What does this quote about justice, poverty, and property mean?"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, abd where any one class is made to feel that society is...

What does this quote about justice, poverty, and property mean?

"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, abd where any one class is made to feel that society is organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."

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laurniko eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This quote from Frederick Douglass means that the type of society he describes is one that spawns dangerous behaviors. According to the National Park Service, it comes from a speech he gave in Washington, DC on the 24th anniversary of emancipation. 

Douglass describes the society in a few different ways. Breaking down the language, we see the following characteristics:

  • Justice is denied. In other words, people are not being treated fairly.
  • Poverty is enforced. This means that people don't get the opportunity to make a living wage and have a reasonable standard of living.
  • Ignorance prevails. One way of looking at this is that a lack of education is fostered and celebrated by the society in question.

He then goes on to explain that one specific group in society is set apart and convinced that society itself is the cause of their injustices, woes, and substandard living. In such a society, people aren't safe.

Douglass was likely talking about American society during in the 1800s and during the Civil War era specifically. He specifically prefaces that quote by saying, "The American people have this lesson to learn." More broadly, though, he's saying that when society keeps one group down, that group will react. That reaction may be violent or damaging because people are being oppressed, robbed, degraded, and willing to fight back. Such a society isn't just.

It isn't as dark a quote as it seems. If that's true, the opposite is likely also true. A society where people are equal, safe, protected, and respected will be a better place. It will be a place where all people can live in harmony. 

thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

First, one should note that the author of this quotation was Frederick Douglass (ca. 1818 – 1895), a distinguished African-American writer and abolitionist who was born into slavery. In this statement he was criticizing the system of slavery and its injustice. He was arguing that the system of racialized slavery operating in the United States during his era was fundamentally unjust, depriving one entire class of people of basic human rights. This type of oppression was so extreme that it meant African-Americans had nothing to lose either in committing crimes, escaping, or rebelling.

On a more general level, he is pointing out that laws, especially those concerning private property, are only effective with the consent of the people who are governed. Most people refrain from disobeying laws because we feel that laws are fundamentally just. We respect other people’s private property in part because we believe that we too can obtain things like homes, technology, clothing, furniture, and other forms of property and would want people to respect our property. In a system in which one class of people feel they have no hope of obtaining even a minimal standard of living, there is little incentive for people in that class to obey a system of laws that serves to systematically oppress them.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

What this quote is saying is essentially that if you oppress a group of people in your society, eventually a rebellion will happen and no one will be safe.

Looking at the quote, you can see that this meaning is there.  Look at the first part of the quote, up to "neither persons nor property..."  In that part, we are being told about a situation in which one group is made to think that all of society is out to get them.  They feel oppressed and they feel as if they society is forcing them to be poor.

From there, the quote tells us what will happen in such a case.  In such a case, neither people nor their property will be safe.  That is, presumably, because the oppressed people will rise up and attack their oppressors.

To think about this in real-world situations, you can think of racial riots such as those in Los Angeles in 1992 or you can think of the Russian Revolution of 1917.  In those cases, some group rose up as a result of feeling completely oppressed by society.