The United States is situated in North America. It is bounded by the North Atlantic Ocean to the east, the North Pacific Ocean to the west, Mexico to the south, and Canada to the north. Alaska also borders Canada, with the Pacific Ocean to its south and the Arctic Ocean to its north. The island state of Hawai’i is situated in the Pacific, south-west of the North American mainland. The United States is the world’s third-largest country by size (after Russia and Canada) and by population (after China and India).
The USA was founded in 1776 with the American Declaration of Independence, including the basic tenets that the equality of all people is ‘self-evident’ and that human rights, including ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, are ‘inalienable’. The US Constitution’s first ten amendments, or the Bill of Rights, provide for equal access to a broad range of civil rights and liberties. The thirteenth amendment prohibits slavery; the fourteenth entrenches the due process of law and equal protection for all.
Until the mid-twentieth century, however, these provisions were consciously misinterpreted to allow for disenfranchisement of women and minority groups, dispossession of indigenous peoples, official segregation, discrimination in education, employment and housing, and unequal access to public services. The US Supreme Court repeatedly endorsed these practices as legal and acceptable.
After the Second World War, the Supreme Court shifted its stance radically. The Brown case (1954) ended official school segregation, and is widely seen as a huge step forward for general social integration. This landmark case was broadened by later rulings extending desegregation into other areas and requiring governments to take a proactive stance in integrating ‘racial’ groups and providing equal opportunity.
These decisions were both the product of and the engine for an extraordinary period of minority activism for civil and political rights. Eventually, minority demands were recognized in new legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, colour and creed in voting, employment, federal programmes and public facilities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 included a series of measures intended to short-circuit racist attempts to exclude minorities from political life. At the same time, the Johnson administration launched the Great Society anti-poverty campaign, including expanded social welfare programmes and equal employment opportunity laws. Over the next decade, governments and courts entrenched these new laws in policy, and the USA recognized (limited) indigenous sovereignty rights for the first time since the colonial period.
However, the USA has been reluctant to make international commitments to internal minority rights. It has often delayed ratifying UN accords for decades after signing them. Only in the early 1990s did the USA finally ratify the Torture Convention, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The USA is also party to the American Declaration on the Rights of Man, which contains a general statement against discrimination.
Main languages: English, Spanish, other languages (see under minority groupings below)
Main religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam
Minority and indigenous population groups include Latinos, 41.9 million (14.5% of the total population), of whom 63 per cent are of Mexican origin; African Americans, 34.9 million (12.1%); Asian Americans, 12.5 million (4.3%); Native Americans, 2.4 million; Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans, 1.2 million; Native Hawai’ians, 0.4 million; and Alaska Natives, 106, 660.
The USA presents a minority situation of unusual diversity and complexity. There are seven key minority groupings: Latinos (including Puerto Ricans), African Americans, Asian Pacific Americans, Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawai’ians, and Inuit and Alaska Natives. In most cases, these groupings include several distinct subgroups.
There are dozens of other distinctive ethnic and religious groups in the USA. While some are small immigrant groups that do not yet have sufficient numbers and history to attract notice, others have been relatively successful in reaching accommodation with the dominant population and cannot be said to suffer significant discrimination as minorities in the USA today.
Irish, Italian, Polish and other Roman Catholic European immigrants, for example, encountered serious prejudice prior to the Second World War, but have now integrated as ‘whites’. Often these groups have maintained their cultural cohesion while achieving economic advancement.
Jewish people – 6.4 million or 2.2 per cent of the US population according to a survey carried out by the American Jewish Committee in 2006 – are a special case. Anti-Semitism in the USA was widespread and embedded in social and economic structures as recently as the mid-1960s. Today, however, Jews partake in every aspect of life, including political and social institutions and the media, according to figures from the 2006 Congressional elections 8 per cent of the Senate and House of Representatives are Jews. Organized anti-Semitic violence occurs through hate-group activity – in 2005 the Anti-Defamation League reported a total of 1,757 anti-Semitic incidents, including verbal and physical assaults, harassment, property defacement and vandalism.
Other religious minorities – including Amish, Quaker, Dukhobor and Bruderhoffer Christians, Mormons, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Hare Krishnas, Native American spiritualists and Scientologists – have encountered barriers to the free practice of their faith in the past. However, jurisprudence has affirmed these groups’ constitutional rights to freedom of religion, including tax exemption. The pacifist Amish and Quakers were guaranteed freedom from compulsory service under the 1950s and 1960s military draft, and the Amish and other traditionalist religious groups have prevailed against pressures to abandon their rural, independent lifestyles.
According to the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001 the evangelical Christian population in the USA has burgeoned over the last decade, resulting in political trends that trouble religious liberty advocates. For example, there have been popular conservative campaigns on the teaching of intelligent design in place of Darwinism and compulsory prayer in public schools, and for ‘family values’ policies generally. Some operations against religious ‘cults’ have been criticized for blurring the line between enforcing the law and enforcing moral and religious conformity.
Finally, according to US government statistics, which often undercount by slotting mixed-race people into one category or another, people of mixed race made up a growing proportion of US society, rising from 1 per cent in 1968 to 3.4 of the US population in 1989. In the 2000 Census, however, only 2.4 per cent of the population reported two or more races. Mixed-race people face particular emotional and social challenges in the rigid grid of US race relations.
Largely, although not entirely, a nation of immigrants, the USA’s concepts of civil rights, integration, universal equality and independence have influenced human rights around the globe. Dominance by the ‘white’ Christian majority has been a constant since North America was colonized in the sixteenth century. Since US independence in 1776, government policy has evolved from a basis in slavery and conquest, through segregation and exploitation, into an official stance favouring minority integration and even self-determination.
New methods of registering voters have been promoted as a way to bolster minority electoral participation in the USA. The 1965 Voting Rights Act mandated the redrawing of voting districts to benefit minorities. The Act is a cornerstone of the civil rights era and was adopted in 1965 to stop the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters, particularly in the South, through barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests. The National Voter Registration Act was passed in 1994, after long resistance from the Republican Party. By allowing voters to register when they obtain drivers’ licences or at social service offices, this ‘Motor Voter Act’ more than tripled the pace of registrations in 1995.
Affirmative action became a pivotal issue in the 1990s. California Governor Pete Wilson launched a suit against the federal government in 1995 protesting against mandatory affirmative-action programmes for state governments. In 1996 voters in California approved Proposition 209, which ended affirmative-action policies in public institutions, and a similar measure was passed in Washington state in 1998. Such measures led to a sharp drop in enrolment of minority students, particularly African Americans and Latinos. In 2003 the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan’s affirmative-action admission policies, but in November 2006 Michigan voters adopted Proposal 2, banning affirmative-action policies in all of the state’s public institutions. In June 2007 the Supreme Court reversed the landmark desegregation judgement of 1954 by ruling that race cannot be used as a factor in school entry. The majority of the judges argued that racial classifications perpetuated the very divisions they were put in place to dissolve. The decision followed protests from white parents whose children had been denied entry to schools because they would have exceeded a quota of non-black pupils.
Following the events of 11 September 2001, the US introduced domestic legislation to address homeland security in the face of a perceived terrorist threat; such legislative acts have impacted negatively upon minority people, specifically Muslims and/or people of Middle Eastern or South Asian heritage. The political and social culture in North America has likewise had a chilling effect upon these communities’ normal activities: men and women have attended mosque less frequently or stopped completely, whole families have left North America for their home countries, sometimes under unsafe conditions.
In the USA, among other recent legislation like the Patriot Act I and II, the current material witness law has had an adverse effect upon the civil rights of members of minority communities. The Material Witness Act, dating from 1984, was enacted as a means of allowing the government to get witness testimony from persons who might otherwise flee to avoid testifying. The law is predicated upon the theory that if a court believes a witness’s information to be ‘material’ to a criminal case, the witness can be locked up, but theoretically only for the time necessary for the deposition. Since 11 September 2001, the US Department of Justice has manipulated use of this Act for a different purpose: securing the indefinite detention of people whom the government has wanted to investigate as possible terrorist suspects.
A Human Rights Watch report of June 2005, Witness to Abuse, found that detainees were denied basic access to justice, including a right to a public trial without delay, access to an attorney and being informed of their Miranda rights (the right to remain silent, right to an attorney, etc.). By using the law in this way, the government has imprisoned at least 70 men to date – all but one Muslim, at least three-quarters of whom are US citizens and 64 of whom are of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent.
Since May 2005, the US Department of Justice’s role in these men’s futures has been determined: 42 were released, with 13 of them receiving a formal apology from the US government for wrongful imprisonment. On 9 September 2005, a federal appeals court determined that Jose Padilla, a Chicago-born Latino Islam convert, could be held indefinitely as an ‘enemy combatant’, overturning a South Carolina ruling that such detention violated Padilla’s habeas corpus rights. After serving three years Padilla was charged with criminal conspiracy in January 2006 and on August 16, 2007 at the end of a jury trial –during which the presiding judge claimed prosecutors were ‘light on facts’ regarding conspiracy allegations– Padilla was found guilty of conspiring to kill people in an overseas jihad and to fund and support overseas terrorism. His January 2008 sentence drew 208 months in a so called ‘Supermax’ high-security Colorado prison.
On June 12 2008 the US Supreme Court ruled that foreign detainees at the Guantánamo Bay detention centre in Cuba also have the right to force the US government to prove the legality of their ongoing detention to a neutral judge rather than be tried by military officers. This followed years of successful resistance by the Bush administration to prevent them from gaining access to civilian judges and their higher standards of proof.
Nearly 800 men were brought to Guantanamo since its establishment in 2002. The majority have been released or transferred to their home countries due to lack of sufficient evidence to put them on trial for war crimes. Habeas corpus petitions have been filed on behalf of more than 200 of the current 270 Guantánamo detainees since 2005 and 20 have been charged with criminal offences.
This included 40 year-old Yemeni national Salim Hamdan, considered to be Osama Bin Laden’s driver. He became a central figure in the ongoing legal conflict by taking his case (Hamdan vs Rumsfeld) to the US Supreme Court in 2006. Hamdan was caught at a road block in Afghanistan in 2001, soon after the 11 September attacks. He was charged with conspiracy and providing material support for terrorism. In August 2008, a jury of six military officers found him guilty of the lesser charge of material support only, and gave him a five-and-a-half year sentence which included a five year credit for the time already served. Hamdan became the first detainee to be convicted by the Guantánamo military court, however in a precedent setting decision he was transferred to Yemen in November 2008 to serve the remaining month of his sentence thus indicating the possibility of a significant administration policy change regarding Guantanamo detainee rights.
It has become almost a truism that the US legal system discriminates against non-whites, especially in criminal cases. The 1992 police beating of Rodney King and the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson were particular flashpoints. Other frequently cited examples include: the wildly disparate sentencing patterns in convictions for possession of crack cocaine (associated with non-white users) and powder cocaine (used mostly by whites); the disproportionate imprisonment of black, Latino and Native American convicts compared to whites; and the more frequent use of the death sentence against non-whites, especially when convicted of killing a white victim.
US minorities have generally shared a common pattern of experience since the 1960s. Civil rights movements brought cultural awareness, community organization and political participation. A small percentage of each group entered the middle class – often leaving traditional ethnic neighbourhoods for the suburbs – but the less well-educated and financially secure saw their communities and personal fortunes sink. Also in many cases hanging onto middle class gains has proven to be difficult. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts released in November 2007 revealed that 45 per cent of the African-Americans whose parents were solidly middle income in 1968 fell to the poverty or near-poverty levels in the next generation. Only 16 percent of whites showed a similar downward trend.
Open hostility towards inner-city minority groups and especially Hispanic immigrants has intensified By the 1990s many people had become disillusioned with the integrationist ideals and welfare state programmes of the 1960s. Nationalist and separatist sentiments among minorities began to proliferate and many insecure middle-class whites succumbed to suburban protectionism, whose extremes are manifested in the the growth of ‘gated communities’ with protective walls and private security forces, ironically in some cases constructed with significant use of undocumented immigrant labour.
The 1992 election of Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration raised hopes for improved representation, especially among African Americans. Superficially, the Clinton cabinet was the most diverse in US history to date, but few of its policies fulfilled its promises of urban economic renewal.
In 1994, Congress was taken over by a Republican majority whose agenda (the ‘Contract with America’) included dismantling anti-poverty programmes and ending programmes that favour minority candidates for positions in employment or education. Economic hardship coincided with a crisis of purpose. In 2001, and then again in 2005, a Republican administration headed by president George W. Bush was voted into office in a process that eventually required Supere Court intervention. Bush’s administrations have been charged with further pursuing anti-affirmative action policies and blocking educational, anti-poverty and health care programmes intended to improve the state of America’s minorities.
But where racial discrimination is perhaps most evident is in the sphere of criminal justice policies and practices. Racial profiling by the police, immigration and airport officials is widespread in the USA and, following the September 2001 attacks, has greatly expanded. By 2006 approximately 32 million Americans had reported being victims of racial profiling. There were continuing concerns in 2006 about the extraordinarily high incarceration rates and long sentence periods for African American and Latino minorities that are far higher and longer than white Americans.
The combination of decreased urban aid, increased policing and cultural misunderstanding is potentially explosive. Riots in Los Angeles and Miami in the early 1990s were touched off by police brutality in economically deprived communities. Meanwhile, the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma attributed to members of white-supremacist ‘citizen militias’ – along with continuing evidence of neo-Nazi, Ku Klux Klan and other organized racist activity – hinted at the extremes of white backlash.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Tel: +1 212 807 8400, 202 544 0200
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights/Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education
Tel: +1 202 466 3311
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies
Tel: +1 202 789 3500
Tel: +1 212 288 6400
Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
Tel: +1 202 244 2990
Arab Community Centre for Economic and Social Services
Tel: +1 313 842 7010
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
Tel: +1 202 833 6130
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)
Tel: +1 213 629 2512
International Indian Treaty Council
Tel: +1 415 512 1501
Native American Rights Fund
Tel: +1 303 447 8760
National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)
Tel: +1 202 466 7767
National Tribal Justice Resource Center
Tel: +1 303 245 0786
Ka Lahui Hawai’i (Sovereign Nation of Hawai’i)
Tel: +1 808 961 2888
Inuit and Alaska Natives
Alaska Intertribal Council
Tel: +1 907 563 9334
The Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN)
Tel: +1 907 274 3611
Alaska Native Knowledge Network
Tel: +1 907 474 1902
Sources and further reading
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Worlds Apart: How Deporting Immigrants after 9/11 Tore Families Apart and Shattered Communities, New York, ACLU, December 2004.
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) America’s Disappeared: Seeking International Justice for Immigrants Detained after September 11, New York, ACLU, January 2004.
Claiborne, L. et al., Race and Law in Britain and the United States, London, MRG, 1983.
Human Rights Watch and American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Violations in the United States: A Report on US Compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, HRW/ACLU, New York, 1993.
Zack, N. (ed.), American Mixed Race: The Culture of Microdiversity, Lanham, MD, Rowman and Littlefield, 1995.
Black Aids Institute, AIDS in Black Face: 25 Years of an Epidemic, New York, 2006, URL: www.blackaids.org
Haas, M., Institutional Racism: The Case of Hawai’i, Westport, CT, Praeger, 1992.
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (LCCREF), Justice On Trial: Racial Disparities in the American Criminal Justice System, Washington, DC, 2000, URL: http://www.civilrights.org/publications/reports/cj/
National Urban League, The State of Black America 2006, New York, National Urban League, 2006.
Pinkney, A., Black Americans, 4th edn, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice Hall, 1993.
Stepick, A., Haitian Refugees in the USA, London, MRG, 1986.
Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) ‘Questions and Answers about the Workplace Rights of Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and Sikhs under the Equal Employment Opportunity Laws’, URL: http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/backlash-employee.html
Zogby, J. (ed.), Taking Root, Bearing Fruit: The Arab American Experience, Washington, DC, ADC Reports, 1984.
Asian American Action Fund report on Asian American political participation, URL: http://www.aaa-fund.org/downloads/2006-05-31_AAA-Fund_Report.pdf
Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, Asian Americans and the Voting Rights Act: The Case for Reauthorization, New York, AALDEF, May 2006.
Barringer, H.R., Gardner, R.W. and Levin, M.J., Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1993.
Hmong Studies Internet Resource Center: www.hmongstudies.org
De la Garza, R.O. and Desipio, L. (eds), Ethnic Ironies: Latino Politics in the 1992 Elections, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1996.
Gutiérrez, D.G. (ed.), The Columbia History of Latinos in the United States Since 1960, New York, Columbia University Press, 2004
Meier, M.S. and Ribera, F., Mexican Americans/American Mexicans: From Conquistadors to Chicanos, New York, Hill and Wang, 1993.
Muñiz, B., In the Eye of the Storm: How the Government and Private Response to Hurricane Katrina Failed Latinos, Washington DC, National Council of La Raza, 2006.
National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Lost Opportunities: the Reality of Latinos in the US Criminal Justice System, Washington, DC, NCLR, 2004.
Olson, J.S. and Olson, J.E., Cuban Americans: From Trauma to Triumph, New York, Twayne, 1995.
Steiner, S., Mexican Americans, London, MRG report, 1979.
Wagenheim, K., Puerto Ricans in the United States, London, MRG, 1989.
Bureau of Justice Statistics report on American Indians and Crime, 1992-2002 (2004), URL: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/abstract/aic02.htm
Green, D.E. and Tonnesen, T.V. (eds), American Indians: Social Justice and Public Policy, Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin System Institute on Race and Ethnicity, 1991.
Indian Trust, Cobell v. Norton, www.indiantrust.com
Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights web page on Indigenous Peoples, URL: www.unhchr.ch/indigenous/main.html
UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Early Warning and Urgent Action Procedure Decision 1 (68) on the situation of the Western Shoshone Indigenous Peoples in the United States of America, www.ohchr.org/english/bodies/cerd/docs/68decision-USA.pdf
Wilson, J., Original Americans: USA Indians, London, MRG report, 1986.
Haas, M., Institutional Racism: The Case of Hawai’i, Westport, CT, Praeger, 1992.
Hawai’ian Independence website, www.Hawaii-nation.org/index.html
Native Hawai’ians, www.nativehawaiians.com
Trask, H.K., From a Native Daughter: Nationalism and Sovereignty in Hawai’i, Monroe, ME, Common Courage Press, 1989.
Inuit and Alaska Natives
Alaska Commission on Rural Governance and Empowerment, Final Report to the Governor, Alaska Department of Community and Regional Affairs, 1999, http://www.dced.state.ak.us/dca/RGC/RGC_Final_6_99.pdf
Alaska Court System, Report of the Alaska Supreme Court Advisory Committee on Fairness and Access, Anchorage, AK, Alaska Court System, 1997, www.ajc.state.ak.us/reports/fairness.pdf
Alaska Natives Commission, Final Report, vols I-III, Anchorage, AK, Alaska Natives Commission, 1994, www.alaskool.org/resources/anc_reports.htm
Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission, Initial Report and Recommendations of the Alaska Rural Justice and Law Enforcement Commission, 2006, Anchorage, AK, Alaska Native Justice Center, 2006, URL: http://www.law.state.ak.us/pdf/press/040606-ARJLEC-report.pdf
Alaska Sentencing Commission, Annual Report to the Governor and the Alaska Legislature, Anchorage, AK, Alaska Sentencing Commission, 1992, www.ajc.state.ak.us/reports/sent92.pdf
Korsmo, F.L., ‘The Alaska Natives’, in Minority Rights Group (ed.), Polar Peoples, London, MRG, 1994, pp. 81-104.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in
United States of America:
- African Americans
- Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans
- Asian-Pacific Americans
- Inuit and Alaska Natives
- Native Americans
- Native Hawai’ians