The Unified Model of Stratification and the Legacy of Columbus in Our Time

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PrisonLaborNOLO.jpgBy SKF – Student Author Winter 2012
All African American work crew cleaning up oil in the Gulf

For many residents of the United States the legacy of Columbus is an annual holiday held on October 12th of every year–the celebration of his landing in the Americas. Unfortunately, Columbus’ legacy is far more pervasive in mainstream culture today than an annual day off from work or school. The Unified Model of Stratification from S. Rowan Wolf, Ph.D.’s The Dialectic of Inequality: Understanding Race, Class, and Sex in the United States offers a means of understanding the forces that maintain and perpetuate the stratification system of economic violence operating in today’s mainstream culture that is a direct result of the mentality of conquest, colonialism, and exploitation of resources that is Columbus’ legacy. According to sources quoted in Wolf’s The Dialectic of Inequality (2007: 113), Columbus approached the people he met upon landing in what is now the Bahamas with conquest, colonialism, and violence in mind.

“With fifty men we could subjugate them all”, he says in his log. “As soon as I arrived in the Indies…I took some of the natives by force in order that they might learn and might give me information of whatever is in these parts”.

Columbus enslaved the people he met–men, women, and children, and in the eight years that he was Viceroy and Governor the Taino population went from an estimated 8 million people to less than 100,000. Most of the Taino people were brutally murdered by the Spanish under Columbus’ control:

“There are numerous eyewitness accounts of the treatment of the natives by Spanish colonists hidalgos) hanging Tainos en masse, roasting them on spits or burning them at the stake (often a dozen or more at a time), hacking their children into pieces to be used as dog feed and so forth, all of it to instill in the natives a “proper attitude of respect” toward their Spanish “superiors”.”

The combination of physical violence and economic exploitation in which the people who were not killed were enslaved has continued from Columbus’ time to the present. Like white privilege, mainstream culture’s exploitation of human “resources” has become invisible–it seems so natural that we don’t notice it; however, like Columbus, we are exploiting people and creating conditions of economic violence. Furthermore, our exploitation of “resources” has become a type of economic violence that our culture desensitizes us to. Consider, for example, the prison system in the United States. According to the Department of Public Advocacy blog (S. Jeff, 2007), the United States has the highest reported incarceration rate in the world even though crime rates have decreased since the 1990s. Changes in drug policy have had the biggest impact on incarceration rates as well as who is incarcerated: possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine–which is typically used by the poor–has a mandatory minimum sentence equal to that of possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine, which is typically used by the wealthy. What this means is that mandatory minimum sentences for low-level crack users is very similar to the sentences for major cocaine drug dealers. And more importantly, these changes in drug policy target minority communities disproportionately. For example, while African Americans constitute only 14% of regular drug users, they are 37% of those arrested for drug offenses and 56% of persons in state prisons for drug crimes. African Americans serve nearly as much time in federal prisons for drug offenses as whites do for violent crimes.

The combined expenditures of local, state, and federal governments for law enforcement and corrections that target minority communities total over $200 billion annually (S. Jeff, 2007). Given the fact that many prisons are run as for-profit institutions, $200 billion is big business. And what do prisoners do while they are incarcerated? They are contracted out to work. For example, they may work in a call center that pays the prison $10 per hour for each prisoner’s work while each prisoner receives only .75 per hour of the contracted “wage”. A specific segment of the population in the United States is being targeted for imprisonment because of their membership in specific racial and/or economic groups, and they are essentially enslaved by a system that collects their earnings as profit. This is economic violence along the lines of Columbus’ mentality of conquest, colonialism, and exploitation; however, most of us don’t notice because we are so used to operating under the assumption that poor people deserve what they have or don’t have. Poor people–when they are thought of at all–are often thought of as deserving of their circumstances, and it is economic violence that we believe that people in poverty deserve to be there and deserve to have the limited opportunities that make selling drugs a calculated risk.

Another example of economic violence is seen in what is now called “predatory” lending, in which women and people of color are exploited under the guise of receiving “access” to the home-buying system. Once again, we believe that women and minorities deserve to have restricted access: we believe that their loans should–of course–be at higher interest rates because they are seen as higher risk than white men. However, the loans they are offered are essentially built to keep them out of the home-buying system, and to deny them the opportunity to build wealth. They are given impossible terms to meet and most necessarily go into default, which makes those who are privileged by the system–white mean–wealthier. Women and people of color are being exploited in conditions that create economic violence, and being exploited by the system is not the same thing as participating in that system.

In terms of the lifestyle options of the middle and upper classes in the United States we often take travel for granted as part of that “lifestyle” without considering what it is we are actually doing and what systemic inequalities–economic violence–we are contributing to. We can buy experiences–another version of optional ethnicities–in places like Hawai’i without getting to know the people who really live there and what their lives are like. We make communities who were “discovered” by white men–most often non-white communities–dependent on travel dollars and then say that travel is good for the local economy and will raise the standard of living of those not lucky enough to be white and privileged to visit. This is a direct result of the mentalities of conquest, colonialism, and exploitation of human “resources” that has followed us since Columbus’ time. It is an integral part of our culture, and like white privilege it is so expected that we don’t notice it when it is there. We only notice when something or someone threatens that expectation of entitlement–imagine, for example, that it became impossible to visit Hawai’i without a personal invitation from a native Hawai’ian.

Finally, violent video games–another aspect of our “lifestyle” that many people take for granted and without much, if any, thought–are one way that we desensitize ourselves to the economic violence that surrounds us and that we participate in on a regular basis. Many people will argue that violent games do not “cause” violence in our society; however, we each live in a place on the spectrum of violence in mainstream culture. There is a culture of violence in mainstream society, and however we participate in the spectrum of violence (by “playing” video games, by saying violent video games have no negative affect, or by taking a gun to school) supports that culture. Violent, racist, and sexist video games are a manifestation of something in our society, and the people who play them and act violently in society are not different from us. They are an extension of us. They go farther along the same path of desensitization to violence. The point made in the video Game Over: Gender, Race, and Violence in Video Games (ChallengingMedia, 2000) that video games encourage us to associate violence with pleasure, is one of the keys to how personal and structural inequality is supported in our society.

The Unified Model of Stratification offers a means of understanding the forces that maintain and perpetuate the stratification system of economic violence operating in mainstream culture in the United States. The rewards that dominant group members receive for supporting systems of economic violence like those of for-profit prisons, predatory lending institutions, travel to “other” cultures, and violent video games include seeing themselves as not “the other”, “protection” from “criminals”, the right to use drugs without risk of mandatory sentences if caught, the opportunity to build wealth through home ownership without competition from women and minorities, the right to benefit from the exploitation of women and minorities who default on their loans, the right to travel to “exotic” places to relax from the pressures of privilege, and a ready way to hide awareness of, and responsibility for, the spectrum of economic violence they participate in by blaming the people who act out the physical violence of video games in society.

For complying with the systems and processes that maintain our systems of economic violence non-dominant groups are promised access: to wealth-building avenues such as home ownership, to the dream of economic success that includes travel and other “lifestyle” benefits, and to safe communities free from drugs and drug users and sellers.

Penalties for dominant group members for undermining systems of economic violence include exclusion from “lifestyle” benefits like travel, withdrawal of protection from “criminals”, social and cultural isolation, competition with women and minorities for resources, and a strong push-back from people who support the current system and choose not to see their places on a spectrum of economic violence based on conquest, colonialism, and exploitation. At the same time penalties for non-dominant group members who challenge our systems of economic violence include police violence meant to keep them in their places, loss of wealth-building opportunities like home ownership, loss of the dream of economic achievement, a doubled version of social and cultural isolation–from their communities and from mainstream culture, and loss of practical economic opportunity found in supporting drug sales and culture.

Finally, the costs, losses, and consequences for dominant group members for operating within the boundaries of systems of economic violence include the conscious or unconscious awareness of participating in a system in which other people are exploited for their benefit, loss or lack of diverse communities when minorities and women are excluded from home-ownership, loss of healthy communities when people–particularly Black men–are in jail instead of with their families, obliviousness to economic privilege and the shallowness of their experiences in travel and with “other” cultures, and loss of opportunity to address the violence in mainstream culture and their place on the violence spectrum. The costs, losses, and consequences for non-dominant group members for operating within the boundaries of systems of economic violence are much higher and include loss of family members and communities to drug use and culture, loss of true opportunity to build wealth and community through home ownership, loss of family members and communities to prison and prison culture, ghettoization of their communities, impoverished schools and lack of educational and career opportunities, and high levels of stress and poor health.

As we can see, the mentalities of conquest, colonialism, and exploitation that are Columbus’ legacy are still strongly rooted in mainstream culture, and in the institutions and systems of stratification that we all live with and within. It will take courage and integrity to dismantle the economic violence our society is based on and that time has come

Works Cited
ChallengingMedia. 2000. Game Over: Gender, Race, and Violence in Video Games

S., Jeff. 2007. “Facts About the Prison System in the United States.”

Wolf, Ph.D. S. Rowan. 2007. The Dialectic of Social Inequality: Understanding Race, Class, and Sex in the United States. Portland Community College: Portland, Oregon.

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