What Does It Mean When a Group Has Power?

The Washington monument is visible in the sky behind rows of trees with light pink blossoms.

When discussing oppressed and privileged groups, you’ll frequently hear me talk about who in the interaction has the most power. But why is identifying the power in an interaction so important and what do I mean when I say a group has power?

CN: sexual assault, racism, chattel slavery, ableism, trans-antagonism, mention of suicide and murder rate statistics.

For a person or a group to have power refers to the ability to make certain choices that affect you individually or other people. The more power you have, the more choices available to you. If a person who wants to affect your behavior has more power than you, it will be difficult to resist the influence of their power. The greater the number of people there are with more power than you, the harder it is to resist.

Without external sources of power, oppression wouldn’t be enforced as easily. If bigotry was as simple as having a large number of people dislike you, it would be emotionally hurtful, but wouldn’t cause much lasting harm. But because power is used to enforce oppression, it is more difficult to break out of the patterns that make up the oppression vs. privilege system than it would be if the only enforcement came from within ourselves.

There are three main types of power that affect social justice issues: social, financial, and institutional power. In this article, I’ll explain what each of those types of power looks like, and how it manifests.

Privilege vs. Power

Social, financial, and institutional power have a lot in common with privilege. Success in life usually takes the form of a combination of the three types of power, and just like with privilege, it is possible to acquire these types of power through hard work and dedication, but you are more likely to acquire these kinds of power if you already have some to begin with.

But what’s the difference between privilege and power? Privilege is the receiving of unearned benefits, including protection against certain problems. Power is the ability to enact certain choices, including choices that control the actions of others. If you have more power, you have a wider range of choices you can make or the ability to make choices that affect other people directly and significantly influence their actions.

The systems of social/institutional/financial power and of privilege prop each other up. Privilege relies heavily on oppressed groups staying pushed down while those who have power over others are able to create, enforce, and maintain consequences against groups of people to help keep them down.

Social power is the ability to convince other people that the consequences for marginalized groups are valid. Financial power is having the resources to create and maintain those consequences. Institutional power is the ability to enforce consequences on those groups.

The people who have power are the people who decide who is oppressed and how that manifests. Like with privilege, the amount of power you have and in what contexts is a spectrum based on many variables. Like privilege, you may not be aware of all the contexts in which you have one of these forms of power.

A group of friends laughs, though it is unclear if their friend on the end is laughing with them.

Social Power

We’re all familiar with how much of a difference it makes in your life if you are popular, from social interactions in high school to influencing who wins elections. Social power primarily has to do with your interactions with other people and your influence over their opinions.

Here’s what social power looks like:

What you have:

  • Large audiences or following on social media/public platform
  • Popularity, large numbers of people who like you
  • The appearance of a person with privilege ie: white, well dressed, skinny, able-bodied, good hygiene
  • Friends who have financial and/or institutional power

Which means that…

  • You have Influence over large amounts of people
  • People take what you say seriously and listen to you
  • You can convince others, change their minds, and persuade people
  • You can lie and people will believe you
  • You can mess up and people will forgive you
  • People will treat you with respect and recognize your accomplishments
  • People will back you up or protect you if you encounter trouble
  • People assume that you also have financial or institutional power based on how you look
  • You get to make decisions about who else has social power

Social power is the most obvious in social media because one social interaction can affect millions of people in just a few hours. However social power is an important part of our everyday interactions. It influences how closely we listen to people, who we spend the most time with, whether or not we choose to burn bridges with certain individuals or communities, and whether or not we stand up for someone who lacks social power.

Some examples of social power in action:

  • A screen shows an analysis of average daily views for the website, numbering in the hundreds of thousands.A celebrity with 5 million followers on Twitter, tweets out her opinion of a particular political candidate, therefore offering encouragement to the millions of people who agree, discouraging the millions who disagree, and perhaps influencing the opinions of those who are on the fence.
  • A popular Youtuber makes a distasteful and hurtful video, but large numbers of his fans forgive him and defend him against criticism.
  • A pop star posts a video on their social media of a fan-made cover of one of their songs. The video receives millions of views and as a result, the fan becomes an overnight success, receives a record deal, invitations to talk shows, etc.
  • At lunch, a new student sits at a table alone. The leader of the popular kids’ crowd invites the new student to sit with them. The rest of the crowd makes an effort to be friends with the new student as a result.

Lack of Social Power

The #MeToo movement is a perfect example of the effect on a group when social power is missing. While this is social movement is currently gaining power, the issue of sexual assault has gone on largely unacknowledged for decades. Even now, as authority figures are finally enforcing consequences on perpetrators of sexual assault, a common reaction to #MeToo stories is disbelief, undermining, and dismissal. Celebrities have downplayed the severity of the problem of sexual assault in the industry and called the effort to enforce consequences for it “a witch hunt.” Despite sexual assault affecting at least 1 in every 6 women, it’s common for women’s stories to not taken seriously because they lack social power.

Social power is the type of power we are the least likely to be aware of because it’s highly influenced by how much privilege we have, and how much of that privilege is visible. As we already know, we have a tendency to be unaware of just how much privilege is affecting our lives.

As a white woman, I may take it for granted that the clerks in an expensive makeup store will always be nice to me and help me find exactly what I want. I may have no idea that a woman of color who has just as much money as I do if not more, might be suspected of shoplifting or given poor service due to her skin color being associated with poverty. The fact that I have social power in that situation opens up the number of choices I have available to me in shopping and makes it more likely I’ll get the product that I want and enjoy myself, whereas the woman of color’s lack of social power means she may be pressured into buying nothing and leaving. The choices we each had looked the same but were actually different due to our differing levels of social power.

A row of bottles of foundation in seven different shades, but all for people with white skin.

Financial Power

How many movie plot-lines cover the underdog sports team that makes it to the championship, only to be forced to compete against the elite, highly skilled opposing team that has the best gear and the best training, gifted to them by the star player’s rich father? Financial power concerns money and the choices that open up to you when you have it. Whereas social and institutional power are primarily forms of power that you use to influence other people, financial power includes an increased number of choices available to you individually.

Here’s what financial power looks like:

What you have:

  • Large amounts of money
  • Parents with money
  • Relatives with money
  • Friend circles with money
  • Ancestors with money that is inherited over generations
  • Ownership of property
  • Good credit
  • Job stability

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Which means that…

You have the power to:

  • Access loans or credit approval with low interest rates
  • Choose what you buy and when
  • Buy higher quality items which last longer, or pay for more at once for better deals
  • Access stable living and work environment, quality health care, and good nutrition

But you also have power over others such as:

  • Ability to buy yourself out of consequences or purchase favors
  • Influence over government decisions
  • Ability to make decisions on who else receives financial power
  • People will treat you well in hopes that you’ll bestow financial power on them

Financial power is much more well known than social power and the extent to which it affects the choices available to people. But the subtleties can often be hidden. A person with good credit may currently have the same amount of money as a person with bad credit, but the person with good credit has access to more money if needed and can handle a financial crisis more easily. Traffic violations are more likely to be committed by people with expensive cars, because people with financial power can easily pay the ticket, effectively neutralizing the consequence, whereas a single traffic ticket could spiral into consequences as severe as job loss or jail for a person lacking the money to pay it.

A street sign pointing the wall to Wall Street, home of most of the nations’s financial power.

Examples of financial power in action:

  • You donate 2 million dollars to the campaign of the politician you want to be elected, which makes them more likely to win.
  • You hit a financial rough spot, so you apply for a loan at the bank and borrow money from friends, which successfully gets you through a hard time.
  • You aren’t able to procure any scholarships for college so your parents pay your way through school.
  • You are accused of a serious crime that would result in years of time in prison. You hire a very good lawyer and successfully dodge the charges (regardless of whether you committed the crime or not.)

Financial Power’s Relationship with Racism

The contrast between what it looks like to have financial power or not is probably the most obvious when looking at the disparity of wealth between white and black Americans. In the US, white people have consistently had the most financial power and consistently made sure that people of color had astonishingly little financial power.

When white people immigrated to the US, white men were offered gifts of free or discounted property, which their white children inherited consistently over generations, whereas black people were restricted from owning property. Through chattel slavery, white Americans developed their wealth through cruel labor on the backs of black people, while black people earned nothing.

In the aftermath of the civil war, when slavery ended, a portion of slave owners were repaid an average of $3000 in today’s money per slave, by the government, as compensation for the workers that they lost. Black people had difficulty securing employment and housing after the war and they have never been paid back for their work.

Even as the years passed and slavery became easier for white people to distance themselves from, the imbalance in financial power continued. Banks regularly wouldn’t grant mortgages to people of color, landlords and real-estate agents refused them service or denied applications for renting or buying homes, people of color were (and still are) paid wages significantly lower than those of white people for decades. The financial power that white people secured in the beginning of our country was passed down from generation to generation, while black families faced staggering poverty and obstacles to any financial advancement for as long as they have lived in the US.

The result is a horrifying imbalance in financial power. In this report from Boston Massachusetts:

“The household median net worth was $247,500 for whites; $8 for US blacks (the lowest of all five cities); $12,000 for Caribbean blacks; $3,020 for Puerto Ricans; and $0 for Dominicans (that’s not a typo either.) The sample size for Cape Verdeans was too small to calculate net worth, the report said.”

That means that in Boston, white families have over 30,000 times more financial power than black families do.

The path to the white house is blocked by a line of yellow police tape.

Institutional Power

Institutional power is perhaps the most dangerous type of power because it affords the ability to make decisions that directly affect large numbers of people. It allows you to enforce rules, bring punishments, grant pardons, and decide what rules and punishments should exist in the first place. People with institutional power are the authority figures. They are the people we are most likely to think of when discussing power.

Here’s what institutional power looks like:

What you have:

  • Formal Leadership positions in communities
  • Jobs as managers and supervisors
  • Jobs in law enforcement
  • Jobs as government officials
  • The ability to vote

Which means that…

  • You have the ability to enforce or create rules and bring punishments against others
  • You have the authority to influence large numbers of people indirectly through policy, legislation, what you decide to sell, what lessons get taught in schools, what media gets promoted, etc.
  • You have protection against punishment for your mistakes
  • You have the ability to make decisions about who else is allowed institutional power

Institutional power has a lot of subtlety. Hidden effects of institutional power lie in issues such as how bathrooms are designed, which roads are maintenanced and kept clean, which broken equipment gets fixed, what questions are asked on a government form, what protocol is followed in an emergency situation, how difficult it is to access government resources and what are the hoops you have to jump through? Many of these variables fade into the background, as if they are set in stone, or have always been there.

But for every single example, a person with institutional power (or a group of them) made a decision and enforced the answer. Each answer influences thousands if not millions of people. In order for wheelchair users to be guaranteed an accessible bathroom stall, someone has to write a law requiring buildings to provide bathrooms in their design, someone has to make sure buildings have followed this law, and someone has to enforce consequences if they don’t. If people with institutional power do not act on one of these steps, people with disabilities may not get the stall that they need.

The manager of a team stands in front of his team laying out his plans.

Examples of institutional power in action:

  • As the head manager of a grocery store, you write up the story policies, rules employees need to follow, decide who to hire, fire, or promote and why.
  • As a judge, you have power over which cases move forward, what the punishment is, and whether the punishment is on the mild or harsh side depending on the crime or the criminal.
  • As a politician in power, you write legislation that adds funding to the needs of an underrepresented group, thereby granting them more financial power.
  • When a police officer is investigated, his own department investigates him, including his close friends, and he is found blameless. He does not face consequences for his actions.

More often than not, the favorable outcomes of decisions made by those with financial power are granted to other people with social and financial power. Which roads are maintenanced and kept clean? The ones near rich neighborhoods and nice businesses. How difficult is it to access government resources? Very difficult if you lack social or financial power, but not so difficult if you have friends with one of the three forms of power to pull strings for you.

Lack of Institutional Power

Two options for bathroom use, one building for women and one building for men, even though sex and gender don’t have only two options.Trans folks encounter institutional blocks to basic rights on a daily basis. They navigate obstacles to getting access to medical healthcare, convincing doctors to assist them in transitioning, changing their name and listed gender on all important government documents, getting through security on airplanes due to “anomalies” in the body scans, using bathrooms without harassment or abuse, and receiving protection from police or having their murders properly investigated. They are even at risk for getting kicked off Facebook for not displaying their “real name.”

An estimated 20-40% of trans teens are homeless and 45% of trans teens attempt suicide. Compared to 1 in every 12,000 Americans between the ages of 15 and 34 killed each year, trans women of color are murdered at a rate of 1 in 2,600, and that rate has been increasing every year. Those numbers represent the consequences of severe lack of institutional power.

Why Does This Matter?

As I said before, power is a lot like privilege in that it’s important to be aware of how much of it you have, in what ways, and how that affects you. How much power you have influences the choices you have access to and the degree to which you can influence the behavior of others. Different people have different levels of each type of power. Keeping in mind how much you have vs. how much a person you are interacting with has can influence the appropriate way to interact with them.

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An understanding of what power you have and what determines whether you have power also influences your understanding of the struggles of others. A man I spoke to about the Me Too movement didn’t want his son growing up scared of women the way black men grow up being scared of police officers. But what would be needed in order for this to happen? If he had a solid understanding of power, he would understand how unlikely this proposed scenario is to occur.

Social Power: People would need to take women seriously, trust them when they speak, back them up when they are in trouble and be influenced by their opinions. Women would need friends who have financial and institutional power.

Financial Power: Women would need enough money to influence legislation so that it was difficult for men falsely accused to be vindicated, they would need money to easily hire good legal representation in lawsuits, they would need financial and job stability in the case of a scandal.

Institutional Power: Women would need high numbers of representation in the legal system as police officers to handle sexual assault victims with care and consideration and to handle perpetrators with suspicion and scrutiny. They would need representation as judges to influence how laws are written and enforced on men. Women would need to receive get out of jail free cards or very mild sentences if they were caught with false accusations.

Men would need to have none of these forms of power or very little.

A woman wearing red nail polish holds a white sign that says “#MeToo” in large black letters, the sign obscuring her face.

Abuse of power is more clear when the power is institutional, such as an employer sexually harassing their employee but the employee doesn’t report it for fear of being fired. But abuse of power is also possible when the power is social or financial, and it’s harder to avoid doing so if you’re not aware of the power you have. In order to avoid abuse of power that you have over others, you need to understand what forms of power you and the person you are engaging with have. The relationship between these two levels of power is called power dynamics, which will be the topic of next month’s educational post.


About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. She specializes in educational writing about civil rights, disability, chronic illness, abuse, and Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, and Splain You a Thing and in 2022, she released a self-published book of poetry, “Pet: the Journey from Abuse to Recovery“. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Medium, and Twitter.

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