Institutional oppression is the practice whereby certain groups of people are discriminated against through either overt or hidden means; some of these common practices are so ingrained within the society as to go largely unnoticed or ignored. Places where institutional oppression may occur include civic organizations, the educational system, and various social service agencies, to name a few. These common practices, however entrenched in cultural acceptability, have long-term debilitative measurable effects on society as a whole. Sociological studies have determined many negative aspects of institutional oppression, making it a top priority for policy change in the near future. The far-reaching consequences of discrimination in institutions and society stretch too far into human concerns to be ignored any longer. In addition to the negative impact on local communities, as exclusionary practices keep barriers up rather than working towards solutions, institutional oppression can also influence national policies and even the way we are viewed internationally.
The American reputation towards its minority peoples has never been stellar by any means, and although we have laws that provide compensations for discriminatory practices, we still have far to go. Racism and gender-related oppression are two well-known areas of concern, whereby the criminal justice system and other legal institutions have been frequently called upon to intervene. Courtroom battles are filled to capacity where cases of discrimination seem to be unresolvable any other way. In recent years, the cause of ableism has also become a major issue. This is an unfortunately growing circumstance of exclusion for people who are deemed to be disabled in some way, either physically or mentally handicapped; they may be wholly dependent upon government assistance and are often deeply affected by institutional oppression. An example of this effect is when a post-traumatic stress disorder veteran may be discouraged by his social worker to return to college because of his perceived mental or physical limitations; when in actuality he might be better off returning to college and spending more social time with his peers. Another instance would be when community organizations discourage active participation from local citizens who happen to be disabled in some way. These acts of exclusion do not enhance the society or culture in which they are practiced.
In even more deceptive ways, institutional oppression is sustained in non-profit organizations by causing a financial dependency on their resources. Philanthropic organizations seem to be moving towards a more limited structure of disbursement, whereby the boundaries of oppression remain in place rather than promoting effective change. For some, philanthropy is primarily a way to avoid tax liability; for others, it may be a way to soothe one’s conscience about their wealth. The effect is problematic because it creates a dependency where the organization is looking for money from the very sources which seek to continue and sustain oppression. Funding has a political agenda; keep the people down so that they will not realize their position. An inclusionary approach would provide oppressed groups with a more active voice and role in community concerns is a more effective model. There is hope for change. While every individual is unique and may have different attitudes towards how to attain improvement, it is important to recognize the positive effects overall. As individual attitudes change, the betterment of culture and society will also improve. Social workers are in a good position to dismantle institutional oppression in their daily work at clinics and community service programs. Encouragement and empowerment are key strategies to remember—for example, encourage the veteran to go back to college. Empower disabled citizens to join community involvement groups. These small changes will provide larger societal gains in the long run.