What makes a marginalized group?

America’s continuing battle against marginalization needs to take history into account.

This week I started thinking about words that get thrown around frequently these days, and one that got me curious was the word “marginalized.” 

I wanted a definition, and I also wanted to find out what causes a marginalized group to appear, and who is it that takes part? 

“A marginalized group has to do with recognition of some sort of power inequality, and then a shared experience around that inequality in a society,” said Natalie Jolly, Associate Professor of Sociology at UWT.  

For a society that has shared experiences, there can also be a development of having a shared identity and in some cases, this can even cross race and gender. 

The other question I had was, can a person or group ever stop being marginalized? Can a person take themselves out of the group? 

In my conversation with Professor Jolly, she mentioned her research about the Amish of central Pennsylvania and a debate about whether they were a marginalized group. 

“For most of them, they’re born into it and there’s not a lot of resources to leave,” said Jolly.  

This got me thinking that even if someone from any community were to have the resources to leave, that community would still exist. What was accomplished is that individual was able get out and changed their way of life but is still behind in the race of the American dream. 

I can speak of my own experience here, and I’m sure some could share in some of it. My wife and I were on food stamps for a while when we were newlyweds. My wife was in school and was pregnant with our first child. I worked a rough sales job that barely got us by. I never thought of myself as part of a marginalized group, but maybe it was because I didn’t know the word. Eventually after my wife graduated, and she got into her field, we figured out how to live everyday with what we had, with her working a full-time job and me working a part-time job as one of us had to take care of our newborn. 

We were on and off food stamps for 6 years and we were on the WIC program until our last child turned four. This is where the hard work we were doing the entire time was supposed to pay off, but it seemed to not be time to reap what we sowed. The resources for our family ran out and we had to figure it out and grit our way to build something to leave for our children. 

Having equity seems to be linked with having resources. Take for example the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that prohibits discrimination based on race, religion and national origin. This would be the beginning of all marginalized communities having the ability to build something that would remain in their families long after they are gone. 

We can all work hard as individuals to get ahead, but the system in play has been established throughout American history, and it starts with a dominant group of people dehumanizing another. 

From being owned, to not being able to own property, while the people that owned them were able to own and sell since the dawn of America. How can there be equality? It’s not an equal playing field because people don’t start at the same line in this race. This causes marginalization. 

“We try to fix some things and we open up more freedom for a lot of people, but then in other ways people feel more off footed,” said Professor Jolly, when speaking about the making of societal changes. 

People can own property, but that’s on an individual level and can only really make changes in their own lives. To see how far up this goes we need only look at professional sports leagues. How many individuals who are minorities own pro teams? 

In recent history, the now retired basketball legend Michael Jordan was the only person of color with majority stakes of an NBA team, but in August 2023, he sold his stakes and now there is only a handful of minority stakes owned by people of color in all major sports.  

People tend to point to figures like Michael Jordan and claim there is no system that keeps people down, but let’s face reality, we’re not all MJ. There is only one. And to say the level of success he has is attainable for the average American is just not true. 

“There’s this idea we have that there’s a linear trajectory where once we fix something we’re closer to this utopia and I think it’s really much messier than that,” said Professor Jolly. 

We must stop thinking of this as rich versus poor and begin thinking about marginalization as the average person not being able to build equity in their individual lives consistently. 

We would all like to be billionaires, but that is just not possible nor is that what the people in marginalized groups are asking. Most people just want to live a good life without worrying about leaving nothing behind for their children. 

When it comes to inheriting equity, my parents migrated to the US and were able to hand me a social security number. And for others that were born in the US, it can feel as though it’s not much more than that. 

Feautred Image, Illustration of inequality when it comes to personal wealth. Illustration By Benoît DE HAAS from Pixabay