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Essay

Oppression, Assimilation and Division in American Context

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Introduction: In global and historical context:

Oppression of the powerless by the powerful is a worldwide phenomenon. Powerful generally thrives on the back of powerless. It has been going on since eons ,although one would think that with education and enlightenment, human beings will be more aligned for justice and fairness. In reality it goes in a subtle or not so subtle way and with time the style of oppression changes. There is nod enying that progress has been made with time, albeit with struggles and lossof lives from time to time to achieve more fairness and justice.

Power generally involves force (physical, financial, social, or psychological), influence (the exercise of personal power because of authority or connection), and authority (traditional like patriarchy, legal or positional). Absence of power is powerlessness. Powerless people believe that their behavior like hard work cannot determine the expected outcome. When people feel powerless, they are afraid or reluctant to express their feelings. They feel like they have no control over their life and it hinges on the wishes of the powerful. Changes do come only by confronting or addressing the issues of powerlessness even if it means more suffering during such confrontation, as the powerful will willingly never relinquish their power or give what is due to the powerless for justice and fairness. An example of such confrontation is the collective power of the powerless by forming a workforce union for collective bargaining or a class action lawsuit or an organized strike or a non-violent non-cooperation such as abstaining from work.

Oppression is not contained at a local or regional level. It can and does spread from local to regional to global arena.  Such direct or indirect oppression gives rise to social division,revolution, and ultimate dismantling of existing oppressive structure. Russian Revolution, French Revolution,Chinese Revolution, American Revolution against English rulers, Latin American Revolution against Spanish Rulers are manifestations of poor and powerless confronting oppression to right the wrong, for freedom and fairness. Such revolutions brought Czars down, created Communist China. In modern time even Hitler and his oppressive regime fell at the end, although only after he caused havoc to the world. It is a slow process and revolution happens only after the powerless reaches a tipping point when they see no alternative but to confront. Oppressors, be it an individual or group or a nation,never want to relinquish power, would rather expand its sphere of control by whatever means. A group doesn’t have to be necessarily a majority group controlling minority. Even a minority group with tremendous economic, political, or physical power can rule over a majority. There are plenty of examples of oppression in world history. In spite of some progress to delegitimize oppression in certain areas in terms of universal human rights, it continues and at times continues to flourish with clever political moves by the powerful.

Assimilation was described as when immigrants converged to adopting “culture of the native society”. Thus we talked about unity in diversity. However, division between powerful and powerless is a big hindrance when the powerful also tends to impose its culture with a posturing of superiority, even if they are the immigrants and in minority as was the case with colonialism. History and culture of the powerful dominated the land undermining other cultures thereby creating segregated cultural practice by the powerless. Only in a few cases the conquering minority group adapted to native culture, embracing even native language, marrying into the natives and thereby winning over the hearts of the natives without having to use force to retain power.

Division comes in many forms – cultural, linguistic,economic, racial, educational, etc. resulting in lack of true assimilation. Assimilation is not layers of jelly beans of multiple colors. True assimilation is random mixing of colored jelly beans whereby each color maintains its unique identity in a mixture without being in silos of colored layers and each one enjoys the same benefits as everyone else. That is true unity in diversity and diversity in unity.

American Context:

Discovery of America brought hope to some and despair to others.  It was a virgin land inhabited by Native Americans (who were mistakenly thought to be Indians by white European immigrants) who were not exposed to alien diseases or the phenomenon of slave trade by the aliens. The natives tried to resist land grab by the Europeans (primarily English and French). Sometimes to protect their land, different native tribes sided with either the English or the French in the battle between these two colonial groups. As a result, the winner ended up grabbing all the land of the tribes supporting the losing side. Eventually English became the dominant force and their land expansion continued westward pushing the natives restricting them to reservations. The natives were at times killed brutally,scalped their heads for their resistance or attacks on the Europeans as a prized trophy. Many lost their lives to diseases. It was the beginning of imposition of white supremacy in this land. The white Europeans who arrived were generally the economic underdogs in Europe and not the elite lords and barons of their country. Many were also craving for religious freedom. But in the new land they did to the natives what they were facing in Europe.  It was a strange dichotomy. The oppressed became the oppressor in the new land.

Unfortunately, wherever the Europeans went either as a conqueror, or trader, or for religious expansion, they managed to impose their might directly or indirectly to oppress the natives and never assimilated with the natives. Sometimes they wiped out the entire native population, as it appears to be true in the case of Argentina as Spaniards literally annihilated the natives. In other parts of Latin America, there are people of mixed ancestry (mestizo) with a White European and an indigenous. Similarly,the word “mulatto” refers to a mixed race between White European and a black African root. In most cases, because of their power a White man had sex with a black woman but a black man could not imagine the same with White woman for fear of their life.

Generally the Europeans looted the places they conquered,undermined local language/culture imposing their own, and tried to convert people in the name of their lord, as they perceived themselves to be superior&civilized. African countries were destroyed by the colonialists and the land was good only for its natural resources. The people were considered sub-human and thus the slave trade started. They were brought to America, not of their own will, but as commodities to be bought and sold.

So, the beginning of white domination in America has a very dark legacy of suppression andsegregation starting with the natives and African slaves.  Phrases and words like “A good Indian is a dead Indian”, “Nigger” etc. show the disdain and unequal and unfair treatment to human beings.  “Nigger lover” was a label given to those few Whites who showed compassion towards the blacks. The Native Americans tried to hang onto their culture in their segregated reservations and were literally forgotten by people in power. African black were simply slaves to their masters and grew up as oppressed people in a white environment. As a result, they lost everything – their African language, their ancestral names, their religion and to a great extent their native culture. So the new America started with natives (what was left), slaves, and White Europeans. The assimilation was like layered jelly beans each in their own cocoon by design. The blacks and the natives could not be equal to the European whites; they were kept in their place by the rulers imposing their political and economic power. Even those white Europeans who came before some other Europeans felt like they had more rights than the later arrivals. Italians were called “Dago”sin a derogatory way. Every ethnic European formed their own neighborhood initially, I suppose in the familiar surroundings of people from their country of origin. Although, the words like Italian-American, Irish-American words are not used as much, in time their common identity became the color of their skin;they had the utmost political and economic power.

But these White settlers also resented having to pay taxes to the queen of England as a resident of the colony. That eventually resulted in the American Revolution leading to America’s independence in 1776 followed by adoption of a constitution in 1787. The constitution of the independent country laid out lofty goals.

The preamble states, “We the people of the United States,in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”.

White supremacy:

At a first look the constitution appears very idealistic with a set of principles everyone should live by. It had no mention of race, slavery. Justice, Liberty, general Welfare are like motherhood and apple pie. But the underlying theme at the time perhaps was aimed at White European descendants as the slaves and natives could not be equal to the Whites. Even the white women were not equal, although they definitely ranked higher than the natives and the blacks. So, the natives, the blacks, the women were never equal.

White America was divided and had to fight a bloody civil war to free the slaves. Only in 1863 slaves were technically declared free by Abraham Lincoln. Women were given voting rights only in 1920. Almost 100 years since the Emancipation Declaration freeing the slaves, south was still segregated, lynching went on, and KKK was terrorizing the blacks by burning crosses. Promises of “40 acres and a mule” were broken. The equal rights under the law as demanded by Civil Right movement of 1950 and 60s ended up in the assassination of Martin Luther King. Woolworth sit-in, Selma march, Rosa Park’s bus ride all blatantly displayed a deep division only a few decades ago.

Racial divide

However some progress has been made. America saw the 1st Black President in recent time; women got seats in the Supreme Court, Hispanic folks in the US Cabinet, and soon. But this doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of most minorities of color. Regardless of progress with time and continued effort to build a more perfect union, subtle and not so subtle oppression by the conservative whites in power continues even to this day. Instead of making it easier to vote by every eligible voter for a true government of the people, some create unnecessary barriers for voters of color. Voter suppression, gerrymandering of voting districts to keep minorities out of equitable representation, discrimination in employment, housing, etc. continue even today. After hundreds of years of injustice and inhuman treatment, there is a higher level of awareness about injustice to the blacks. Steps are being taken; even talks of reparations are underway for past injustices. There is still a long way to go for equality. Today blacks have more political clout than ever before. Obviously, they have been at the forefront confronting age-old injustices and making loud noise that cannot be ignored. Their struggle to confront injustice has advanced the cause for a more perfect union and undoubtedly benefited all the people of color indirectly. However, America is a long way from being perfect.

The racial divide did not stay limited to just natives and blacks; as other minorities began to increase in number in pursuit of an American dream of freedom and prosperity, they began to face similar hurdles,maybe to a lesser degree compared to what the natives and the blacks had to face in the early days. Large swaths of thesouth had Hispanic influence for ages from central and South America (whichwere primarily Spanish colonies). AfterMexican-American war the US gained the territory, but influence of Hispanic cultureand language remained. Others from thesouth continue to get to the US legally or illegally, for a better future just likethe Europeans did when they had arrived in search of a new beginning in the newland.  So, White America had coined a word “wet back” for these migrants fromthe south as if they were all illegal aliens swimming (and getting their backwet) the Rio GrandeRiver to get into the US.

Now, such divisive attitudes have spread to otherminorities of color such as Asians. Theterms Asians itself is misleading as they undermine the vast diversity and seemto lump people together as Asians whether one is from China, India, or Korea orPhilippines with little similarity. By thesame token, to call someone Hispanic or Latino does the same the same thing bylumping people from Mexico or El Salvador, or Peru. Regardless, the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States during World War II with forced relocation and incarceration in concentration campsreflectedmistrust and hate for such people with non-European ancestry. Now it appears that blacks and whites are invariablyaccepted as Americans.  Other people of color invariably face questions like “whereare you from” from many Whites even if they are citizens of the country, yetwhite folks never face the same question as if it was always their land. Many white folkscan’t pronounce or try to pronounce the names of Asians; it has happened to me many times.  They would rather make funat times on purpose including the names of the great heroes of these people.  Thatincludes even a past president of the US. WinstonChurchill called Mahatma Gandhi a “half naked fakir”.

Unfortunately, this attitude is seen in other countriesas well. I suppose because of centuriesof domination of Asian and African countries by White folks, perhaps the peopleof those countries developed a subservient behavior. Perhaps those individual countries do nothave the diversity America does, or even if it does, it is of aregional varietyand not a mini world. So, it appearsthat White privilege travels with white folks even now. Folks in those countries tend to serve thewhite folks with certain deference compared to a person of color as if he orshe cannot be an American. This isexperienced by many and is even noted in Barak Obama’s memoir (Dreams of myfather, page 313) regarding the treatment he had experienced in Kenya, Africa at a cafe at the New Stanley Hotelbecause of his skin color eventhough he was an American (later became the US president). I witnessed that while flying Air India one time where the stewardesses took care of the white folks promptly with a smile and ignored brown Americans like us.  During my business travel in India I had noticed that many would start a conversation with my White colleague thinking that he or she was my boss although they reported to me.

Now Hispanics or Latinos in America are getting attention as a large votingblock as their numbers continue to increase. The Native Americans still remain invisible in the political equation and inthe psyche of the people. The otherminorities are still not perceived as true Americans for not being black orwhite. They are ignored; perhaps they arenot a significant voting bloc.  They are the hyphenated Americans. Now the hate crime is increasing against theAsians from the extreme White elements, as the small Asian community tends to flourishfinancially and academically. One should not have to be a black or white to be an American if America wants to live bythe constitution and uphold its lofty ideals.

The conservative Whites feel threatened as all minoritiesput together may outnumber them in time. It is projected that all minorities will make up 50% of the US population inless than 25 years. The conservativewhiteminority wants to cling onto power by any means, even if it means by show of forceand spreading fear. So, one seesNeo-Nazis and White extremists marching through towns displaying AK47 andconfederate flags, while trying to portray themselves as patriots. This is not in conformity with theconstitution that talks about domestic Tranquility. Now they worry about their White Europeanculture being diluted, their political clout being at risk in a democracy. So, they are trying to undermine the verydemocracy, the very constitution that they had created,because the concept ofequality, justice, and liberty for all appear to diminish their power torule. So, we see all forms of divisionsand hurdles to put the non-white minorities at a disadvantage. Instead, if they would welcome, embrace, andwin the hearts of all people including those of color rather than creating fear,perhaps they would be voted in as the leaders of the people to run a greatdemocracy.

Economic Division&Re-segregation

Living aside the superficial racial division based onskin color, the biggest factor for social division is the economic divide. This results in all other forms of divisionand inequity. People reaching somewhat equalfooting financially havingreached the middle or upper middle class can assimilate ontheir own terms (called segmented assimilation) without having to surrender their owncultural identity and are somewhat easily accepted as American.  Because of ahuge economic divide, poor people get into a vicious cycle of poverty thatkeeps them deprived of most social services, or if any, they receive limitedservices.  When you are poor, it is hard to qualify for a home loan. So, you end up buying a house in a poorneighborhood. Businesses don’t go topoor neighborhoods, as poor don’t have the purchasing power. There are hardly any grocery stores withhealthy food. So, they tend to live oncheap junk food. Their health goes downhill. They can’t afford to see a doctorfor routine and preventative checkup. Their life expectancy is lower than that in an affluentneighborhood. Their streets don’t gettimely attention for repair, as they don’t have the political clout orconnection. Their schools are poor andcannot provide the essential tools. Thechildren fall behind academically. Thepoor suffer the most during any kind of disaster or epidemic/pandemic. National GDP and Stock Market Index don’t reflect the plight of the poor or donot give a realistic picture of the economy as a whole. These are skewed numbers reflecting thefinancial health of the wealthy segment of the society. Poor people live on the main street and not on theWall Street. Poverty and hunger breedscrime.  Gangs and gun violence breed. Moreyouth from poor neighborhood end up in prison, not to speak of racial profilingof such young people as perceived criminals because of their skin color. Most poor people happen to be people of color (black or brown). Thus the poor remainsegregated even when technically everyone lives in a free society. The children get re-segregated by rich andpoor neighborhoods, which largely also happen to be on racial lines. The desegregation effort by law (1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Educationdeclaringthat segregation is unconstitutional) hassucceeded to integrate mostly in technicality but the schools and thesociety are getting re-segregated because of growing economic divide. The invisible shackle of poverty keepsAmerica divided.

Figure 1[7}below shows median net worth byrace/ethnicity. As per this graph from Brookings,median net worth for white households has far exceeded that of Black households through recessions and booms over the last thirty years. However, median net worth doesn’t reflect thebulk of the national wealth held by the richest households. It is to be noted that Asians have nowreached the highest earnings (slightly ahead of Whites), but within the Asiangroup income inequality is also the highest. The economic rise of Asians also allows them to enjoy certain freedom tobe able to live wherever they want. Theycan buy homes in a relatively affluent neighborhood with rich school districts. This rise is primarily due to higher level ofeducation and hard work among the Asians; this rise along with non-white background also perhaps is a reason for resentment among some Whites who werealways the highest earning group.

Educational Divide

One outcome of the economic divide is the educational divide. Poor school districts cannot provide adequatefacilities and amenities that a rich school district can afford. So, poor schools lack well roundededucation. Many go hungry if the schooldid not provide lunch for free or at a reduced cost. To make things worse, many poor familiescannot afford Internet, computer etc. This also creates a huge digital divide in the advanced technologicalage. So, it becomes generally difficultfor poor students to compete with students from richer school districts. Rich school students dream of prestigious IvyLeague schools and a high paying job after graduation with all the glamor tofollow. When the government wants to siphonsome money from rich school districts (because these districts have a high tax base)tohelp the poor districts, the parents of rich school districts become furiousfor apparently robbing their tax dollar. Many poor schools and poor neighborhoods either drop out of school ornever pursue college education. They endup working (if they can find a job with little education) at minimum wage andeventually fall back in poverty even if they work hard in multiple jobs. So, the cycle continues. Meaningful education is the key to openingthe door to a brighter future. Yet theirdoor to education itself appears to be closed. Some become hopeless and take to making money by the wrong meansviolating laws and possibly end up in prison, getting incarcerated for life fortheir misdeeds in their youth. So, itbecomes a vicious cycle of reality. Poverty denies equitable education, which in turn sends them back topoverty. Only in some exceptional cases,they can break that barrier.

Employment/Housing

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, or sex. It wasintended as a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, the color barrier and poor earningsbecome a huge barrier for many poor people of color in getting an employmentand obtaining a mortgage loan even today.  While black population increased inurban centers, the Whites moved out to the suburbs creating urban ghettos withincreasing unemployment, crime, and other social ills including lack of civicamenities.  As recently as the first quarter of 2020, the Census Bureau reported that black households had the lowest home ownership rate at 44%, while white households had about 74% home ownership. Residential segregation that continues eventoday is a result of discrimination in employment and housing and not justacoincidence. Housing discrimination andpoverty also result in higher rate of homelessness among people of color.  It has been reported that ifhome ownership is racially equalized, racial and economic divides willdiminish.

Conclusion

We cannot do anything about past injustices and inequalities.  It is history.  But we must learn from it.  If we truly want to be the United States of America, there has to be economic, racial, and gender equity.  Such equity is good for individuals and good for the country.  It makes the country stronger.  Empowering people of all color and gender doesn’t diminish power from the powerful.  It makes all powerful.  It allows more purchasing power to all.  More businesses cancome up in all the places, as there would not be a significantly rich or poor neighborhood.  People can live a healthier life, thereby reducing health care costs.  There wouldn’t be a large educational gap.  Therefore crime and violence go down.  To build a more perfect union and to live by the ideals of the constitution of justice for all, it is imperative that our priority as a nation be bringing equity in all spheres and to end discrimination of any kind.  Then perhaps we can live in tranquility assimilating as one nation while carrying our distinct identity which will be respected by all.  It will be the random mix of colored jelly beans living together in harmony.  If we can achieve that as a nation, perhaps we will be on our way to building a perfect nation someday.

Ref:

  1. https://www.sunypress.edu/pdf/pdf
  2. http://psychology.iresearchnet.com/counseling-psychology/personality-traits/power-and-powerlessness/
  3. https://open.lib.umn.edu/immigrantfamilies/chapter/9-1-assimilation/
  4. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/meltingpot/melthtm
  5. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/native-americans-colonial-america/
  6. https://wwwevergreen.edu/events/brownvboard/timeline.html
  7. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/02/27/examining-the-black-white-wealth-gap/
  8. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/07/12/key-findings-on-the-rise-in-income-inequality-within-americas-racial-and-ethnic-groups/
  9. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/3-ways-that-the-u-s-population-will-change-over-the-next-decade
  10. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fair-housing-act
  11. https://www.forbes.com/sites/dimawilliams/2020/06/03/in-light-of-george-floyd-protests-a-look-at-housing-inequality/?sh=7bba5f1b39ef
  12. https://endhomelessness.org/homelessness-in-america/what-causes-homelessness/inequality/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lohit Datta-Barua (USA)

Dr. Lohit Datta-Barua has lived in Houston since 1973. As an inspiring writer and contributor to social justice he continues to touch people’s lives. As of 2019 Datta-Barua has authored eleven books, six in English, and five in his mother tongue Assamese. His latest book, “One Long Journey” is primarily a story of survival and hope in the face of of adversity and social upheaval, which Datta-Barua hopes can inspire his readers. All proceeds from “One Long Journey” go for orphan welfare.

1 Comment

  1. Supriya Kumar Debroy
    Supriya Kumar Debroy Reply

    Commendable write-up, Sir. Only one point to mention, Winston Churchill was not the past president of US. He was PM of UK, and during that time Franklin D Roosevelt was US President (during 2nd world war).

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