Social Inequality and Symbolic Violence in the History of Public Parks in the U.S.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018: 08:30
Oral Presentation
KangJae (Jerry) LEE, North Carolina State University, USA
Myron FLOYD, North Carolina State University, USA
David SCOTT, Texas A&M University, USA
Using the concept of symbolic violence, this paper attempts to illustrate the oppression toward people of color, immigrants, and working class in the history of American public parks. Symbolic violence denotes a situation in which dominant groups usurp valuable resources through arbitrary cultural and political systems which impose certain social practices as more legitimate, sophisticated, and superior than others (Bourdieu, 1991). Three parallels between symbolic violence and the history of American public parks are drawn.

First, public parks in the U.S. were founded upon White middle- and upper-class sensibilities (Byrne & Wolch, 2009). Many public parks were built by evicting racial and ethnic minorities and working-class immigrants from their residences (Taylor, 1999). Moreover, park managers established rules and dress codes to inculcate cultural norms of middle-class within working-class and immigrants visitors (Byrne & Wolch, 2009). Until the 1960s, public parks were built, in part, as a means of social control toward people of color, immigrants, and the poor (Scott, 2013).

Second, despite social and health benefits of public parks, African Americans were not allowed to visit them freely until the Civil Rights era. The institutionalized slavery and Jim Crow laws forced Blacks to use segregated parks called ‘Negro Area’ that were inferior in quality and extremely rare (O’Brien, 2016). Lee and Scott (2016) argued that today many Blacks are not interested in visiting parks because the centuries of racial discrimination have prevented them from developing a cultural disposition that appreciates parks.

Finally, diversity and inclusion programs of many park and recreation agencies are symbolic rather than substantive (Allison, 1999). What is often missing in their programs is an acknowledgment of the history of exclusion and oppression pertained in public parks. The omission perpetuates symbolic violence by implying that the problem resides among the oppressed rather than the oppressors.