Privilege, Punishment, and Vision

This semester, I am taking a class at the Graduate Theological Union called “Christian Ethics: Radical Love Embodied” from Dr. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Professor of Theological and Social Ethics. One of the texts for this class is Dr. Moe-Lobeda’s own 2013 book, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation. Chapter 4, “Unmasking Evil that Parades as Good,” has caused me to think deeply on how background social and cultural understandings perpetuate and affirm the way things are, even if those understandings are destructive or evil. The author characterizes this as “‘hegemonic vision’… the constellation of socially constructed perceptions and assumptions about ‘what is,’ ‘what could be,’ and ‘what ought to be’ that maintain the power or privilege of some people over others, and ‘blind’ the former to that privilege” (Moe-Lobeda, 88).

Dr. Matthew Clair, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Stanford University, uses the word hegemony with regard to U.S. law, but does not use the phrase hegemonic vision in his 2020 book Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court. He presents similar concepts, writing of how racism and classism intersect, “I found that the working class and poor, especially racial minorities, often sought to learn their legal rights, contest their defense lawyer’s expertise, and advocate for themselves in court. Meanwhile, the middle-class people I got to know found themselves in trusting relationships with lawyers and thus were more likely to defer to their lawyers and the court. Privileged people were rewarded for their deference, whereas the disadvantaged were punished for their resistance and demands for justice” (Clair, xv). That is, Dr. Clair reports that the U.S. justice system has a vision of how people should behave that is based in middle-class assumptions and communication patterns. He finds that those who are poor or working class who do not communicate as expected are disproportionately penalized.

The Prison Policy Initiative affirmed what Dr. Clair has written in their “Mass Incarceration: the Whole Pie 2020” in which Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner write, “People in prison and jail are disproportionately poor compared to the overall U.S. population. The criminal justice system punishes poverty… Poverty is not only a predictor of incarceration; it is also frequently the outcome.”

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