Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2019

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Davidovic, Jovana

Second Advisor

Bhandary, Asha

First Committee Member

Fumerton, Richard

Second Committee Member

Gowder, Paul

Third Committee Member

Jeske, Diane


My aim in this dissertation is to analyze Black oppression and White domination. I attempt to show how social systems unjustly diminish Black Americans’ opportunities to form and pursue their conceptions of good lives and unjustly strengthen White Americans’ opportunities for the same. I believe that the accounts of Black oppression and White domination I offer are more adept at identifying the expansive and varied wrongs of Black oppression in America, analyzing the relationship between theorizing oppression and addressing oppression through social and political change in America, and demonstrating the ways that Whites benefit from and are incentivized to maintain oppressive systems in America, than the accounts put forward by other theorists.

In Chapter 1, I begin by discussing why I frame my project in terms of oppressive “wrongs” rather than “harms”. I worry the term ‘harm’ may be taken to imply that one has experienced subjective suffering or a measurable loss, whereas I am concerned with instantiations of oppressive systems even when they don’t cause the person subject to the oppressive system to experience a measurable loss or subjective suffering. In an effort to describe how I identify wrongs, I then argue that in virtue of the deep importance of freely pursuing one’s chosen life plan, any barriers one faces in pursuing his or her life plan must be justifiable. Barriers one experiences in virtue of his or her race are typically not justifiable. On this basis, I argue for my principle of racial injustice, which states that individuals are prima facie wronged by socially constructed barriers to their abilities to form and seek their conception of a good life if those barriers exist in virtue of their race. The “prima facie” nature of the wrongness is significant, I argue, because correcting the injustices of Black oppression will require that Whites face some barriers to pursuing our life plans that we do not currently face; it is not the case, then, that every race-based barrier is truly wrongful. I then discuss my understanding of race, arguing that race’s mutability across contexts and how one’s race is intimately tied to systems of subordination and domination support my view that race is socially constructed. I end with a brief history of White domination and Black subordination in the U.S.

In Chapter 2, I outline general experiences of racism as espoused by Black writers and the statistical data that support these accounts. I then take a deep look at mass incarceration, including a history of the system, its disproportional impact on Black Americans, and the many resulting injustices inflicted largely on incarcerated Black Americans, their families, and their communities. I specifically highlight the recognition-wrongs inflicted on Black Americans through mass incarceration, where recognition-wrongs are acts that function primarily as a mode of dehumanizing individuals. Recognition-wrongs include verbal degradation through things like slurs, but also epistemic injustices, a concept developed by Miranda Fricker and others to identify injustices that wrong individuals in virtue of their status as knowers and communicators of knowledge. I then discuss kinship-wrongs, a concept I develop to identify wrongs that impact people’s ability to form and maintain relationships. I highlight and conceptualize these wrongs in an attempt to draw attention to their significance in racial subordination.

In Chapter 3, I develop an account of oppression that is particularly responsive to race-based wrongs. I begin by showing why the influential accounts authored by Iris Marion Young and Ann Cudd are unsatisfactory for capturing Black oppression. I attempt to develop an account that is sensitive to the experiences of subordination detailed by Black Americans, equipped to address the material harms of oppression, and also able to make sense of the recognition- and kinship-wrongs raised in Chapter 2. I ultimately determine that a member of a c-group is subject to an oppressive wrong when, in virtue of his or her or their membership in that c-group, he or she or they suffer wrongs that are systematically perpetrated through social, political, or legal norms, conventions, or practices. A c-group is any collection of persons who share (or would share in similar circumstances) some set of constraints, incentives, penalties, and the like. I end the chapter by carefully describing my commitments to each clause of the definition of oppression, beginning by analyzing c-groups, describing systematically perpetrated wrongs, explaining what it means to be wronged in virtue of one’s c-group membership, and showing that my account of oppression is sensitive to both material and recognition-wrongs.

In Chapter 4, I argue that we ought to understand oppression in the framework of a capabilities approach. I begin by explaining the concept of capabilities, which are real opportunities to function in particular ways. I then argue that securing capabilities is a better aim for justice than ensuring that people function in certain valuable ways because a focus on capabilities protects people’s opportunities to pursue the kinds of lives they want to live, respecting their interest in freely determining their life goals, while a focus on protecting valuable functionings inappropriately prescribes life goals to them. I show how capabilities can be utilized as part of a theory of justice, and argue that my utilization of capabilities, combined with the other moral commitments I defend throughout the dissertation, comprises a rectificatory theory of racial justice aimed at eliminating Black oppression (i.e. a theory that analyzes the current racial injustices of oppression and offers guidance on how we should approach redressing these injustices). I argue that through the framework of capabilities, I can analyze both the material and recognition-wrongs of oppression, avoid the kinds of bad idealizations that often skew our understanding of oppressive systems and their impact, and make judgments about modern day society without developing an account of perfect justice. I next show that to avoid inflicting further recognition-wrongs, it is essential that oppressed peoples are the primary arbiters of which capabilities and oppressive systems should be prioritized in policy and advocacy. I conclude Chapter 4 with a brief sketch of how we can turn the priorities of the oppressed into public policy, moving from the prioritization process, to policy development, to implementing policies, and finally to monitoring and revising them.

My final chapter, Chapter 5, shows how my account can also be used to analyze the norms of White domination that coincide with Black oppression. I begin by discussing “correlative capabilities,” which are those capabilities that are strengthened for Whites in virtue of the fact that Whites are not subject to oppression as Black Americans are. My discussion of correlative capabilities maps closely onto the advantages typically described as White privilege. I then turn to more insidious advantages Whites gain from Black oppression. I argue that oppressive norms advantage Whites by creating a social structure that empowers us with the capabilities to dominate racial narratives and ignore our racialized identities. The capability to dominate racial narratives consists in Whites’ abilities to pontificate on racialized events without justification for our views and still have our perspectives treated as mainstream, worthy of debate, and often as nearly definitive. I demonstrate this capability in action by examining Colin Kaepernick’s protest in the NFL, the coverage it received, and his resulting treatment. I then discuss Whites’ capability to ignore our racialized identities, showing how we establish Whiteness as a central, unconditioned perspective. Whites see ourselves as “simply people,” while seeing non-Whites as raced. This leads to Whites promoting color-blind conceptions of justice, which move us farther from true justice by ignoring social norms’ impact on policy development and implementation. I then show how Whites may go one step further and argue that we are victimized by “reverse racism” when efforts are made to eliminate oppressive systems. Finally, I end Chapter 5 with a discussion of how Whites are also disadvantaged by Black oppression, particularly in our capabilities to perform our jobs well, live morally, and establish and maintain relationships. I then conclude the dissertation by discussing how we might teach race-sensitive virtues in an effort to change White-favorable social norms.


Black oppression, justice, oppression, political philosophy, social philosophy, White domination


xii, 294 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 278-294).


Copyright © 2019 Nikolaos S. Maggos

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