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Exploitation and Exclusion: Exploring Race in Schools, Prisons, and the Job Market

Posted by Marcela Oñate-Trules on

Since the 1970s, America has increasingly become an unequal society in what is considered the “developed” world. Between 1979 and 2007, the income of the top 1% tripled, while incomes of median households only increased by 25% (Gordon). The richest people in society hold the majority of America’s wealth, more accurately, the richest 1% of Americans own 1/3 of the nations wealth, and the richest 5 percent own 60% (Gordon). As the rich continue to get richer, the poor only get poorer, Colin Gordon describes it as “treading water or slowly sinking.” The poor become stigmatized in society for being lazy, unmotivated, and dangerous. However, the poor are only kept poor because the rich in America make it a top priority to maintain their economic position—thus perpetuating a cycle of inequality. To do so, they engage in two mechanisms—exploitation and exclusion.


According to Olin Wright and Rogers, exclusion occurs when a dominant group of individuals restricts other people’s access to resources in order to impede social mobility and keep the class system in order. Exploitation occurs on the labor market and is when a person, or group of people in power, is able to appropriate the fruits of someone else’s, the excluded persons, labor. Exploitation is defined by a “particular kind of mechanism through which the welfare of exploiters is causally related to the deprivations of the exploited” (Wright and Rogers, p.40). Through a complex examination, it becomes clear how exclusion and exploitation are interrelated, and that when one occurs the other naturally will too, as they go hand in hand. Because of this, society is able to translate power and privileges intergenerationally, using institutions that pose as examples for reinforcing exclusion and exploitation—the education system, labor market, and the penal system.

Free market capitalism, the economic system practiced in the US, inherently serves as a method of exploitation, directly leading to exclusion. In capitalism, production is organized for the market while “the means of production are privately owned and investment is privately controlled, and the people who use these means of production to produce goods and services—that is, the workers—are hired on a labor market to work in firms as employees” (Olin Wright and Rogers, p. 37). In capitalist societies, money for investment is used to buy raw material and labor for production, and then the labor is organized so the raw materials can be converted into useful products that can be sold on the market and, therefore, return capital back to the employers (Edwards). The individualistic goals of capitalism are to minimize the cost of production and increase profits; enabling employees to suck the most labor from workers—people who don’t have enough economic capital to invest, so they sell their labor on the labor market (Edwards).

The strong tie between individual freedom and capitalism inherently leads to exploitation. When one's values the “freedoms” of these corporations, laborers are exploited in the market, and their individual freedom isn’t valued. Without ownership to means of production or access to basic necessities of life, workers must surrender autonomy to capitalist firms—they need to agree to terms and conditions of the firm, which are made to extract labor from laborers while paying minimum wages, so the labor extracted is benefitting the employers but not laborers themselves. The jobs working class people have been in the secondary labor market—characterized by Richard Edwards as jobs that are low skilled and dead end in a terrain that encourages turnover, and devalues education and seniority. Thus, the working poor are employed in a labor market that doesn’t require great skill, and the workplace is organized so that anyone can do the specific skill.

The deskilling of jobs in the secondary labor market leads to workforce becoming bloated, and due to the excess amount of people selling their labor on the market, the cost of labor becomes cheaper, thus exploiting the workers further. Since the working poor expect to be in the secondary labor market, which doesn’t value education or seniority, they don’t see a need to place high value in school or success in school, and, therefore, don’t gain the cultural capital needed to succeed in the job market. This mentality leads them to be excluded from the primary labor market because they lack the soft skills that are deemed necessary—interpersonal skills, communication skills, self-presentation skills—so the cycle of exploitation continues to occur in the secondary labor market.

Another system that perpetuates the cycle of immense inequality in the United States is the penal system—where exclusion and exploitation again go hand in hand. In the past two decades, America has witnessed a huge increase in the gap between imprisonment rates of blacks and whites, as now the majority of people in prison are working class African Americans (Wacquant, p. 96). Since America’s birth, white men in power have tried to exercise control over African Americans, in order to “keep them in their place.” This need for control has come in the form of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the northern ghetto, and now the hyper ghetto (Wacquant, p.98). Before the 1860s, African Americans were kept “in their place” through exploited labor in the slave system, yet over time that exploitation transformed into exclusion in the northern ghetto, where working, poor Blacks were physically separated from the middle class and white people. Ghettos were created, turning black communities into places of immense amounts of poverty.

This homogenization of the ghetto led to the hyperghetto—a ghetto with strong characteristics of a prison, preparing its members to go in and out of prison. The mass incarceration of working class and poor African Americans is a form of exploitation in itself. Privately owned prisons employ copious amounts of guards and managers to run the prison, so a lot of people make their income from the existence of prisons. Therefore, when you provide prisons with more inmates, the prison industry is making more money, thus perpetuating a cycle of exploitation because one side of people—the employees of the prison—are benefitting, but only because the prisoners are suffering. In short, the employees at the prison are forced to depend on exploiting prisoner for their personal prosperity, in the form of a salary. After one is in prison, they experience a “civic death”, where they are excluded from resources that would help them achieve social mobility. Because they are in jail, they are unable to achieve social mobility and are kept at an inferior position compared to the middle and even lower class.

A form of triple exclusion occurs that allows the criminal justice system to draw lines separating the lower and upper classes. The inmates are denied cultural capital, excluded from social redistribution of public aid, and are banned from political participation (Wacquant, p.120). By keeping African Americans incarcerated, they are excluded from many aspects of life that would allow them to succeed and move up in the social system, as well as make a positive impact on society. Also, the mentality of the prison towards its prisoners is drastically changing—producing more exploitation and exclusion. In the post World War 2 decades, the prison “sought to resocialize inmates so as to lower the probability of re-offense once they returned society, of which they were expected to become law-abiding if not productive members” (Wacquant, p. 111-2).

Now, rather than trying to reform inmates to minimize their chance of coming back to prison, American prisons are trying to control them. The demise inmate reform leads to exclusion once again, because prisoners keep altering between the ghetto and prison. According to Wacquant, the mission of the prison system in this day and age is the same as the one of the classical ghetto—“to quarantine a polluting group from the urban body” (Wacquant, p.112). To summarize, the mass incarceration of African American men is a form of exploitation because their incarceration indirectly benefits the people running the prison. This exploitation turns into exclusion because once they are out of prison, they are denied the comforts of a normal life that will allow them to succeed and avoid reincarceration Thus the cycle of incarceration, exploitation, and exclusion continues.

The interconnectedness between exploitation and exclusion that make up inequality within the United States is interwoven in the fabric of the capitalist mindset. The economy naturally leads to exploitation of people who lack capital—economic and cultural—because they need to sell secondary labor on the market, causing class divisions between people who have cultural capital and those who don’t. Due to the secondary labor market not placing any value on education, workers don’t see a need of obtaining one—and, therefore, exclude themselves from obtaining social mobility by taking part in the primary labor market.

Overall, capitalism leads to a system of never ending exploitation and exclusion, leaving their workers to be stuck and increasingly lacking any sort of stability. The penal system adds to this inequality by perpetuating the cycle of black men going in and out of prison—thus excluding them from society or obtaining social mobility. Through exclusion and exploitation, society is able to translate the class structure, power, and privilege throughout generations—the rich will stay rich and accumulate more wealth while the poor are stuck in a sort of limbo with the labor market, the education system, and the penal system.

This article was written by Marcela Oñate-Trules, a free spirit, avid camper, and ally to many civil and social justice causes studying at Colorado College.

  • Colin Gordon, “Introduction,” Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality.
  • Erik Olin Wright and Joel Rogers, American Society: How It Really Works (2011), pp. 35-68
    and 183-204. (P)
  • Richard C. Edwards, “Social Relations of Production at the Point of Production” (1978), The
    Insurgent Sociologist, pp. 110-125. (P)
  • Richard C. Edwards, Contested Terrain: The Transformation of the Workplace in the
    Twentieth Century (1979), pp. 163-199. (P)
  • Jay MacLeod, Ain’t No Makin’ It: Aspirations and Achievements in a Low-Income Neighborhood (3rd Edition, 2009),
  • Loic Wacquant, “Deadly Symbiosis: When Ghetto and Prison Meet and Mesh,” Punishment & Society (2001), pp. 95-133. (P)

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