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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."

Quick answer:

Here Frederick Douglass highlights how social and political institutions can often only be accountable to certain groups of people, and then turn and oppress others, especially in regards to justice, poverty, and property. He argues that when this is the case, when some members of a society are not protected, no one is truly protected. This is because such conditions fail to create fair order and motivate resistance.

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To unpack the deeper meaning of this quote, it might be helpful to break it down into smaller pieces. This will help you analyze it in its proper historical and social context.

“Where justice is denied,”

Here Douglass is referring to the way in which justice systems fail certain populations. For example, consider situations in which police officers do not stand trial for their participation in the injury or death of an unarmed civilian. In these situations not only is there not justice, there is not even the opportunity for justice. Justice is being “denied.”

“where poverty is enforced,”

Here Douglass is referencing how some social and economic systems can keep people stuck in a cycle of poverty. For example, consider communities that do not receive adequate funding for safe, quality education. It is typically difficulty to achieve socioeconomic mobility in such communities, because society defines success by levels of education achieved. This can keep people in such communities living in poverty.

“where ignorance prevails,”

Here Douglass is referring to how people continue to ignore the way that poverty is enforced and justice is denied as a result of structural discrimination. Until people educate themselves about these issues, nothing can change.

“and where any one class is made to feel that society is in an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them,”

Here Douglass refers to how systemic discrimination and stark inequality can make many groups of people feel like the rest of society is against them. For example, consider how justice tends to be denied to people of color in situations of police violence, but not to white people. Years and years of this happening has made many feel like the justice system was not organized to protect the interests of people of color.

“neither persons nor property will be safe."

Here Douglass makes his main point, that as long as the above conditions continue, it is not possible for an entire society to be safely and effectively controlled. He suggests that with these above conditions, social institutions and governments are failing to protect people and their property. He also suggests that these circumstances motivate citizens to resist.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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