Document Type


Publication Date

Spring 2017


Various groups of people have been the victims of oppression throughout time and across national borders and cultures. Many forms of oppression continue to exist all over the world today, including in the United States. I have been particularly concerned with oppression on the basis of race. The responses to oppression have taken many forms, ranging from passivity and acquiescence to rebellion. Much of the response, however, takes place between these extremes, often in the form of ongoing collective action by more or less organized groups. Broadly speaking, these actions have come to be known as social movements, and they have been the subject of a great deal of scholarly examination. Through this scholarship, we have learned much about the nature of social movements, who joins them, and how they have been able to succeed. We have not learned as much about how the law and lawyers affect such movements and how, if at all, law and lawyers contribute to their success. I would like to examine these issues in an effort to elucidate the relationship between law, lawyers, and social movements and to better understand how lawyers can be helpful (or detrimental) to such movements.

My own interest in this field is somewhat more narrowly confined. For example, I have been skeptical of movements and lawyers who set as their goal the establishment of new or expansion of existing legal rights. New rights do not seem to have much social or political impact on subordinated groups, unless the holders of those rights have the power to enforce them. As an alternative to the rights discourse, I have been interested in the acquisition and utilization of power by marginalized and oppressed groups in the United States. Even more narrowly, my research has focused primarily on issues affecting the urban poor. Historically, there has been a significant intersection connecting social movements to urban poverty. The Civil Rights Movement, the Welfare Rights Movement, the Affordable and Fair Housing Movements, the Affordable Health Care Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement among others, have had significant impetus from and impact on the urban poor.

Many of these movements succeeded in creating new rights for various groups. Many were successful in changing, to some extent individual lives and social environments. Nevertheless, we see today a society where wealth and well-being are even more polarized, often on the basis of race, and groups of people who remain subject to the same forms of intergenerational oppression as those faced by their long departed ancestors. These groups continue to exist on the wrong side of what I have previously called the “power deficit.” If this assertion is correct the dedicated and well-intentioned efforts of lawyers have had only marginal results. Thus, I take the position, as do several others, that lawyers who work with oppressed groups must assist them in gaining and using power rather than pursuing rights as an end in themselves.

That being said, there is little consensus among social scientists, philosophers, and lawyers on the meaning of power and virtually no legal literature on how it can be obtained and used (although a fair amount exists on the need to obtain and utilize it). “Of all the concepts used by sociologists, few are the source of more confusion or misunderstanding than power.” My intention in this paper is to dispel some of that confusion and to attempt to illuminate some issues concerning power in relation and as a response to oppression.