desegregating Boston schools because desegregation must seek to not only integrate along racial lines, but also along the lines of class.
Although it is not acceptable that poor whites exercise racism, it is important that we understand that they alone cannot be blamed for their oppressive tendencies. Because poor whites are looked down upon by middle and upper-class Americans, they internalize their inferiority. Since white people have historically been privileged, poor whites cannot use their race as an excuse for their lack of affluence in society. This may cause them to question their own legitimacy. Because we all want to feel we belong to a group with higher status than some other group, poor whites may use race as the characteristic that makes them better than poor minorities. In this way, racism is a coping mechanism for poor whites. Neither exercising nor being targeted by racism is lessening the marginalization poor whites or minorities must overcome before they can transform dominant society to make it more truly pluralistic. Racism and classism are problems that every group in America must first recognize and then claim their part in before significant change can occur.
In order to transform the culturally imperialistic narrative that asserts the perspective of affluent whites as being universal by associating the words minority and poverty with powerlessness and marginalization, we must first embrace our racial differences and acknowledge that different groups experience oppression in different forms. On April 25th, 2003, an article in The New York Times stated that “a federal judge ruled that the city’s school assignment plan is constitutional” (Rimer 1). Even more interestingly, however, is that “the plan does not use race as a factor in assigning schools [and] is intended to create diversity” (Rimer 1). This statement implies that considering race is unfavorable. Through these words, the government, whether intentionally or not, is condoning a color-blind approach within society. While it is true that integrating schools is advancing us in the right direction, Young would urge us to embrace the use of race in social and governmental operations because doing so will allow us to extend to individual groups the treatment they need in order to become active participants in all realms of society. Justice will then come to signify extending different treatment in order to support each group in overcoming the oppression with which they have been targeted. In a true democracy, our racial and class identities will represent differences in appearance and culture, but will not handicap some and privilege others to the point that any exclusive master narrative is perpetuated. The dominant identity will then no longer be imposed as the universal identity. As this transformation occurs, the American ideal of justice will then be able to become more than simply an ideal: it will one day become the reality.