Main languages: English, Spanish, other languages (see under minority groupings below)
Main religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam
According to the 2010 Census, the main minority and indigenous population groups in the United States (US) include:
Hispanic or Latino: 50.5 million (16.3 per cent of the population, including Mexicans 10.3 per cent, Puerto Rican 1.5 per cent, Cuban 0.6 per cent and Other 4.0 per cent)
Black or African Americans: 42 million (13.6 per cent: this includes 12.6 per cent identifying solely as Black/African American and another 1 per cent Black/African American in combination with another race)
Asian Americans: 17.3 million (5.6 per cent including those identifying in combination with another race: 4.8 per cent identify only as Asian, including Asian Indian 0.9 per cent, Chinese 1.1 per cent, Filipino 0.8 per cent, Japanese 0.2 per cent, Korean 0.5 per cent, Vietnamese 0.5 per cent and 0.7 per cent Other Asian)
Native Americans: (categorized as ‘American Indian and Alaska Native’ in the Census) 5.2 million (1.7 per cent, including 0.9 per cent who identify solely in this category, along with others in combination with another race)
Native Hawai’ians and Other Pacific Islanders: 1.2 million (0.4 per cent, with 0.2 per cent identifying solely in this category: Native Hawai’ians 0.1 per cent, Guamanian or Chamarro, Other Islanders) (2010 Census)
Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans: the total number of Arab Americans was estimated at 1.7 million (0.5 per cent) in the 2010 American Community Survey on ancestry, including Arab 290,900, Egyptian 190,100, Iraqi 106,000, Jordanian 61,700, Lebanese 502,000, Moroccan 82,100, Palestinian 93,400, Syrian 148,200 and Other Arab 224,200. In addition, the 2010 survey estimated there to be 463,600 Iranian, 474,600 Armenian, 106,800 Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac and 195,300 Turkish – though in many cases informal or independent estimates have suggested the communities are in fact higher. The Census currently does not collect disaggregated data on Arab and Middle Eastern communities as (with the exception of figures on Latino/non-Latino populations) it focuses on race rather than country of origin. While the Census Bureau has acknowledged the need to improve data collection on these communities, it announced in January 2018 that there would not be Middle Eastern or North African in the 2020 Census: this was seen as a setback by advocates for their inclusion, given the importance of accurate data for public representation, though some community members were wary of this data being collected in the current political climate.
The US presents a minority and indigenous situation of unusual diversity and complexity. There are seven key minority and indigenous groupings: Latinos (including Puerto Ricans), African Americans, Asian Americans, Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans, Native Americans, Native Hawai’ians and other Pacific Islanders, and Alaska Natives. In most cases, these groupings include multiple distinct communities.
There are dozens of other distinctive ethnic and religious groups in the US. 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 US 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.
The Jewish population encompasses both those who practice the Jewish faith and those who identify as Jewish in cultural or ethnic terms. According to US Census Bureau estimates, in 2010 the Jewish population was a little over 6.5 million. However, some demographic studies by Jewish organizations suggest slightly lower figures. Anti-Semitism in the US 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. Nevertheless, organized anti-Semitic violence occurs through hate-group activity.
Other religious communities – including Buddhists, Amish, Quaker, Dukhobor and Bruderhoffer Christians, Christian Scientists, Hare Krishnas, Mormons, Muslims, Native Americans who practice their traditional religions and spiritual beliefs, 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.
The evangelical Christian population in the US has burgeoned in recent years, 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 2.4 per cent in 2000 and 2.9 per cent of the population in 2010. Mixed-race people face particular emotional and social challenges in the rigid grid of US race relations.
Updated June 2019
The metaphor of the ‘melting pot’ is commonly used to describe the United States (US) and its diverse religious, ethnic and indigenous communities. But while this accurately reflects the rich demographic variety of a country that by 2044 will be ‘majority minority’, with no single ethnic group making up more than 50 per cent of the population, it fails to capture a variety of entrenched social and economic disparities between different groups. From education to health care, employment to politics, inequality and division continue to characterize ethnic and religious relations within the US.
These issues have only deepened since the election of Donald Trump as President. Among the many groups vilified by Trump are Muslims, Mexicans, Haitians and other minorities, all of whom have been the subject of vicious attacks both during his campaign and since he took office in January 2017. While much of his public appeal was built on appeals to ‘Make American Great Again’, a slogan widely seen by critics as an appeal to nativist sentiment among white voters in particular, Trump has also repeatedly equated different minorities with crime, terrorism and illegal immigration.
During his election campaign and since taking office, Trump has repeatedly drawn a link between Mexican immigrants and increased crime rates in the US. However, while the data on crime rates and their correlation to numbers of immigrants is incomplete, the evidence that is available does not support Trump’s claims. In fact, while immigration has increased since the 1990s, crime has decreased and crime levels among first-generation immigrants appear to be lower than those among native-born Americans. Trump’s aggressive rhetoric has had implications not only for the country’s undocumented immigrants but also the broader Latino community, who still struggle with a legacy of discrimination that is reflected in higher poverty levels, lower household incomes and racist abuse: studies suggest that since Trump’s election hate crimes against Latinos have soared, with the Department of Justice recording an increase of more than 50 per cent in the number of hate crimes in California alone in 2017 compared to the previous year.
Nevertheless, a mainstay of Trump’s political agenda has been an aggressive crackdown on immigration, reflected in his promise to build a wall along the country’s border with Mexico. While efforts to begin construction have been stalled, since taking office Trump has initiated a very public effort to detain immigrants without documentation and expanded the powers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents to detain suspects. Though some of these policies have precedents in those of previous governments – indeed, deportations during the early years of the Obama administration exceeded levels under Trump – the harshness of these policies (such as the widespread practice of child separations, carried out until a public outcry led to the abandonment of the policy in June 2018) has attracted widespread criticism.
Muslims have also been the repeated targeted of Trump’s hostile and divisive rhetoric. This has resulted not only in increased levels of popular antipathy towards Muslims and other minorities, reflected in a sharp rise in reported levels of hate crime, but also led to a number of unprecedented measures aimed at reducing the number of Muslims in the country. This includes the notorious travel ban first imposed by the Trump administration in January 2017, including an immediate suspension of travel from seven Muslim majority countries – Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – for 90 days, as well as a reduction in the number of refugees to be welcomed into the country. The ban was subsequently amended, following repeated blocks by federal courts, to include restrictions on citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, as well as North Korea and various officials from Venezuela.
These developments have instilled fear within immigrant communities and appear to have emboldened certain segments of the population to engage in attacks, not only against immigrant communities but against other minority groups in the country. While the White House has denied playing any role in inciting violence against any minority groups, critics have accused Trump of effectively validating right-wing groups by failing to disassociate his administration from extremist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan who have long supported him – charges that have only intensified since Trump’s failure to adequately condemn white supremacist demonstrators after the killing of a peaceful anti-fascist demonstrator by a right-wing militia member in September 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
In October 2018, 11 people were killed in what is believed to be the worst attack on the Jewish community in US history. A gunman, Robert Bowers, opened fire on the congregation of Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as it had gathered for a baby-naming ceremony. The attack occurred against a stark backdrop of dramatically increased anti-Semitic hate; the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) had recorded a 57 per cent rise in incidents in 2017. For the first time in 10 years, the ADL had received reports of anti-Semitic incidents from each of the US’s 50 states. In fact, Squirrel Hill had been targeted with an anti-Semitic hate campaign – including cards and stickers bearing Nazi symbols and white nationalist slogans – a year before the attack on its synagogue.
For certain immigrant and refugee groups, the rising hostility towards migrants – reinforcing existing patterns of discrimination – has resulted in their increased isolation and marginalization. This is strikingly displayed in Minnesota, where levels of poverty among the white population has remained low over the past three decades and as of 2014 was at 5.2 per cent, while the percentage of African Americans living in poverty spiked in 1990 and has since risen again to 35.5 per cent. The state is home to the country’s largest population of resettled Somali refugees, who have reported barriers in accessing education and healthcare, with 57 per cent living under the poverty line compared to 11 per cent of the Minnesota population as a whole. Yet, instead of addressing the underlying causes of these inequalities, Trump has stoked divisions between the Somali population and the larger community by singling them out as a source of recruitment by terrorist groups.
The rhetoric concerning migrants and refugees became ever more heated during 2018. During the autumn, Trump used a caravan of Central American migrants that was moving northwards towards the US-Mexican border as an excuse for espousing his idea of a border wall. The original group comprised 5,000 people but splintered into smaller clusters. Approximately 300 initially arrived at the border in November, after Trump had issued an executive order that persons crossing the border illegally were ineligible for asylum (a move that contradicts well-established norms in international refugee law). More followed and new groups joined the caravan, with more than 7,000 having arrived at the border by the end of November. The movement comprised mainly people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Hondurans; while some dreamt of a better future, many were fleeing persecution and violence. Trump stoked xenophobic attitudes as the caravan approached the border, using it to push ideas of constructing a wall. Amongst other things, he stated that there were ‘Middle Easterners’ mixed in with the caravan of refugees heading towards the US border – again without proof, something which he later admitted. Sadly, these messages appeared to have an impact: a survey conducted in October 2018 concluded that a quarter of Americans believed that the migrant group ‘includes terrorists’.
Nevertheless, it is important to recognize that many of the challenges facing minorities and indigenous peoples in the US predate the current administration, and are rooted in long histories of discrimination and exclusion. This is the case for the large African–American minority who continue to be disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system: for example, African Americans are more than five times as likely as their white counterparts to be incarcerated. However, a major shift in nationwide consciousness of the role race plays in the justice system has taken place in recent years following a spate of highly publicized shootings of unarmed African Americans by police. Nevertheless, incidents of police brutality against ethnic minorities, as well as debates surrounding institutionalized racial bias within the US law-enforcement system, continue: while data related to police shootings is not transparently or uniformly collected by the government, independent datasets developed by various media outlets have tracked the high numbers of African Americans and other ethnic minorities killed by police. The Mapping Police Violence project found that some 1,147 people were killed by police in 2017, 25 per cent of whom were black – around double their share of the national population. Significantly, a spate of highly publicized police killings of unarmed African Americans, many of them young men, has mobilized a strong activist response in protest. This includes the BlackLivesMatter movement, founded in 2013 on social media after the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African–American teenager. Alongside a variety of other civil society organizations, it has played a crucial role in highlighting the continued violence suffered by black communities at the hands of law enforcement.
Other communities have also faced similar issues: for example, in recent years indigenous people have been killed by law enforcement at nearly the same rate as African Americans. While garnering little to no media attention, indigenous activists have utilized the hashtag #NativeLivesMatter to galvanize support within their community and to highlight the disproportionate levels of police brutality experienced by some of the 5.2 million indigenous people in the country. As is the case with African Americans, these incidents occur against a broader backdrop of social disenfranchisement: 26.2 per cent of indigenous people were living below the poverty line in 2016, compared to a national average of 14 per cent, and with more than 70 per cent of indigenous people residing in urban areas these high poverty rates are now experienced significantly within metropolitan settings. Furthermore, indigenous people living in urban areas also encounter increased impediments to accessing education, employment and health care: for instance, only about 1 per cent of spending by the Indian Health Service is allotted to urban programmes. While these issues intersect with some of the inequalities experienced by ethnic minorities in urban areas, indigenous peoples have experienced discrimination where ethnic minorities have found opportunities, particularly in relation to accessing urban labour markets.
The historic problem of land rights violations also persists for Native American communities, with efforts by certain groups to halt the expansion of oil pipelines on or near their land receiving international attention. This includes the recent demonstrations against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, led by Standing Rock Sioux alongside Jicarilla Apache, Oglala Sioux and Oglala Lakota and others. Despite widespread violence and evictions, the protests appeared to have achieved some success by the end of 2016, with the pipeline’s expansion put on hold. But after the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency in January 2017, the situation rapidly deteriorated as Trump signed an executive order removing impediments to the pipeline’s construction. In the weeks that followed, the environmental impact assessment and public consultation were put to one side as the remaining protestors were evicted to make way for the pipeline, which by April 2017 was completed. The demonstrations were notable for the extraordinary levels of violence meted out by public and private security personnel, with hundreds of protestors wounded by rubber bullets, water cannon and guard dogs, some with lasting injuries. Protestors continue to face severe repercussions as a number of activists involved in the demonstrations have been handed down lengthy prison sentences on charges of rioting and trespass.
Updated June 2019
The United States (US) 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 is the world’s third-largest country by size (after Russia and Canada) and by population (after China and India).
The US 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.
Despite these protections, slavery persisted for decades after independence, especially in the south, where the powerful plantation system depended on a large supply of slave labour. This issue would eventually contribute to the growing antipathy between North and South, culminating in the American Civil War (1861-65) and the signing by President Abraham Lincoln of the Emancipation Proclamation, formally bringing an end to slavery in most states. Despite this, however, segregation, disenfranchisement and violence against the African–American population has persisted, particularly in the south, where profoundly racist attitudes towards black Americans continues to shape every aspect of their lives.
The Native American population, indigenous to the present-day US for thousands of years, had already suffered violence, land dispossession and the spread of diseases such as smallpox at the hands of European colonists long before independence. However, these practices persisted throughout the 19th century as the US government and military oversaw a steady process of land grabbing, military assaults and broken treaties that ultimately led to the seizure of the majority of indigenous territory and the decimation of the Native American population, many of whom were resettled in reservations where, uprooted from the lands that sustained their livelihoods and traditions, poverty and other problems such as alcoholism and mental illness proliferated.
Until the mid-twentieth century, disenfranchisement of women and minority groups, dispossession of indigenous peoples, official segregation, discrimination in education, employment and housing, and unequal access to public services continued to characterize minority and indigenous experiences in the US. Indeed, the US Supreme Court repeatedly endorsed these practices as legal and acceptable.
After the Second World War, however, the Supreme Court shifted its stance radically. The Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 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 ethnic minority 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 administration of President Lyndon Johnson launched the Great Society anti-poverty campaign, including expanded social welfare programmes and equal employment opportunity laws. Over the next decade, governments and courts reinforced these new laws in policy, and the US recognized (limited) indigenous sovereignty rights for the first time since the colonial period.
New methods of registering voters were promoted as a way to bolster minority electoral participation in the US. 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 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.
During the 1990s, however, affirmative action became a pivotal issue: in 1995, California Governor Pete Wilson launched a suit against the federal government protesting against mandatory affirmative-action programmes for state governments. This was followed by a number of influential court decisions reversing affirmative-action policies, resulting in a sharp drop in enrolment of minority students, particularly African Americans and Latinos. 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.
US minorities 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. 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 defensiveness, whose extremes are manifested in 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 combination of decreased urban aid, increased policing and cultural misunderstanding at times proved 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. Racial discrimination was also evident is in the sphere of criminal justice policies and practice, with widespread racial profiling by the police, immigration and airport officials. Concerns about the extraordinarily high incarceration rates and long sentence periods for African–American and Latino minorities have remained ongoing for decades.
Following the events of 11 September 2001, when 19 plane hijackers belonging to the terrorist group al-Qaeda launched a series of attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and other targets, resulting in the deaths of some 3,000 people and injuring thousands of others. The US responded by launching its ‘War on Terror’, beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan the next month and subsequently expanding to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time, US authorities introduced domestic legislation to address homeland security, including the Patriot Act I and II. This legislation impacted negatively upon minority people, specifically Muslims and people of Middle Eastern or South Asian heritage. The political and social culture in the US likewise had a chilling effect upon the activities of these communities: men and women reportedly attended mosque less frequently or stopped completely and whole families left for their home countries, sometimes under unsafe conditions.
An extraordinary landmark for the country’s minorities took place in November 2008 when Democratic senator Barack Hussein Obama, an African American (partly of Kenyan heritage) became the first person from an ethnic minority to be elected President. Media estimates are that about 20 per cent (5.8 million) more ethnic minorities voted in the November 2008 election compared to 2004. Obama received 96 per cent of the African–American vote, 67 per cent of the Latino/Hispanic vote and 63 per cent of the Asian–American vote. The ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly favoured the campaign’s focus on social and economic issues: access to employment, health and quality education. Obama was re-elected in 2012 and served as President until 2016. While some of his original supporters criticized him for his failure to fully address the inequalities and injustices faced by the country’s minorities and indigenous peoples, as well as implement comprehensive immigration reform, his administration nevertheless oversaw a range of progressive reforms.
Some of these developments were, however, hampered by sustained opposition from Republican politicians during his time in power. Furthermore, much of Obama’s legacy has been under threat following the election of Donald Trump as President after his surprise victory against Hillary Clinton in November 2016. Since taking power in January 2017, Trump has implemented a range of measures targeting Muslims, undocumented migrants and other groups, building on the sustained and divisive rhetoric of his electoral campaign. This includes the notorious travel ban, originally imposed in January 2017 on seven Muslim majority countries – Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – subsequently amended, following repeated blocks by federal courts, to Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, as well as North Korea and various officials from Venezuela. Trump has also undertaken a number of measures targeting undocumented migrants, primarily from Mexico and Central America, including the attempted closure of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, an initiative developed under Obama to provide the children of undocumented migrants with provisional access to education and employment until further measures was put in place in future to regularize their status.
Largely, although not entirely, a nation of immigrants, the US’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.
However, the US has been reluctant to make international commitments to minority rights. It has often delayed ratifying UN accords for decades after signing them. Only in the early 1990s did the US finally ratify the UN Convention against Torture, the UN Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The US is also party to the American Declaration on the Rights of Man, which contains a general statement against discrimination.
It is well-documented that the US legal system discriminates against minorities, 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.
In other areas, the criminal justice system’s disparate treatment of minorities has also attracted significant coverage in recent years. People of colour are treated more harshly within every aspect of the criminal justice system, from police contacts to sentencing. ‘Zero-tolerance’ policies in schools often result in a large number of minority and disabled students being channeled into the juvenile justice system, while drug sentencing guidelines can lead to harsher punishments for minority offenders. In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to reduce the large (100:1) disparity in sentencing requirements for powder versus crack cocaine; this had had an adverse impact on people of colour, who were disproportionately likely to be accused of possessing or selling crack cocaine.
Another area of controversy is the existence in many states of ‘stand your ground’ laws, which allow people to use deadly force in self-defence even if they could have safely retreated from the situation, have also been criticized for their potential bias against ethnic minorities. This issue came into focus in the summer of 2013 when George Zimmerman, a Floridian of mixed race, was tried for the killing the previous year of an unarmed African–American teenager, Trayvon Martin. Many critics claimed that Zimmerman’s actions were motivated by a racist assumption that Martin was dangerous merely because of his race: Zimmerman was subsequently found not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Although the federal government considered hate crime charges against Zimmerman, these were never issued.
More recently, since the election of Donald Trump as President, the focus on immigration – for years one of the most contested areas of national policy – has become even more divisive. One of the first steps following his inauguration was the signing of an Executive Order banning all people with non-immigrant or immigrant visas from seven Muslim majority countries – Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – for 90 days. It additionally stopped the entry of all refugees for 120 days and indefinitely banned people from Syria. Beyond the bans, the order also reduced the total quota for refugees the country would resettle in 2017 from 110,000 to 45,000 in 2018 and included language to prioritize refugee claims based on religious persecution but only if the applicant is part of a religious minority in their home country. The Executive Order received an immediate backlash and was also identified as a Muslim ban due to the prioritization of religious minorities. Opponents argued that, besides disregarding the many Muslims in need of sanctuary, the ban could also pose serious risks for Christian minorities in the Middle East by exacerbating existing divisions. The refugee resettlement quota was reduced further – to 30,000 – for 2019.
Updated June 2019
According to the 2010 Census, African Americans make up 12.6 per cent (38.9 million) of the US population with an additional 3.1 million (1 per cent) identifying as African American in combination with one or more other race – combined, this comes to around 13.6 per cent (42 million) of the population, the second largest minority in the country (after Latinos). Once called Negroes and now called black Americans or (in solidarity with other non-white minorities around the world) ‘people of colour’, they are mainly descendants of slaves brought from Africa between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.
With their history of forced immigration to the United States (US), African Americans were de-cultured and dehumanized, their misery treated as ‘natural’ and benign. Today, they are an important minority in a nation with a singular degree of world influence. Much of the country’s vitality, especially its contemporary cultural life, can be credited to African Americans, but racism remains a definitive and stark reality. A critical aspect of the racism that African Americans face is a continuing geographic segregation in many parts of the US, a legacy of ‘Jim Crow’ laws enacted in the South after the Civil War, as well as discriminatory attitudes right across the country including the so-called ‘white flight’ from urban areas to suburbs after the Second World War.
Besides the traditional African–American community, the US has been home in recent years to an increasing number of other black immigrants. Some come from war-torn African nations like Somalia; others, seeking economic improvement, come from Jamaica, Haiti, Cuba, Guyana and other Caribbean nations.
Much of the African–American population is urban and they make up the majority of the population in cities such as Detroit, New Orleans and Washington DC.
Black people arrived with British and Dutch settlers in the early colonial period, and officially enjoyed equal rights with whites, although impoverished blacks and whites alike were subject to indentured servitude. Soon, however, seafaring entrepreneurs imported African slaves in large numbers as labourers, and by the 1670s statutes enforcing slavery were adopted by each of the Thirteen Colonies.
Although slavery was instituted mostly for economic reasons, racist beliefs became entrenched as slavery and African Americans became linked in the white colonial mind. During the Revolutionary War, both slaves and free blacks fought for the Colonies, but the subsequent 1787 Constitution included three clauses reinforcing slavery. Blacks were designated as property and counted as ‘three-fifths of a person’. All told, slavery was an important part of the US economy for more than two centuries, despite slave revolts, an elaborate ‘underground railroad’ network for escaped slaves, and consistent protest from white and black abolitionists.
Abolition of slavery
Between 1777 and 1804, each of the northern states responded to changing moralities and urban labour shortages by abolishing slavery. But in the south, slaves were key to the enormous plantation system. The issue became part of the growing North-South antipathy that culminated in the mid-nineteenth-century civil war. Towards the end of the war, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, ending slavery in most states.
During the ‘Reconstruction’ period after the civil war, the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments to the US Constitution finally guaranteed African Americans the rights of freedom and full citizenship, including the vote. Soon, African Americans were elected to Congress, were admitted to schools and began to integrate and even intermarry with whites. The first Civil Rights Act passed in 1875, guaranteed access to public facilities and accommodation without regard to race, colour or previous servitude.
The optimism of the time did not last long. White bigots in many states bent the rules to restrict voting rights, and enforced segregation through fear and intimidation. From 1883 to 1952, ‘lynchings‘ (mob executions) of African Americans were reported every year, often with tacit official approval. This period also saw the advent of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, many of which persist to this day. At the same time, state and federal courts were forging the ‘Jim Crow’ system (named after an archetypal figure in the African American minstrel tradition), an apartheid doctrine in which blacks and whites were described as ‘separate but equal’. In 1883, the Civil Rights Act was deemed unconstitutional, and in 1896 the Supreme Court upheld the separate-but-equal rule in Plessey v. Ferguson.
Riots and protest did little to stem the tide, and the African–American condition did not improve visibly in the first half of the twentieth century. However, many African–American musicians, artists and poets came to prominence in the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ of the 1930s, and black athletes began to break colour bars in the Olympics and professional team sports. The African–American community was developing autonomous institutions like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP, in 1901), the National Urban League (1911) and Caribbean-born Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, which promoted black self-determination and the idea that blacks should go ‘back to Africa’, culturally or even physically (1920s). African–American colleges and universities became popular. The Supreme Court slowly eroded the bases of Jim Crow, deciding one by one against state laws that segregated interstate bus travel, housing and neighbourhoods, or withheld voting rights.
The watershed Supreme Court ruling for African–American civil rights came in 1954. Brown v. Topeka Board of Education held that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, and that ‘separate’ was inherently unequal. The main legal plank of Jim Crow was demolished.
Energized by Brown and led by coalitions of black organizations with the inspiration of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, the Civil Rights Movement used non-violent resistance to shatter segregation in the early 1960s. Civil rights activists held sit-ins in segregated establishments, boycotted segregated buses and held ‘Freedom Rides’ into segregated areas. Voter registration drives all over the South helped ensure that black voters would be represented. In 1963, 250,000 Americans – blacks, whites and others, including major religious leaders – participated in the March on Washington for civil rights. Dr King, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, was assassinated by a white man in 1968. In 1986 a public holiday was instituted to commemorate his life, the first time a black American has been thus honoured. Support from Jewish organizations, church and labour groups, students and others gave the civil rights movement an inter-racial character, which made it much more effective. Still, some whites fought back. Lynchings were the most dramatic form of retaliation. Riots broke out in many urban centres, and police brutality against protestors was widespread. Many African Americans, especially youth, thought the non-violent style championed by King an inadequate response.
The Nation of Islam, a militant Black Muslim organization founded in the 1930s by dissenters from the Garvey movement and the mystical Moorish Science Temple, established temples throughout the north in the 1960s. It recruited many followers through the charismatic, controversial leadership of Malcolm X, although Malcolm later broke with the Nation. The Black Power movement was launched in 1966, advocating African–American block voting and community control of institutions, organizations and resources. The Black Panther Party, both a community renewal programme and a Marxist revolutionary force, was also formed in 1966. These militant groups terrified governments and were opposed by many moderate blacks. In the late 1960s, like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X was assassinated. Over the next decade, many other activists died in suspicious circumstances, were imprisoned, succumbed to fatigue or went into exile.
However, in the early 1960s the shift towards equal rights gained support in the upper levels of government. The Voting Rights Act broke down entrenched and Byzantine regulations that prevented blacks from exercising their franchise. Blacks began to make gains in Congress and the Senate, and even bigger gains in regional and municipal politics. Affirmative-action measures helped establish a sizeable African–American middle class for the first time.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, white and black children were ‘bussed’ to schools outside their immediate neighbourhoods to promote school desegregation. Resentment and resistance to change came to focus on this issue. There were heated protests, and many white children were removed from the public system. During the 1970s and 1980s, ‘white flight’ from many more-integrated cities to all-white suburbs left blacks and other minorities isolated in inner-city ghettos, whose tax bases and government infrastructure funding gradually declined. This was just one of the factors that the Civil Rights Movement could not anticipate, which would set back many of the victories of the 1960s.
Education and progress
In higher education, the 1960s saw African Americans gain greater access to colleges and universities, and to courses and programmes on black American and African cultures. The ‘Afrocentric’ history and cultural movement of the 1980s promoted new enthusiasm for scholarship within the black community, focusing on black people’s contributions to US and world history and civilization. A group of ‘new black intellectuals’ also emerged in publishing and the media as spokespeople for African–American thought and scholarship.
The three decades after the advent of the Civil Rights Movement saw more progress by African Americans than the whole of the previous century. However, the living conditions of poorer African Americans – more than 40 per cent of the black population – declined further. The writer Andrew Hacker described the situation as tantamount to once again having two nations in the United States, ‘black and white, separate, hostile, unequal’ (a reference to Gunnar Myrdal’s watershed 1940s race relations study).
Anger over this situation exploded in 1992 with the ‘Rodney King riots’ in Los Angeles and other US cities. Rodney King was a black motorist arrested after a high-speed chase on 3 March 1991. An amateur videotape of the arrest showed several police officers beating a prone, helpless King dozens of times with batons, while other police officers stood by. The tape was broadcast worldwide on CNN. When, on 29 April 1992, an all-white jury found the officers not guilty of brutality, blacks in Los Angeles took to the streets in fury. Latinos and some whites joined in the riot, which was echoed in unrest in other cities. Over the next three days, 60 people were killed in Los Angeles (LA), 3,000 injured and 15,000 arrested. Thousands of buildings were burned and stores were looted, mostly in minority neighbourhoods. The Rodney King verdict was widely compared to the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling in the Dred Scott case, that ‘black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect’. The federal government later retried four police officers on civil rights grounds, convicting three of the four and giving them minimum-security prison sentences.
The programme of separatism and black self-determination advocated by the Nation of Islam galvanized some African Americans and alienated others, but the Nation has had unmatched success in organizing community action and public protest among the black middle class. It was the driving force behind the Million Man March on Washington of October 1995, a ‘day of atonement’ for black male responsibility, pride and self-determination that attracted around 900,000 supporters despite its open exclusion of women and gay men.
The road to the White House
Despite the surge in voter registration brought about by the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, in the ensuing years black participation remained low. African Americans were still massively under-represented in office: by 2007, for example, African Americans held only one seat in the US Senate and 42 in the House of Representatives (all of whom were Democrats). Nevertheless, individual African Americans made gains on the national scene during this period. In 1991, Republican President George Bush Sr. appointed the neo-conservative African–American Justice Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice were close allies in President George Bush Jr.’s 2001 and 2004 cabinets, with Rice eventually replacing Powell as Secretary of State.
Nevertheless, none of these appointments anticipated the momentous events of 5 November 2008 when Barack Hussein Obama, a first generation African American (partly of Kenyan heritage) who was virtually an unknown first term Democratic senator in 2004, defeated his Republican Party rival John McCain to be elected the first black president in the history of the United States. The victory, which came after an arduous round of 56 primaries and caucuses and relentless coast to coast campaigning, was a test of political skill as well as endurance and exposed the deep racial and gender divisions that continue to exist within the party as well as the country.
Obama’s campaign was characterized by substantial fundraising, exemplary organization and a theme of anti-war and economic policy changes that drew overwhelming support from blacks but also attracted considerable and unprecedented support from younger, more liberal and wealthier voters of all ethnic backgrounds in many states. Among the personality issues that rose and receded throughout the campaign were those related to class, race and religion. One such attack in March 2008 prompted a response from Obama that was generally acclaimed as one of the most significant speeches on ethnic relations to have been made since the civil rights era of the 1960s.
Given the racial history of the US, a significant number of African–American voters were sceptical of his chances initially and did not immediately embrace the Obama candidacy. However after a string of victories during the run-up primary elections in states with substantial majority white voters, there was a reassessment of opinion. This eventually led to 96 per cent of African–American voters casting their ballot for Obama versus three per cent for McCain. Moreover, the nationwide black vote rose by 2.88 million, to 16.3 million (13 per cent), with many African Americans feeling sufficiently motivated to register and vote for the first time in the November 2008 presidential election. Despite a dip in popularity in the years that followed, Obama would go on to win re-election in 2012.
The election of the first black American President, a milestone that would have been unthinkable in previous decades, retained a powerful inspiration for millions of African Americans – even as concrete progress for the community failed to match the high expectations that ushered Obama into the White House. Obama himself, despite the precedent he set, did not generally choose to place the concerns of African Americans centre stage during his presidency: instead, however, he brought substantial gains to the community indirectly through a number of welfare and justice initiatives that, as one of the country’s most marginalized communities, benefitted them in particular. For example, his introduction of the Affordable Healthcare ACT (ACA), legislation designed to extend access to health insurance for the American population, led to the number of uninsured African Americans dropping by a third.
Nevertheless, it was clear – even without the election of Donald Trump as his successor – that Obama’s eight years in office did not succeed in addressing many of the country’s underlying problems around racism and exclusion, with many key issues such as educational inequalities, lower health outcomes and police violence persisting after his departure. However, Trump’s surprise victory in November 2016 also highlighted the continued potency of nativist and racist politics among significant sections of the white majority population, putting paid to the idea that the US had managed to move beyond its troubled history of racial prejudice.
While many major US cities have had black mayors and African Americans are well represented on most large city councils, politics and funding have limited their attempts to make significant changes in the conditions of urban African Americans. This is reflected in the persistence of profound inequalities in a range of areas, from education and health care to housing and access to justice.
In the area of education, for example, while black educational levels are on the rise, inequalities and discrimination persist. While 87 per cent of black Americans aged 25 or older had completed high school in 2017, up from 78 per cent in 2000, this remains substantially below the 94 per cent attained by non-Hispanic whites in the same age range. In a range of other indicators, from drop out rates to literacy, black Americans perform more poorly than their peers.
While poverty and a broader backdrop of exclusion play a part to poor educational outcomes – almost a quarter (24.1 per cent) of the black population were living in poverty in 2015, compared to 9.1 per cent of non-Hispanic whites – it is also the case that discrimination within schools can also contribute to an inhospitable learning environment. This process can start early: for example, government data published in 2014 drawing on the 2011-12 school year found that while black children made up 18 per cent of preschool enrolment, they accounted for 42 per cent of those suspended once and 48 per cent of those suspended two or more times.
Few African–American families can afford the costs of private education, so black children are still faced with the prospect of inadequate education. Efforts at further desegregating schools or providing viable alternatives – for example high-quality ‘magnet’ schools that emphasize specialist subjects to attract both black and white students – have been set back by Supreme Court decisions ruling that states could not compel such efforts or be required to fund them.
African Americans are at high risk for mental illness, heart disease, cancer, HIV infection and other major diseases, due to a cluster of factors, including levels of education, poverty, stress, poor health care, pollution and family instability. From the 1980s to the present day, addiction to crack (a smokeable cocaine derivative) has been one of the most severe and destabilizing health problems in the African–American community. The intense high and quick addictive action of the drug is partially blamed for increases in prostitution, robbery, violence, pregnancy, urban decay and disease. Penalties for crack use (more common in the black community) are more severe than those for cocaine use (more often a white phenomenon): sentencing laws and policies relating to the drug also discriminate against African Americans. For example, conviction of African Americans on crack charges is markedly harsher: while African Americans are around 3.5 times more likely than whites to use crack, the likelihood of them going to a federal jail on a crack conviction is over 21 times higher.
A disproportionate number of African Americans are incarcerated during their lifetime, with an African American over five times more likely to be imprisoned than a white American. African Americans make up around a third of the country’s prison population. For this reason, human rights abuses in the prison system – including endemic overcrowding, violence at the hands of guards or between prisoners, segregation and other extreme punishments, as well as high rates of HIV infection and tuberculosis – have a disproportionate effect on African Americans.
Due to the more severe application of the law to African Americans, blacks are stopped by the police, arrested and imprisoned in numbers significantly out of proportion to their general numbers. The practice of racial profiling by the police is widespread. There is ample evidence that black motorists are disproportionately stopped by the police for minor motoring offences because they are assumed to be engaging in more serious criminal activity. This assumption, dubbed ‘Driving While Black’, is widespread among law enforcement. And at the most extreme end of the US justice system – the execution of prisoners that still takes place in the majority of states in the country – the disparities are sharply evident, with African Americans making up 34.2 per cent of those executed since 1976.
Violence is a threat to the health of many African Americans: In 2014, blacks represented 13 per cent of the US population and accounted for 50 per cent of all homicide victims. There were 6,095 black homicide victims in the US in 2014, while the homicide rate in the US for black homicide victims is 16.4 per 100,000 compared to the white homicide rate at 2.5 per 100,000 that year. Of the 6,095 black victims, the overwhelming majority (86 per cent) were male and young (the average age of black homicide victims was 31 years old).
This and a range of other factors have contributed to significantly lower life expectancy among African Americans – 75.1 years in 2010, compared to 78.9 years for their white counterparts, though the gap between these two groups has been steadily narrowing. Infant mortality is more than twice as high for African–American infants (10.9 per 1,000 live births) than it is for white (4.9 per 1,000 live births), as of 2014. The general health care for African Americans is disproportionately poor, a fact recognized in the Disadvantaged Minority Health Improvement Act of 1990. Due to poverty and high unemployment, African Americans are also under-insured for health care. African Americans are also at high risk for environmentally related sickness. Toxic waste dumping, waste incinerators, mixed industrial zoning, poor public sanitation and air pollution are all higher in black-dominated residential areas. African American children are two to three times more likely than their white counterparts to suffer from lead poisoning, and many African Americans work in unsafe conditions
The wide socio-economic gaps between African Americans and whites remains high. In 2018, the annual National Urban League report, The State of Black America, found that nationwide black households earn an average income of US$38,555 compared to white an average of US$63,155 among white households.
Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans
No single term encompasses all Americans of Middle Eastern/West Asian/North African descent, but the official category used by the United States (US) Census and other agencies is ‘Arab Americans’. However, while they were not profiled in the 2010 Census, nor will be in the next census in 2020, Arabs were estimated at 1.7 million (0.5 per cent) in the 2010 American Community Survey on ancestry, including Arab 291,000, Egyptian 190,000, Iraqi 106,000, Jordanian 62,000, Lebanese 502,000, Moroccan 82,000, Palestinian 93,000, Syrian 148,200, and Other Arab 224,000. In addition, the 2010 survey estimated there to be 464,000 Iranian, 475,000 Armenian, 107,000 Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac and 195,000 Turkish – though in many cases informal or independent estimates have suggested the communities are in fact higher. Data cited by the Arab American Institute suggest that some 3.7 million Americans can trace their roots back to an Arab country.
Just over half are native-born and over 80 per cent are US citizens. According to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) up to 63 per cent of Arab Americans are Christians (35 per cent Roman Catholic, 10 per cent Protestant and 18 per cent Eastern Orthodox) and around 24 per cent are Muslims.
Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans include Americans of Lebanese, Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Moroccan, Iraqi and other Arab ancestry (including Yemeni, Kurdish, Algerian, Saudi, Tunisian, Kuwaiti, Libyan, Emirati [United Arab Emirates], Omani, Qatari, Bahraini and Bedouin), who fall within the general terms Middle Eastern and North African. There are also communities with other ancestry in the US, such as Amazigh (Berbers) originally from North Africa.
Although Arab Americans share broadly similar histories of immigration and reception in the US, their origins, faiths, languages and cultures are diverse. Many would not necessarily consider themselves a ‘minority’, preferring to see themselves as part of the mainstream, while still seeking recognition of their communities.
Immigrants from the Arabic-speaking countries arrived in the US in three distinct waves. The first, between 1890 and 1920, brought over 250,000 people from what was then Greater Syria and other regions; these arrivals were mostly Christian peasants seeking economic opportunity. The second wave came after the Second World War and the creation of Israel, when tens of thousands of Palestinians emigrated to the US. After 1965, when prejudicial immigration laws were reformed, there was a third wave of Arab immigrants, numbering about 250,000. The second and third waves were about 60 per cent Muslim and often highly educated, constituting a ‘brain drain’ from Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Iraq, Yemen and other parts of the Arab world. North African Arab Americans, Muslim and non-Muslim, are increasing in number, and share concerns both with other Arab Americans and with African Americans.
By the late 1980s, the US cut back the number of Middle Eastern immigrants it accepted. Many recent immigrants are alienated by prevailing attitudes and have limited contact with longer-established, more assimilated Arab–American communities. Linguistic barriers have also blocked their social and economic advancement. On average, however, Arab Americans in the twenty-first century are better educated, more prosperous and more politically active than the average American.
In the 1980s, Iran became one of the top ten source countries for US immigration, although by the early 1990s it had become more difficult for Iranians to obtain visas. Many came as students in the 1960s and 1970s, but most arrived after the Iranian Revolution. A large number are Muslims and supporters of the former Shah, but many left because they were members of leftist opposition movements, non-Islamic faiths or oppressed ethnic groups. The total number of Iranian Americans is unclear: the 2010 American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau reported 463,600, though unofficial estimates suggest they may number up to 1 million. The largest Iranian population centre is in Los Angeles, although New York City and Washington DC also have large communities. The state of Texas also has a large Iranian community. Many of the immigrants were members of the upper classes in Iran, and on average they are extremely well educated. Half the US Iranian population is self-employed. However, many were never wealthy and the process of moving to the US has caused considerable financial hardship and personal pain. Open hostility between the US and Iranian governments has also raised problems for the Iranian–American community. The 1979-80 hostage crisis at the US embassy in Iran, in particular, led to widespread harassment, violence and discrimination. The community also experienced a similar backlash following the 11 September 2001 attacks, including, according to the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC), improper workplace background checks, interrogations and surveillances, deportation proceedings and inappropriate recruitment of informants within the community.
Armenians fled in significant numbers to the US as a result of the genocide of 1915-23, and immigrants from Armenia and its diaspora continue to arrive. The 2010 American Community Survey counted 474,600 Armenian Americans. Turkey was also a significant source of immigrants in the early twentieth century, and several thousand people came to the US from Turkey each year after 1960, many of them Kurdish. The 2010 American Community Survey counted 195,300 people of Turkish origin.
Political and socio-economic issues
Middle Eastern immigrant communities are often lumped together by US politicians and the general public as ‘Arabs’. Persians and even non-Middle East groups like South Indians and Pakistanis have shared the brunt of widespread anti-Arab (and anti-Iranian) prejudice. Arab Americans and other Middle Eastern people have been the targets of repeated Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigation and random violence since the early 1970s, and each US confrontation with a Middle Eastern country is followed by an outbreak of hatred. During the 1991 Gulf War, hundreds of anti-Arab actions, including arson, bombings, assault and attempted murder, took place across the country. In 1985, Alex Odeh, a regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) was killed by a bomb trip-wired to his office door, to little government or media reaction. In 1995, when a federal building in Oklahoma was bombed, government officials and media blamed the event on Arabs or Muslims for days, causing a rash of violence, until the FBI charged members of a white anti-government militia.
Since the late 1970s, Arab Americans and Arab Canadians were periodically subjected to harassment at border crossings, and the US repeatedly sought to deport politically active Arab visitors or immigrants as ‘terrorist supporters’, even though they have not been convicted of any crime. Negative stereotypes of Middle Eastern characters and of Islam have been common in US film and television, and in radio and newspaper commentaries.
The ADC and several other Arab groups have become highly visible as critics of bias in US foreign and domestic policy, as well as in public life. Many Arab–American individuals have achieved political prominence, mostly from the assimilated ‘first wave’, including members of Congress, senators, cabinet members, state governors and municipal officials. Non-Arab groups have organized more around internal professional, academic and religious ties.
Following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, Arab Americans across the country were subjected to harassment and discrimination both in their communities and at the hands of state agencies including arbitrary detention, racial profiling and aggressive checks and detention for questioning in US airports and border crossings. These issues have persisted in the ensuing years as the Middle East has continued to be a focal point of US foreign policy, with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the protracted conflict that followed. In recent years, the emergence of revitalized threats, particularly the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and a spate of violent attacks in North America and Europe by local sympathizers, has helped to drive continued hostility towards Arab and Middle Eastern Americans of all faiths.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and state and local fair employment agencies also documented a significant increase in the number of charges alleging workplace discrimination based on religion and/or national origin in the wake of September 2001, many filed by individuals who are or are perceived to be Muslim, Arab, South Asian or Sikh. These charges most commonly alleged harassment and unfair discharge.
The legacy of the 11 September 2001 attacks and the subsequent engagement of US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq has had long-lasting implications. Indeed, the discrimination they experience continues to be both ethnic and religious in nature, shaped by anti-Muslim attitudes – prejudice frequently applied to practitioners of other faiths presumed on account of their ethnicity to be Muslim. Arab and Middle Eastern Americans have repeatedly suffered spikes in hate crime following major incidents in the US or Middle East since the 1970s, demonstrated by the rise in targeted violence after September 2001 and in the wake of more recent incidents such as the November 2015 attacks in Paris.
This trend has, however, become far more pronounced since the election of Donald Trump as President. While previous leaders, including George Bush Jr who, while instrumental in the so-called ‘War on Terror’ and the invasion in particular of Iraq, repeatedly emphasized the distinction between militant extremism and Muslim communities, the large majority of whom opposed terrorist violence. Trump, however, has actively sought to conflate Muslims with the threat of terrorism. One of the first steps following his inauguration was the signing of an Executive Order banning all people with non-immigrant or immigrant visas from seven Muslim majority countries – Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – for 90 days. The legislation was blocked a number of times as unconstitutional by federal courts and went through various amendments before the Supreme Court in June 2018 accepted a revised version, restricting entry for nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen (as well as North Korea and certain officials from Venezuela).
Trump stoked further negative sentiment against Arab and Middle Eastern Americans at the end of 2018, with his push to build a wall along the US border with Mexico. During a meeting with Democratic Party Congressional leaders in December 2018, Trump stated that 10 ‘terrorists’ had recently been apprehended at the southern border (a figure that proved to be baseless), while claiming that the wall would make Americans safer. Earlier in the autumn, the President stated that there were ‘Middle Easterners’ mixed in with the caravan of refugees heading towards the US border – again without proof, something which he later admitted. Sadly, these messages appeared to have an impact: a survey conducted in October 2018 concluded that a quarter of Americans believed that the migrant group ‘includes terrorists’.
More positively, 2018 represented a significant year for Arab and Middle Eastern community political participation. Rashida Tlaib became the first ever Palestinian American to be elected to become a Member of Congress, representing a district in Michigan. She is also one of the first two Muslim women in Congress – together with Ilhan Omar who is Somali American and from Minnesota.
The US Census currently does not collect disaggregated data on Arab and Middle Eastern communities as (with the exception of figures on the Latino populations) it focuses on race rather than ethnicity. While the Census Bureau has acknowledged the need to improve data collection on these communities, it announced in January 2018 that there would not be Middle Eastern or North African categories in the 2020 Census: this was seen as a setback by advocates for their inclusion, given the importance of accurate data for public representation, though some community members were wary of this data being collected in the current political climate.
Ethnicity: Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Cambodian, Bangladeshi, Thai, Pakistani, Hmong
First language/s: Bengali, Chinese, Filipino, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Urdu, Vietnamese, other Asian languages, English
Religion/s: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism
‘Asian American’ is a pan-ethnic terms designating the many communities of Asian immigrants and their descendants in the United States (US). These terms have arisen in response to the common discrimination and immigrant experiences the different communities share, although specific group designations, such as ‘Korean American’, are also used. Asian Americans are the second fastest growing group in the US, having increased in number from 877,934 in 1960 to 7 million in 1990 and over 12 million in the 2000 Census count. According to the 2010 Census, their numbers stood at almost 14.7 million. This increase is due to immigration and natural increase. The largest ethnic groups included Chinese 3.3 million (4 million when including those in combination with other races), Filipinos 2.6 million (3.4 million when in combination with other races), Indian 2.8 million (3.2 million in combination with other races), Vietnamese 1.5 million (1.7 million in combination with other races), Korean 1.4 million (1.7 million in combination with other races) and Japanese 763,000 (1.4 million in combination with other races).
Although there are large Asian communities across the US, most are located in the west, particularly Hawai’i and California. Asian Indians are concentrated in New York. The large majority of all Asian groups live in large cities, mainly Honolulu, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, making them the most urban population in the US.
Asian Americans are visible in all strata of American society, except perhaps the highest elites. Some have traditionally lived in enclaves, for example New York and San Francisco’s ‘Chinatowns’ or Los Angeles’ ‘Little Tokyo’, although Koreans, Indians and Japanese tend to be more dispersed than other Asian communities. Most except Japanese have relatively youthful populations. Asian Americans are active in all occupations in the US, usually with average or better rates of employment. Koreans run many convenience stores in large cities, and have entered medicine in large numbers. Asian Indians are prominent in academia, technical professions and the grocery and motel businesses. Many Japanese Americans work in sales and management. The Chinese and Filipino populations are split between the skilled professions and low-wage manual labour and service jobs, though many Chinese now also work in small businesses. The first group of Vietnamese refugees in 1975 have generally done well educationally and in business. Later refugees, mostly farmers, fishers and small traders, have lacked the language, skills and capital to reach the same levels. Probably the worst off are the smaller communities from Samoa, Laos and Cambodia. It should however be said that these patterns are shifting with subsequent generations, as well as due to the impact of external forces, such as gentrification which has affected traditional Asian neighbourhoods to varying degrees in cities across the US.
The disparities are reflected in a range of indicators, such as language proficiency. While 2015 data showed that 7 in 10 Asians in the US aged 5 and older speak English proficiently, this changes drastically among Asian subgroups: while most Japanese (84 per cent), Filipinos (82 per cent) and Indians (80 per cent) speak English proficiently, levels are much lower among other groups such as Bhutanese (27 per cent) and Burmese (28 per cent), both of which have proportionately very large foreign-born populations.
The longest-established Asian–American communities are Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Asian Indian, with the first two predominant. The first wave of immigrants came in the 1840s, when young men from China, Japan and the Philippines were recruited as cheap manual labour on the west coast and in Hawai’i. Chinese and Filipinos worked on sugar plantations in Hawai’i, and all three groups worked as miners, railroad workers, agricultural labourers, fishery workers and light industrial labourers in California and the north-west. Many went on to run small businesses and their own farms, until they were prohibited from owning land by the Alien Land Act of 1913.
Early Asian Americans faced slander, exploitative working conditions, segregation laws and political disenfranchisement. When the need for extra workers receded, bills like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Asian exclusionary zone legislation of 1917 cut off immigration from China and India. The Filipino and Japanese–American populations continued to grow, however, and despite discrimination many achieved a modest prosperity over the next several decades.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Japanese Americans – even citizens with deep family roots in the US – became suspect as spies or saboteurs. There was no substance to these charges, yet Japanese–American communities of the western states were subjected to an internment order in February 1942 and moved to prison camps in the interior. Conditions in the camps were harsh, with a total of 110,000-120,000 people interned, two-thirds of them US citizens. In December 1944 the Supreme Court belatedly ruled internment unconstitutional, and most detainees were released in 1945, although the camps were not closed until early 1946.
While Japanese Americans suffered greatly during the war, the position of other Asian communities improved because their countries were allied with the US. The virulent racism of earlier decades abated somewhat, paving the way for a 1965 revision of immigration law that led to a massive intake of Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees after 1975. Before long over 40 per cent of new US immigrants were Asian applicants. Asian Americans became a majority-immigrant population, while for much of the century most Asians in the US had been born there. By 1990, there was near parity between numbers of Filipino Americans and Chinese Americans (with larger numbers from Hong Kong and Taiwan than in the past), with Indochinese, Korean and Asian Indian groups gradually overtaking the Japanese in numbers and youthfulness.
Increasing immigration left Asians open to the vagaries of US refugee policy. Although the US has sometimes been generous to refugees – for example, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians after 1975, and Chinese students who had been involved in Tiananmen Square – the Clinton administration in 1993 enlisted Mexican and Honduran officials in a campaign to intercept Chinese who were leapfrogging from China to Pacific islands to the US. Many were fleeing China’s notorious population control policies. Hundreds were repatriated and several died in the process. Though the operation was legal (because neither Mexico nor Honduras is a signatory to the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees) it contradicted the spirit of the US‘s international commitments and angered the Chinese–American community. Several of those deported were known to have credible asylum claims. Like Latinos, Asian Americans were subject to immigration department raids on their workplaces.
Political and socio-economic developments
In the late 1960s, Asian Americans became involved in the civil rights and student movements. This generation formed professional organizations, community service agencies and political interest groups that fought for bilingual education, Asian Studies programmes in universities, multilingual voting ballots and better working conditions in the garment and restaurant sectors where poorer Asians worked.
The other major issue was Japanese Americans’ fight for redress for internment. Though some compensation had been given to victims of internment after the war, and over the next decade all the normal rights of citizenship were restored to Japanese Americans, they felt that the racism and injustice of the action had never been fully recognized. They formed political organizations, lobbied, filed court cases and appealed to public sympathy for decades. In August 1988, Congress and President Ronald Reagan offered a formal apology and US$20,000 per person to each of the 60,000 surviving internees – about US$1.25 billion in all.
The murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese–American man, in a Detroit bar in 1982 has become the archetypal case of violence against Asian Americans. His assailants were white auto workers who took Chin for Japanese, accused Chin’s ‘people’ of destroying the American auto industry and beat him to death with a baseball bat. They were sentenced to probation and a fine. This case, along with later attacks by gangs and individuals against Asians, rallied Asian Americans to campaign against bigotry and racist violence.
Some of the backlash against increasing Asian–American visibility has come from other minorities. The Los Angeles riots and controversies in New York in the early 1990s illustrated that resentment against Korean storekeepers and other Asian business people – expressed in attacks on and boycotts of Asian businesses by African–American and Latino consumers – had become commonplace.
To counter the misunderstanding that leads to violence, Asian Americans increasingly organized in concert with other minority groups around immigration, racism, sexism, the environment and other issues. Asian organizations were also formed to protest against misrepresentation and exclusion in media and the arts. Electoral representation is another issue. Although some Asian–American politicians in the north-west have triumphed at state and local levels (especially in Hawai’i), only the Japanese have fared well in the Senate and Congress. With increasing numbers and ‘Pan-Asian’ community mobilization, this situation may change.
Today’s image of Asian Americans as an educationally and economically successful ‘model minority’ is usually explained in cultural terms – a high premium put on education by Asian families, a strong family-based work ethic, powerful group support networks and so on. While these images are based in reality, they distort the truth. The median family income for Asian Americans was US$83,456 in 2017, higher than the median family income for all US households (USD$60,336 in the same year). But there were wide gaps between different groups, with the median family income for certain sub-groups such as Asian Indians and Japanese Americans significantly higher while other communities such as Hmong and Cambodians significantly lower than the national average. Further, the family median income rate is deceptive because Asian–American families tend to have more family members in the workforce than other groups. Chinese, Filipino, Indian and Japanese women tend to earn more than Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian and Thai men.
Similarly, while poverty levels are lower among Asian Americans (12.1 per cent in 2015, compared to a national average of 15.1 per cent) – there are large gaps within this group: while poverty levels among Filipinos (7.5 per cent), Indians (7.5 per cent) and Japanese (8.4 per cent) are even lower, they are disproportionately high for other communities such as Hmong (28.3 per cent), Bhutanese (33.3 per cent) and Burmese (35 per cent). Many poorer Asians – often Chinese, Thai or Southeast Asian undocumented migrants – work in urban sweatshops at below minimum wage.
Many Asian Americans object to the image of a ‘model minority’, which seems positive, but denies their diversity and tends to pit Asians against other minorities. Even to the extent that the stereotype is accurate, it comes at the price of high pressure and long hours of study or work that may lead to depression and anxiety, especially for young people. The success myth also implies that Asians do not experience disadvantage and discrimination, which is patently untrue. For example, Asians are admitted to higher education at a lower rate than whites with the same qualifications, and when they graduate they are paid less than whites with the same education. Asian students who have language troubles seldom receive bilingual education or remedial help, which is one reason why they gravitate to scientific disciplines. A ‘glass ceiling’ also seems to limit the earnings and promotion opportunities of Asian Americans in large companies; they hold only a tiny fraction of top management positions.
Research on the educational outcomes of Asian-Pacific American students has called into question the stereotype of the high achieving Asian-Pacific American student and suggests that a homogeneous view masks real problems being experienced by this very diverse population group. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of Asian Americans, like those of other Americans, tend to match the income and educational level of their parents: consequently, while most Pakistanis and Indians have at least a bachelor’s degree, most of the nation’s Hmong and Cambodian adults have never finished high school. Perceptions of supposed-overachievement can have an adverse affect since lumping together all Asian groups masks the poverty and academic difficulties of some subgroups and with the trend away from affirmative-action policies, holds all Asian-Pacific Americans to much higher admission standards at the most selective colleges.
While the political participation of Asian Americans is increasing, voting barriers are still in place, including institutional disenfranchisement and racially hostile voter intimidation. Asian candidates, too, have reported suffering racial hostility.
Successive waves of Haitians have emigrated to the United States (US) from the early 19th century, particularly after the collapse of the repressive regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier, known also as ‘Baby Doc’, in the late 1980s. Political instability, poverty and a series of natural disasters, including the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, have driven further migration. The population of Haitian Americans has risen steadily, from 290,000 in 1990 to 830,000 in 2009 according to US government data, with around two-thirds concentrated in Florida and New York. In addition, there is a sizeable population of Haitian immigrants in the country.
Haitian refugees have endured particular troubles in the 1980s and 1990s that set them apart from other black Americans.
Because Haitian governments historically have been sponsored by the United States, Haitians have seldom been accepted as refugees. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan authorized the US coastguard to intercept and repatriate Haitians encountered on the high seas en route to the US as illegal immigrants. The screening process admitted only 0.1 per cent as legitimate asylum seekers. In 1991 Haitian advocates filed suit, challenging this process under the 1980 Refugee Act and international law. The suit was dismissed, but resulted in the screening process being moved to Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba.
In 1992, because of a false scare over high AIDS rates in Haiti, HIV testing was added to the screening process. Those found positive were held without procedure for release or repatriation. A further suit in 1992 challenged conditions in the Guantanamo Bay camp – where ill refugees were held without medical treatment or adequate nutrition – as well as the discrimination represented by the fact that non-Haitian applicants were not detained according to HIV status. In May 1992, President George Bush shut down the screening process and ordered all interdicted Haitians repatriated, in contravention of the Refugee Act.
When Bill Clinton was elected later that year, he promised to re-examine the case, as Haitian boat people continued to arrive in huge numbers. After a series of reversals on the issue, in 1994 he agreed to process Haitians like other asylum seekers, and sought to relieve immigration pressure instead through US military intervention against the illegitimate government of Haiti. Some Haitians returned home after President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s reinstatement, while others applied to stay in the US for economic reasons and out of fear of the continuing strength of military and terrorist forces in Haiti.
Haitians who fled their homeland because of opposition to the military junta faced retribution from Haitian military-sponsored death squads operating in the US. Despite appeals from the Haitian community, US officials did little to investigate or prosecute offenders, and connections between these squads and the US Central Intelligence Agency have been exposed.
Some Haitians, like some Afro-Cubans, have also faced prosecution for their practice of the Santeria faith, which involves ritual animal sacrifice. However, in 1993 the Supreme Court reversed a lower court ruling against Santeria practitioners saying that the government’s legitimate concern for public health and animal welfare ‘could be addressed by restrictions stopping far short of a flat prohibition of all Santeria practices’.
Haitian immigrants and asylum-seekers have been particularly affected by the under-scrutinized practices of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and one of its successor agencies US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Even after the Guantanamo Bay refugee camps were closed, Haitian new arrivals have been held in inadequate facilities in the US with no clear indication of how long they would be detained. Some of these detention centres have been leased out to private contractors, who allowed conditions to degenerate to the point that riots ensued. Inmates have little legal recourse and are often inaccessible to friends, family and legal counsel.
In 2010, following the devastating earthquake in Haiti that killed more than 100,000 people and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure, the Obama administration gave Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to tens of thousands Haitians in the US – affording them the right to work legally and preventing them from deported. However, this protection was subsequently revoked by the Trump administration. In November 2017, the Department of Homeland Security announced that TPS for Haitians would end in July 2019; the move put 60,000 Haitians at risk. Critics have accused Trump of being driven by racist prejudice towards Haiti as well as Africa following derogatory comments he reportedly made in January 2018. The revocation of TPS has since been challenged in the courts, and in October 2018, a federal judge ruled that plans to revoke TPS for four countries, including Haiti, should be suspended pending a final decision.
Ethnicity: Inuit, Tlingit, Haida, Alaska Athabaskan, Aleut, other tribal groupings
First language/s: English, Yupik, Inupiaq, Gwich’in, Aleut, Alutiiq, other local dialects
Religion/s: Christianity, Indigenous religions
The United States (US) Census in 2010 estimated the Alaskan Native population resident in Alaska to be roughly 138,300, comprising around 15 per cent of the state’s residents, and a significant segment of the rural population in particular. Indigenous peoples of Alaska include at least 20 language groups (some now spoken only by a handful of elders) and several hundred villages and tribal groups. Yup’ik and Inupiat are the largest communities, numbering 33,900 and 33,400 respectively in 2010. The second largest group are the Tlingit-Haida (26,100) followed by Alaska Athabaskan (22,500), Aleut (19,300) and Tsimschian (3,800). Other groups include the Alutiiq, Cup’ik and Eyak. Over half of Alaska Natives live in rural areas, though growing numbers are moving to urban areas, particularly Anchorage, in search of education and employment opportunities.
Before European contact, Inuit lived in extended family groups as semi-nomadic hunter-fisher-gatherers. Aleuts also hunted and trapped, but lived in more permanent, partly subterranean homes on the Aleutian Islands. Native groups further south had large permanent settlements and trade networks. The first Europeans to land in Alaska were Russian explorers, and the territory was occupied by the Russian Empire from 1741 until 1867, when it was sold to the US. The US imposed restrictions on indigenous Alaskans’ education, religious and voting rights similar to those experienced by Native Americans in more southerly states. Alaska became the 49th and largest US state in 1959. In 1966, the Alaska Federation of Natives was formed and filed land claims covering the entire state. Oil was discovered in Alaska in 1968, and in 1971 the US Congress passed the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA). It extinguished indigenous titles and created for-profit corporations in each region to administer an award totalling US$962.5 million and covering 178,068 sq km. Corporate shares, which could not be sold until 1991, were granted exclusively to indigenous Alaskans born before December 1971.
The treatment of Alaskan indigenous peoples by European-descended Americans parallels the history of dispossession of other Indigenous communities in North America, with many of the same effects: dependency on government income transfers, poverty, educational failure, health problems, teenage suicide, poverty, language loss, alcoholism and violence. However, because of Alaska’s relative isolation and long territorial status, the principle of Native sovereignty is less well-entrenched there. The state government maintains that, historically, indigenous Alaskans have always been treated as individuals, not peoples. No treaties and only a few reservation lands exist.
Alaska Natives widely criticized the ANCSA for imposing a corporate structure over their traditional forms of governance. It provided only weak protection for indigenous title, leaving lands open to eventual corporate or government take-over, and gave no recognition to traditional subsistence hunting and fishing rights. In February 1988, Congress passed amendments to the Act that extended the stock sale restrictions and tax exemptions indefinitely, but allowed corporations to issue new stock to younger people and non-indigenous people. These amendments split the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN). Some members welcomed the amendments as a way to resolve the dispute and encourage economic development. Others objected that not enough had been done to safeguard traditional lifestyles and rights.
In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act set aside lands for national parks and wildlife refuges and recognized the priority of traditional uses of resources. But the Conservation Act is administered mostly by the state government, which leans towards commercial interests, and the situation has never been clarified. However, in October 1993 the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs quietly confirmed 225 Alaskan villages as recognized tribes. Several regional corporations have now transferred their lands to tribal governments to protect them against state appropriation. Ironically, indigenous Alaskans might ultimately achieve self-determination only by obtaining federal government support.
Indigenous Alaskans’ rights, like those of other circumpolar peoples, are closely linked to environmental concerns, particularly in connection with oil. Oil companies provide the large majority of the state revenue of Alaska, but oil drilling is highly disruptive to subsistence life. Thus, oil exploration is controversial both inside and outside Native communities. In 1988, in 1991 and again in 1995, Congress proposed opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. President Bill Clinton considered vetoing the measure if it was passed by Congress in the 1996 budget. Oil spills, including the 11 million gallon Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989 and the up to 80 million gallon Russian spill in 1994, pollute the Arctic Sea and disrupt indigenous wildlife, culture and economies; in 1994, Native villagers were paid $20 million on top of Exxon’s 1991 US$1 billion settlement with Alaska, and litigation is ongoing. A 2001 survey of the shoreline of Prince William Sound found that the Exxon-Valdez spill had continuous low-level effects.
Other recurring environmental issues include anti-fur activism and whaling conservation efforts, which threaten Native livelihoods. The Inuit Circumpolar Conference’s alternative whaling commission has argued that Native hunting should not be included in the US quota, but should be protected as a separate category. In addition, dumping and international control failures make the Arctic Circle a ‘sink’ for greenhouse gases, chlorofluorocarbons, DDT, heavy metals, hydrocarbons, radio nucleotides and nuclear wastes. Greenhouse gases are altering the climate of the region, and toxins can accumulate in the bodies of Alaska Natives and other polar peoples, causing unknown health risks.
Since the 1987 split over the ANCSA amendments, the United Tribes of Alaska and the Alaska Native Coalition have joined the AFN and Alaska Inter-Tribal Council in representing Alaska Native interests, along with tribal and village governments. In 1977, Inuit from Alaska, Greenland and Canada created a common forum in the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), which meets yearly and in 1983 gained non-governmental organization status at the United Nations. Inuit of the former Soviet Union joined the ICC in 1993. There is also an initiative, led by Canada, for an Arctic Council with indigenous and governmental representatives from the seven countries on the Arctic Circle: Canada, the US, Russia, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Denmark. The Council would extend and enforce the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy, which was adopted in 1991 but is not yet a legally binding treaty.
With the increased attention being paid to the Native American vote in the November 2008 federal election, questions were raised regarding whether Native Americans – especially those who are more proficient in their tribal languages than English – were being given sufficient resources to understand ballots and other election materials. Four tribal communities in the Bethel Alaska region took the issue to the Alaska US District Court arguing that state and local election officials have failed to provide them with effective oral language assistance and voting materials in their traditional Yup’ik language. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Native American Rights Fund which represented the plaintiffs pointed out that apart from two poorly translated radio ads in 2006, no other election information has been provided in the Yup’ik language even though funds have long been available under the Help America Vote Act to address such shortcomings.
A motion filed in May 2008 argued that election officials have violated provisions of the Voting Rights Act which mandates that if more than 5 per cent of the voting age population in a certain jurisdiction are members of a single language minority and have limited proficiency in English, that jurisdiction has a responsibility to provide oral and written assistance in the minority language. In June 2008 a panel of federal judges ordered the state to provide various forms of voter assistance – especially language – to Yup’ik language voters.
Citing years of State neglect, for the 2008 elections the state was ordered to provide trained poll workers bilingual in English and Yup’ik; sample ballots in written Yup’ik; a written Yup’ik glossary of election terms; consultation with local indigenous communities to ensure the accuracy of Yup’ik translations; a Yup’ik language coordinator; and pre-election and post-election reports to the court to track the State’s efforts. Additionally, both the state and federal courts struck down the governor’s policy of refusing to recognize the sovereign authority of Alaska Native peoples to address key issues including those involving Alaska Native children.
The issue of native voting rights in Alaska was particularly significant in light of the Republican party’s choice of Sarah Palin the female governor of Alaska to run as Vice president in the November 2008 US presidential elections. Indigenous rights activists had consistently criticized Palin’s record on granting fundamental rights to Alaska Native peoples especially regarding voting sovereignty and lifestyle rights.
There have been some improvements in recent years since Bill Walker took office as Governor in 2014. Walker has undertaken a number of progressive measures around indigenous peoples’ rights, including the passing of a bill in June 2017 establishing an annual Indigenous Peoples Day in Alaska and establishing the Governor’s Tribal Advisory Council to promote cooperation between the state government and the indigenous population. Following a 2013 court order that found Alaska in violation of the Voting Rights Act for its failure to provide adequate election materials in Alaska Native languages, steps have been taken to expand access for indigenous voters – though communities have highlighted continued shortfalls in the availability and quality of information.
The history of marginalization experienced by Alaska Natives is reflected in the continued marginalization that they, along with other indigenous communities across the US, continue to experience to this day: in 2016, for instance, 26.2 per cent of American Indian and Alaska Natives (AIAN) were living in poverty, the highest rate of any ethnic group and almost double the nationwide average of 14 per cent.
While, in some respects, the situation of Alaska Natives has improved and many more now have jobs, higher incomes, better education, health care and living conditions than before, they remain several times more likely than other Alaskans to be poor and out of work. Alaska Natives experience some of the highest rates of accidental deaths, suicides, alcoholism, homicides, fetal alcohol syndrome and domestic violence in the United States. Disproportionate numbers of Alaska Natives, mostly young men, are incarcerated; while making up around 15 per cent of Alaska’s residents, they represent around 36 per cent of its prison population.
Alaska’s indigenous children are still not obtaining adequate education, and Alaska Natives remain on the economic fringes of one of the richest states, per capita, in the US. Furthermore, the validity of the Alaska Native cultural perspective continues to be ignored, and traditional ways of life and native languages are gradually disappearing as tribe elders are passing away.
Meanwhile, climate change represents a critical threat to many Alaska Native communities and their unique cultures. Alaska Native villages are often built on permafrost, and as temperatures rise, the permafrost is melting leading to buildings collapsing. Other threats include coastal and river erosion, loss of sea ice and sea level rise. The Yup’ik village of Newtok became the first to secure federal funding in 2018 to help it relocate. The US$15 million that was set aside is a small fraction of the approximately US$100 that the relocation process will require, but it represented vital seed money for the process to commence. Newtok has already lost key infrastructure because of melting permafrost and erosion.
First language/s: Spanish
Latinos are the fastest-growing minority in the US and were estimated in the 2010 Census at 50.5 million, 16.3 per cent of the population: of this group, the largest were Mexicans at 31.8 million (10.3 per cent), followed by Puerto Ricans at 4.6 million (1.5 per cent), Cubans at 1.8 million (0.6 per cent) and a wide variety of other groups. These figures probably under-count undocumented immigrants. The Census Bureau projects that, by 2060, more than one of every four Americans (28.6 per cent) will be Latino.
Each of these communities favours nationally specific names over any general term, but ‘Latino’ has emerged as the most popular alternative to ‘Hispanics’, which has long been favoured by government agencies and is used interchangeably with ‘Latinos’.
Latinos have lived in what is now the south-western United States (US) for centuries but there are now large groups in every urban centre. Since the 1990s, growing numbers of Latinos have also settled in south and south-east US.
Around 48 per cent of Latinos are Roman Catholic and roughly 25 per cent are Protestant.
During the sixteenth century, many mestizos and some other Mexicans settled to farm and ranch in the mountain slopes and desert valleys of Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona. Eventually much of the frontier was granted to settlers by royal decree, a decision confirmed by the Mexican government after its independence from Spain in 1821. The US annexed Texas in 1845, then captured the remainder of the south-west in the Mexican-American War of 1846-8. Annexation was followed by the gold rush in California, which brought hordes of Anglo settlers. Conflict and discrimination became widespread. In several states, after initial peaceful coexistence, Spanish education and voting rights were cut off and were not restored until well into the twentieth century. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed the safety of Mexican land grants, but 80 per cent of grant lands were lost to force, debt or legal manipulation.
Mexican Americans had to cope with becoming a dispossessed minority in their own lands, but the community remained fairly stable. The majority of the rural population was Spanish-speaking, and almost all Mexican Americans lived in rural areas in isolated and self-reliant pueblos (towns). The forces of the Mexican Revolution, in the early twentieth century, brought a flood of immigrants and new political currents to the US. At the end of the Second World War, rural Mexicans (legal and illegal) flocked to the cities to take advantage of plentiful industrial jobs. They created pueblos within cities, called barrios. Barrio Latinos have benefited from strong social and family networks, but have been under-served by government services and outside employers, as well as suffering from internal rivalries that have undermined political unity.
In the early 1960s, unsuccessful efforts were made to reclaim the lands guaranteed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The United Farm Workers union, led by Cesar Chávez, mounted innovative and effective campaigns against low wages, abuse and pesticide contamination of Mexican American workers in the fruit and vegetable farms of California. Later in the 1960s, the Chicano movement was born. Chicano, once a pejorative for ‘Mexicano‘, was used by high school and college students in the barrios of California as a symbol of defiance against discrimination. The Chicano youth movement – including the militant Brown Berets – began to unite the barrios for improved living conditions, bilingual education and cultural pride. The movement led to an upsurge in cultural activity and new national organizations like the National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project helped to increase Latino participation in elections, leading to a small increase in Latino representation.
Immigration and the Mexican border
The US-Mexico border is roughly 3,300 km long, running from San Diego, California in the west, to Brownsville, Texas in the east. Throughout the twentieth century, workers have flooded from rural (and later urban) Mexico, and Central and South America to the US south-west, legally and illegally, across the Mexican border. Some are ‘commuters’, others temporary residents and others stay permanently. These people have made up a huge cheap labour force for US employers, often working for less than the minimum wage. The Bethnicityro programme (1942-64) brought in Mexicans for seasonal agriculture; many absconded to work in industry. During the recession after the Korean War, the government launched ‘Operation Wetback’ (‘wetback’ is derogatory slang for Mexican immigrants), which deported some 2 million people in 1954 and 1955. In recent decades, the human traffic has exceeded 9 million people a year – though many of these are the same people crossing back and forth – and many undocumented migrants are deported each year. By the 1980s, an anti-immigration fever was building, despite evidence that immigrants create more jobs and revenue than they drain. The Federation for American Immigration Reform led the demand to close the border. In Texas and California, vigilante groups prowled the border to apprehend and assault migrants. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents became more brutal, often concentrating on language and appearance more than on documentation. In 1986, the Simpson-Rodino Immigration Reform and Control Act greatly expanded the size and powers of the Border Patrol and imposed heavy sanctions against employers of illegal labour (it also granted amnesty to a certain number of undocumented workers, although their chances of achieving citizenship depend on a screening process that will take years to complete.). A General Accounting Office 1990 study found that 20 per cent of employers responded by instituting anti-Latino hiring practices, and two 1992 studies found that beatings, unjustified shootings, torture and sexual abuse by border guards had escalated unchecked. Between 1994 and 2005, more than 3,000 people died trying to cross the US-Mexico border, the majority in the Arizona desert as a result of exposure to extreme heat and dehydration.
A steel wall has been constructed along parts of the border and there have been calls for a national identity card and other measures that would put all Americans’ civil rights at risk, especially Latinos’. The passage of Proposition 187 in California in a 1994 referendum deprived illegal immigrants of rights to education, social assistance and medical services. None of these measures has decreased immigration. They have only increased the misery of undocumented immigrants, the majority of them Latinos, and the racial polarization of the south-western US. During his election campaign, President Donald Trump promised to build a wall along the length of the US-Mexico border to keep out immigrants; he even suggested that the Mexican government should pay for it. The proposal effectively mobilized anti-immigrant sentiment among many voters, though it has yet to be constructed.
Cuban Americans are seen stereotypically as a powerful, conservative community, quite different from every other Latino group. While it is true that the first Cuban refugees after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution were mostly upper-class anti-communists given generous settlement aid by the US government, subsequent immigrants have not had the same advantages.
In the early 1980s, Fidel Castro began to permit small numbers of people to leave Cuba as a safety valve to release political and economic tensions (partly caused by the US embargo). At the same time, the US passed the 1980 Refugee Act, which severely limited the number of Cubans who could legally enter the county and put them on an equal footing with other prospective immigrants. In April 1980 Castro authorized the Mariel Boat Lift, and within months nearly 125,000 Cubans – 40 per cent of them Afro-Cubans – left Cuba. The Reagan and Bush administrations refused the ‘Marielitos‘ immigration processing and thousands, including children, were placed in administrative detention by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for years after their arrival. A few were eventually deported and the rest remained ‘on parole’, their residency status indeterminate. Another exodus in 1994 forced President Bill Clinton to negotiate with Castro to allow 20,000 Cuban refugees to enter the US annually, provided that the tide of migrants was stemmed.
Each group of Cuban refugees has been poorer than the last. Although they sometimes benefit from the prosperity of Cuban enclaves, especially in Miami, they have also been exploited by employers, even within the Cuban community. In addition, those who disagree with the Miami establishment’s anti-Castro position have a difficult time. Assaults, bombings, censorship and blackmail have been used as weapons against such dissidents. However, the Cuban American population is changing to include more economic and fewer political refugees, and there are signs that the boundaries of accepted opinion within it may widen.
Small numbers of Puerto Ricans started moving to the US mainland at the beginning of the twentieth century. Migration expanded after the Second World War, encouraged by both governments to even out labour markets. The migrant population quadrupled between 1940 and 1950, and by 1960 it was 887,000, with about a quarter born on the mainland. Return migration became an important factor in the 1970s, with tens of thousands of US-based Puerto Ricans going back to the island to retire, work or raise children without the burden of discrimination. With cutbacks in federal aid, the flow reversed again in the 1980s. Although there were many second- and third-generation Puerto Ricans among the 4.6 million in the US by 2010, the majority are island-born. Initially concentrated in New York, Puerto Ricans still form a large part of the population there, but now at least half of the Puerto Rican population has spread out across the north-east (especially to Chicago and the state of New Jersey) and into southern states such as Texas, California and Florida. Pre-1950s Puerto Rican migrants tended to be skilled male workers, but since then most have been unskilled labourers, evenly split between men and women.
Puerto Ricans are US citizens but face racial and language barriers that prevent their enjoyment of any advantage over other immigrants. They only gained access to bilingual education in the 1990s. For this reason – as well as discrimination, low-quality schools and family poverty – the Puerto Rican education attainment levels in the US are lower than that of almost any other urban group. In the 1950s and 1960s, Puerto Rican migrant employment rates were better than the US average, but by 1990 (male) factory and (female) garment-industry mainstay opportunities were reduced by structural change and competition from new immigrant groups. Puerto Ricans’ employment in New York dropped between 1970 and 1990 more than that of any other group. The average wage of employed Puerto Rican men also dropped. Single motherhood is the single greatest risk category for family poverty in the US, as opposed to Puerto Rico where common-law marriage is the norm.
Alongside other Latino communities, Puerto Ricans have also been hurt by legislative changes, including the Immigration Reform and Control Act. Puerto Rican migrants’ voting and electoral success rates are very low. Groups like the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund and the National Council of La Raza have organized to enhance Puerto Ricans’ political clout. Representation, bilingualism, education, community development, housing, jobs, childcare and health are among their prime concerns.
Puerto Rico has long suffered high levels of poverty, exacerbated by the widespread devastation inflicted on the island in September 2017 by Hurricane Maria. With much of its infrastructure destroyed and an emerging humanitarian crisis, thousands of Puerto Ricans were forced to migrate to the US mainland – according to some estimates, as many as 400,000 residents, amounting to 12 per cent of the island’s population, left around the time of the disaster. By February 2018, only around half had returned, with the remainder still in the US, predominantly in Florida but with significant numbers dispersed across the country. The Trump administration was criticized for the slow and ineffectual response to the catastrophe, which is estimated to have cost some 3,000 lives.
Central and South Americans
Growing numbers of Central and South Americans have joined the US Latino community since the mid-1970s, including Peruvians and Colombians. Dominicans have also come in significant numbers, as have many Salvadorans and Guatemalans seeking refuge from repression. The latter groups have not been accepted as bona fide refugees because of US support for Central American military regimes. These people have been subjected to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) detention, or must work and live as undocumented residents. Most are poor and without political rights. Refugees who attempt to speak out or otherwise aid the opposition in their home countries have found themselves under police investigation. During the 1980s, for example, the Committee in Support of the People of El Salvador was infiltrated and undermined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Changing social and political developments
Numbers, visibility and Chicano consciousness brought Latinos into the spotlight in the late 1970s. Yet during the 1980s many prominent Latinos (including city mayors and two state governors) slipped from prominence due to scandal and opposition. Latino electoral participation has remained low and Latino interests have been represented by a select few political figures nationally, but there is some indication that campaigns to increase Latino political participation have had some success.
The Latino population is significantly younger than the general US population and the average household is larger. Latinos have very low rates of education and health services to Latino communities are ranked among the poorest in the US. Workplaces and communities of low-waged Latinos tend to have more hazardous environmental and safety conditions than the average. Latinos are now overwhelmingly urban and are often lumped in with African Americans as part of the urban ‘underclass’; on most measures they register somewhere between whites and blacks in socio-economic status. However, the extended family and social networks of the barrios, while they may hinder social mobility, have helped many Latino neighbourhoods retain a strong sense of community.
Anti-immigrant sentiments, the shift from manufacturing to service jobs and urban decay have undermined Latino economic and social stability. The growth rate of the Latino population has led to conflict with other communities over urban space and influence. Deadly wars between Latino and African–American youth gangs are one symptom of these conflicts, and more Latinos than blacks participated in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Latinos experience many of the same problems with law enforcement agencies as African Americans do, as well as high levels of unfounded persecution by immigration agents.
Along with immigration, language is one of the issues most commonly used to raise educational, occupational and political barriers against Latinos. The vast majority of Latinos in the US speak English, and many second- or third-generation Latinos speak only English. Those who simply prefer Spanish or speak with strong accents may face discrimination. Spanish is widely used in schools, business, advertising and media, but language rights are not protected by the US Constitution. Recognition of language barriers in the 1960s and 1970s motivated federal legislation for bilingual ballots and bilingual education in areas where numbers warrant it, and it is now possible in many areas to use Spanish in courts and other government services. But there is no guaranteed right to these services except in criminal proceedings. When employer discrimination against Spanish-speakers is challenged, courts have generally ruled that employers are within their rights.
Latino communities debated the goals of bilingualism, but this debate was eclipsed from the 1990s by an Anglo backlash. By 1995, 22 states had passed laws declaring English their official language – including California, which was 40 per cent Spanish-speaking – and 38 members of Congress were sponsoring official English legislation nationally. The grassroots ‘English Only’ or ‘US English’ movement had a chilling effect on Anglo-Latino relations, and threatens to eliminate bilingual ballots and education or require English proficiency tests before naturalization. There is evidence that educational and employment opportunities for Latinos continue to be subject to discriminatory practices. Levels of educational segregation affecting Latino children are today in some districts on a par with segregation levels of African Americans pre-Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling that declared unconstitutional the segregation of white and African–American children in public school. Several states have higher education admissions policies that place students of colour at a distinct disadvantage.
Latinos have long suffered discrimination and stigmatizing stereotypes that associate them with various social problems, such as crime. These issues have only been deepened since the presidential campaign and subsequent electoral victory of Donald Trump. Among other targets, Trump vilified Mexican immigrants from the very beginning of his campaign, claiming that Mexico was ‘bringing drugs, crime and rapists’ to the US. The sustained abuse of immigrants, besides impacting directly on millions of Latino immigrants, also has implications on public perceptions of the Latino minority in general. While the negative portrayal of Latinos is not grounded in reality, the impact within the community of these representations can be devastating. This pressure has led some belonging to younger generations to assimilate more quickly and completely, to the detriment of knowing and practising their heritage and cultural traditions.
The loss of cultural practices within the Latino community has had a multitude of negative consequences, including diminished life expectancy. While recently arrived Latino immigrants live on average three years longer than white Americans and six years more than African Americans, despite experiencing nearly double the poverty rates of the native-born population, this gap is seen to decrease among later generations of Latinos. The fall in life expectancy has been associated, in part, with a move away from traditional foods and increased consumption of highly processed products. Research has found that family and community bonds are critical to the upbringing, education and passing down of cultural heritage to the younger generations, including cooking methods. Traditionally this has been achieved, to a large degree, by having multiple generations of a family living under one roof and sharing spaces intentionally set up to promote interaction. However, it has become increasingly difficult to engage younger generations in cultural education and practices, including teaching in traditional languages. Within the Latino community, initiatives such as the Rayito de Sol Spanish Immersion Early Learning Center have been established to promote cultural learning. The school, based in Minnesota, provides children with an immersive Spanish language curriculum and instruction in Latin American cultures.
Latinos continue to suffer high levels of poverty, ill-health, discrimination, arrest and incarceration. 21.4 per cent of Latinos in the US were living below the poverty line in 2015, compared to 9.1 per cent of non-Hispanic whites. According to 2010 census data, Latinos are imprisoned at almost double the rate (831 per 100,000 people) of non-Hispanic whites (450 per 100,000) – though still significantly below the levels experienced by the African-American population (2,306 per 100,000).
In recent years the US has seen a hardening of its border and immigration policies, with the emphasis increasingly on the marginalization and criminalization of immigrants, reflected not only in militarized border surveillance measures but also crackdowns on undocumented immigrants living within the country. While long predating the current administration – indeed, for periods of President Barack Obama’s time in office deportation levels were considerably higher than those under his successor – Trump is notable for the tone and character of his anti-immigration policies. Among other steps, he has attempted to rescind the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a flawed but nevertheless significant source of provisional access to education and employment for the children of undocumented children, while also escalating his rhetoric against the immigrant population. Most notoriously, beginning with the announcement in April 2018 of a‘zero tolerance policy’, the Department of Homeland Security implemented a highly controversial policy of immediately arresting all immigrants crossing the border illegally – with the result that thousands of children were forcibly separated from their families. After widespread media coverage and criticism, Trump rescinded the policy in June 2018. As of the end of August 2018, however, almost 500 children were still being held in US custody as authorities had failed to reunite them with their deported parents.
The crackdown on undocumented immigrants can also have knock on effects on the Latino population in general – for example, resulting in hiring discrimination against all Latinos by employers who fear immigration service raids. At the same time, Latino workers tend to hold more high-risk jobs than those in other ethnic groups, resulting in more frequent fatalities. While there were 4,836 workplace fatalities nationwide in 2015, amounting to 3.4 people per 100,000, for Latinos the rate was almost 20 per cent higher – 4.0 per 100,000. Additionally many who work in the construction industry are recently arrived undocumented immigrants who besides facing language and literacy barriers also have poor job training, all of which hinder the understanding of safety precautions and the risks associated with certain tasks. Of the 903 deaths among Latino workers in 2015, 605 were foreign-born. The highest number of Hispanic deaths were in the states that tend towards high concentrations of undocumented migrant workers, such as California, Texas and Florida.
Latinas tend to work, marry and bear children younger than their white counterparts. Many Latinas are teenage mothers, many are exploited as sweatshop workers, and many suffer health problems, including HIV infection. Chicana activists have criticized the Latino male culture of machismo as institutionalized sexism, analysing Latina problems as a nexus of class, ethnicity and gender issues. Partly as a result, over the past 30 years, Latina organizers, members of Congress and artists have emerged in equal numbers to men. Latinas still face pressure to fulfil traditional roles, but there may be greater recognition now of their right to participate in public and economic life.
First language/s: English, Navajo, Pueblo, Apache, other native languages
Religion/s: Christianity, native religions
Native Americans, the indigenous peoples of what is now the mainland United States (US), belong to hundreds of nations with different linguistic, social, cultural and economic traits. Native Americans live throughout the US, especially in the rural west, and most often speak English or their own traditional language. The majority were converted to Christianity in early colonial times, but some have always maintained traditional religious practices; traditional spirituality has experienced a revival in recent decades. Native Americans are also commonly called American Indians (a misnomer of historic proportions but a prevalent one), or by specific national designations such as Mohawk, Cree, Ojibwe (Chippewa) and Hopi. Recognized nations (‘tribes’ in official parlance) live on reserved lands of varying sizes and populations, though they now comprise a minority: according to the 2010 census, only 20 per cent of the ‘American Indian and Alaska Native’ (the terminology used by the US Census Bureau) alone-or-in combination lived on reservations or trust lands.
The 2010 Census estimated the ‘American Indian and Alaska Native’ population to be 5.2 million or 1.7 per cent: this includes around 2.9 million (0.9 per cent) American Indian or Alaska Native alone, and another 2.3 million (0.7 per cent) in combination with one or more ethnicities. In 2010, the largest tribes were Navajo (308,000), (Cherokee (285,476), Sioux (131, 048), Ojibwe/Chippewa (115,859), Choctaw (88,913), Apache (64,869), Pueblo (59,337), and Iroquois (48,365).
According to the Indigenous Language Institute, there were once more than 300 Indigenous languages spoken in the United States, and there are currently 175 Indigenous languages spoken still today. The Institute estimates that if efforts are not made to revitalize these languages, there will only be 20 Native American languages spoken by 2050. Navajo is the most widely spoken Native American language, with an estimated 166,800 speakers, followed by Yup’ik with an estimated 19,800 speakers.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), part of the Department of Interior is the federal body charged with dealing with more than 326 reservations in mainland US. A typical source of defining Native American status is often based on blood ancestry, although Native Americans also emphasise the importance of language, culture and heritage. In the past three decades, while the US government has restored limited recognition of Native American sovereignty, government-Native American relations are perhaps best described as those of internal neo-colonialism.
From conquest to ‘extermination’ to self-determination, Native American nations were established in the present-day United States for thousands of years before European colonization. Estimates of the pre-contact population range between 3 million and 12 million people, living in over 600 different societies. Each region had nations with distinct cultures, languages and lifestyles – from nomadic hunting bands in arid regions to large agricultural settlements on the coasts. Common elements included complex social structures based on ceremonial and subsistence roles, communal stewardship of resources, collective decision-making (one of the models for US democracy) and visionary spiritual traditions that emphasized history, ancestry and reverence for the land.
The first European conquerors were the Spanish, who invaded Mexico and the south-west in the late sixteenth century and for a time enslaved indigenous people there. The French and Dutch arrived in the seventeenth century, followed by the British. In most cases, initial relations were friendly, but with increased immigration and self-sufficiency by the 1630s, colonists began to covet and invade Native land, and attempt to impose European religion and culture on Native Americans. The Europeans had a devastating effect, bringing previously unknown diseases that wiped out whole Native American populations, including smallpox, syphilis and influenza. Over-hunting and land depletion caused famines. When negotiation was inconvenient, the Europeans used their superior weapons to force Native Americans off their own land. Native tribes were divided and manipulated during wars between colonial powers.
After independence, Congress signed treaties with the surviving nations, recognizing and guaranteeing their title to lands remaining – the core of the ‘nation to nation’ relationship Native Americans still struggle to revitalize today. The Constitution grants the federal government exclusive jurisdiction over relations with Native Americans. From that point until 1975, government policy alternated between eradicating the ‘Indian Problem’ through extermination/assimilation, and paternalistic programmes providing services and limited autonomy to reservation dwellers.
In the nineteenth century, Native Americans were herded from their lands to reservations, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Thousands died in such forced marches. Broken treaties, land frauds and military attacks were common. Some tribes responded with armed resistance, particularly in the ‘Indian Wars’ of the 1880s, but at best achieved temporary stalemates. In 1887, the General Allotment Act (or ‘Dawes Act’) nullified tribal land holdings, assigning each Native American 160 acres ‘in trust’, while the rest was sold. As trustee, the government took legal title to the parcels, established an Individual Indian Trust and thereby assumed full responsibility for management of the trust lands. That included the duty to collect and disburse to the Indians any revenues generated by mining, oil and gas extraction, timber operations, grazing or similar activities. In all, 90 million acres of land, about 67 per cent of Native American land, was seized and the communal property system was destroyed. As documented in the Merriam Report of 1928, Native Americans on and off reservations were left destitute and prone to suicide, alcoholism and mental illness; housing and health conditions were abysmal. Cultures, languages and families were lost. In 1900, the total Native American population of the US had fallen from several million to 237,000. This figure is often cited as evidence that policy on Native American peoples through most of US history was ethnocidal.
Outrage over the Merriam Report prompted the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt to attempt an ‘Indian New Deal’. The Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) became law in 1934 and was accepted by 191 tribes. It recognized limited sovereignty for Native American tribes and mandated elected councils to assume partial control over reservations. Monetary aid accompanied the new structures, as did on-reserve education and health care. Native religions were decriminalized. In 1946, the Indian Claims Commission was established to deal with outstanding land claims. Critics such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) point out that IRA reforms were imposed, often by underhanded manipulation of the referendum process, regardless of tribes’ own traditional systems (several councils’ first acts were to provide US companies with access to their resources.). Later, IRA structures fostered conflicts and even violence between council supporters and traditionalists. But they were the first step made in decades towards greater self-determination.
In the 1950s, Congress ordered that Native Americans should be cut off as soon as possible from all federal responsibility and forced to assimilate into white society. By 1960, 61 Native American tribes had been ‘terminated’. Development projects were dropped, loans frozen and federal services cut off. Termination threats spurred the first national Native organization, the National Congress of American Indians, and many new Native American leaders who had gained some experience of white politics in military service. They pressured government to halt the termination process, and by 1960 it unofficially stopped. In 1964, the Economic Opportunity Act gave Native Americans access to funds not controlled by the BIA, which helped launch businesses on some reservations. In 1968, the Indian Civil Rights Act ceased the termination policy, removed Native Americans from the jurisdiction of states, and set out the intention of involving Native Americans more directly as BIA employees.
Native American cultural nationalism had begun to emerge by the mid-1960s. The Native American Rights Fund organized tribes to pursue land claims and federal recognition. The National Indian Youth Council and, later, AIM, exposed broken treaties and corruption among BIA agents and IRA-style councils, and advocated traditionalist politics and Native civil rights. AIM’s demonstrations, occupations and armed militancy were met with brutal repression by BIA and FBI agents, with tragic results in stand-offs at Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee. But this upsurge in Native American visibility did much to raise US and international awareness of Native American rights and to put sovereignty on top of the Native agenda. In 1970, partly to head off AIM and its supporters, President Richard Nixon began to promote self-determination for Native American nations. The Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975 affirmed the rights of recognized tribes and allowed tribal governments to contract for federal funding to run former BIA services (education, health care, economic development and child welfare), although it did not provide for new programmes and standards defined by Native Americans themselves.
The history of Native America since 1975 is more fractured. By 1980, more than half the Native American population had been urbanized, and to some degree assimilated, under the 1956 Relocation Act funds administered by the BIA. Meanwhile, political battles were fought to arrest or reverse the damage done by centuries of marginalization, and urban Natives advanced ‘pan-Indianism’. The revival of traditionalism and new self-determination structures have facilitated an unprecedented unity among Native Americans, and unprecedented support from non-Natives – especially during Native American-led protests against the 1992 Columbus quincentennial (‘500 Years of Oppression’) and in the environmentalist movement. Native Americans have also emerged as leaders defending indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide, with an active role in the establishment of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982. On 15 June 2004, the Senate and House passed a Joint Resolution to send to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, to formally apologize to the Native Americans for years of depredations.
Socio-economic, political, legal and cultural issues
While Native American income relative to white Americans has risen dramatically in recent decades, they still have a high unemployment rate. The total US unemployment rate for Native Americans was 8.9 per cent in 2016, almost double the 4.9 per cent average for the country overall.
In addition, some 26.6 per cent of Native Americans were living in poverty in 2015, the highest levels of any ethnic group in the country and almost double the national poverty rate of 14.7 per cent. Similarly, the median 2015 household income of Native Americans was US$38,530, far lower than the average of US$55,775 for the country as a whole. Reservation housing in particular is still substandard, often without electricity, indoor plumbing or refrigeration, except in the wealthiest nations. As of 2013, around 7.5 per cent of Native American households still lacked safe drinking water or basic sanitation.
Although Native American life expectancy has risen dramatically in recent decades, it is still the lowest of any ethnic group in the US. The Native American population has a high incidence of communicable diseases, including tuberculosis, and fatal infectious illnesses. The ratio of health care providers to patients is lower on reservations than in any other community. Suicide and accidents (often drug or alcohol related) are the two biggest causes of Native American deaths. Poverty, dispossession and drug abuse has also led to a high rate of violence, particularly on reservations, impacting on Native American women in particular. A 2010 US Department of Justice report found that of around 2,500 women surveyed, 84 per cent of Native American women had experienced violence during their lifetime and 56 per cent had experienced sexual violence.
Reservations are also used as dumping grounds for toxic or nuclear waste. Lead poisoning, landfill sites, water pollution from nearby industries, cancers caused by nuclear weapons testing (nearly all of it on Native lands) and many more environmental problems plague Native American communities. Native Americans also have the lowest high school and university graduation rates in the US, partly because education has been an assimilationist tool since colonial times. Programmes such as bicultural education and Native-run schools under the Indian Education Act of the early 1970s have improved the situation, but only marginally – in part because of a shortage of qualified Native American teachers. Most Native American children attend public schools. The Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act of 1978 was partially successful, establishing Native-run colleges and increasing grants for Native American students, but its funding has been drastically cut back over the 1980s and 1990s. In 1995 the Office of Indian Education Programs was threatened with closure by Congress; it was renamed the Bureau of Indian Education in 2006. The 2001 No Child Left Behind Act introduced further requirements to improve the accountability of tribally run schools to improve the performance of their students with the additional funds they were receiving.
Economic development efforts on reservations have been limited by issues like jurisdiction, financing, training and isolation, by internal disputes over direction and sometimes by obstruction by non-Native American opponents and governments. Nevertheless, the 1980s and 1990s saw an upsurge in programmes for economic self-sufficiency, including mineral exploration, industrial parks, forestry, fisheries, hotels, agriculture, tobacco sales, casinos and high-stakes gambling on reserves. These enterprises could dramatically alter Natives Americans‘ economic position, if they are allowed sufficient control over their administration, land and resources. However, each economic success is likely to meet with local resentment, especially when Native Americans use the legal benefits of tribal sovereignty to their advantage. Hunting and fishing disputes in the north-west, and controversies over casino operations in the north-east are typical examples.
There is an over-representation of Native Americans in US jails, with Native American men incarcerated at four times the rate of white men and Native American women at around six times the rate of white women. Attempts at community policing and reconciliation models have had some success at coping with Native American offenders but have been obstructed by jurisdictional issues. Suspicion of unfair law enforcement is widespread, and there are indications of political motives at work. The case of Leonard Peltier, the American Indian Movement (AIM) leader convicted of involvement in the deaths of two FBI agents in a confrontation at Ogala reservation in 1973, is indicative. Over the years, the evidence against Peltier has been discredited; Native Americans widely believe that the he was framed for his political activities, but he has consistently been refused a new trial. In 2017, his appeal for clemency was formally rejected by President Obama. Several other reserves have complained of the same kind of police harassment that led to Peltier’s arrest, and other prisoners have asserted that they have been persecuted by police and prison authorities for their political or religious beliefs. Prohibitions in prisons include restrictions on Native prisoners’ hair length, sweat lodges, peace pipes, drums, headbands and other elements of traditional spirituality.
In 1978, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed to ‘preserve and protect’ the rights of Native Americans to pursue their traditional spiritual paths. But the Act has no real enforcement mechanisms, and while it has sometimes helped Native Americans to protect sacred sites and religious practices, courts have deprived plaintiffs of protection under the Act in all but four cases. The Supreme Court ruled in the Lyng case of 1988 that the US Forest Service was free to cut roads and timber in the sacred high country of Siskyou Mountain, saying that the government could not compel religious observance or deliberately interdict a religion for its own sake, but was under no obligation to protect anyone’s religious practices. The Clinton administration was at work in 1995 on an Executive Order that would mandate stronger protections for sacred sites, but again there were no guarantees that the order would be interpreted as outweighing economic interests of business and government.
The persecution of the Native American Church’s use of peyote – a controlled hallucinogen whose sacramental use dates back at least 1,400 years – is another case of the inadequacy of the Act. The Supreme Court ruled in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) that an employer was within his rights in firing two Native American workers for their religious practice of using peyote, and that the decision of whether to bring criminal prosecution against Native American Church members would be left up to the states. This was a clear reversal of established religious protections in the US and touched off a rash of marginal prosecutions against other groups.
In 1990 Congress passed the Native American Languages Act (1990), which articulated a policy of protecting indigenous languages, and in 1992 passed an act which authorized a grant programme for the purpose. In 1994 the Clinton administration awarded US$1 million for 18 language revitalization programs, but financial commitment to the issue remains limited, and the number of people who speak one of the surviving 154 Native American languages continues to decline rapidly.
Native Americans protest against racist, stereotypical or offensive appropriations of their culture, beginning with mid-century ‘cowboys and Indians’ movies and today, including the frequent use of Native American names or pejoratives for sports teams, inaccurate museum displays and so on. The Washington Redskins American football team has long resisted pressure to change its name, despite a prolonged campaign and legal action. More positively, the Cleveland Indians baseball team promised to drop the derogatory ‘Chief Wahoo’ logo from its uniforms in 2019, although some Native American activists would like to see the team go further and change its name. Traditionalists also worry about the effects of businesses like mining, casinos and tobacco smuggling on Native American values and culture.
Self-determination, land resources
Although the official policy of the United States is now to encourage Native Americans’ self-determination, in reality the power of Native communities is severely limited. The self-determination process has also forced Native Americans to adopt structures foreign to their own traditions – including the current reconfiguration of traditional structures as ‘nations’ comparable to the European nation-state. Even with this modification, tribal nations are not viewed within US law as independent entities to which the US has historically derived responsibilities, but as internal dependent nations or ‘wards’. Native Americans possess only ‘residual sovereignty’ – power over what is not already regulated. US policy towards Native self-determination allows not much more autonomy than is given to a municipality or, at best, one of the states in the Union.
Tribal courts are often forbidden to deal with events on reservations involving non-tribal members, especially non-Native Americans (making jurisdiction racial rather than political or territorial), and cannot mete out sentences of more than one year’s imprisonment. Tribal nations’ ability to enforce their own land use and environmental regulations is not respected by the legal system. Their powers of taxation are also restricted. The BIA maintains ultimate control over Native American nations’ constitutions, the composition of their governments, their power to make contracts, the disposition of their property and the funding and implementation of most programmes that affect them. It has authority to veto decisions made by the tribal councils. The concept of distributing self-determination funds for tribes to use at their discretion has been floated but never fully adopted.
Congress has always reserved ‘plenary power’ over Native Americans, and the Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that tribal sovereignty exists ‘only at the sufferance of Congress’, which at any time could ‘limit, modify or eliminate’ it. There is also the fear that the current policy is ‘termination in disguise’, and that once Natives achieve a certain degree of autonomy, Congress will cut off all aid. Both the BIA and the Indian Health Service have volunteered to dismantle services in the name of self-government, without proposing exactly how tribes would replace them; only Native protests forced Congress to forbid programme termination or contracting out without tribes’ consent. Budget cuts have also severely impaired Native Americans’ pursuit of self-sufficiency. In fiscal year 2006, for example, the Bush administration cut the budget allocation for the BIA by US$110 million from the previous year.
The BIA has frequently been negligent and abused its function and authority, usually by contracting on Native Americans’ behalf to lease land to companies for extraction of natural resources, often at less than 2 per cent of the resources’ real value. Political pressures make this rarer now – instead the government simply pressures the tribal council to make the same decisions – but the government has been reluctant to compensate for past admitted extortions of peoples like the Cheyenne and Navajo. In 1977, the American Indian Policy Review Commission called such leases ‘among the poorest agreements ever made’. Large numbers of Native Americans are employed within the BIA, and in recent years it has been headed by Natives; but, aside from the direct employment benefits, the results of such affirmative action are debatable. By the mid-1980s there was widespread disapproval of how the Department of Interior, as trustee, was managing tribal and Individual Indian Monies (IIM) accounts. In 1994 the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act established the Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians (OST) to improve the accountability and management of Indian funds held in trust by the federal government. On 10 June 1996, Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe in Montana, filed a class-action lawsuit (Cobell v. Salazar) in the US District Court in Washington DC to force the federal government to account for billions of dollars belonging to approximately 500,000 Native Americans and their heirs, and held in trust since the late nineteenth century, and to bring about permanent reform of the system. The case has revealed that the US government has no accurate records for hundreds of thousands of Native beneficiaries, nor of billions of dollars owed to the class of beneficiaries covered by the lawsuit. It exposed gross mismanagement, ineptness, dishonesty and delay by federal officials, leading US District Judge Royce Lamberth to declare their conduct ‘fiscal and governmental irresponsibility in its purest form’. In December 1999 Judge Lamberth ruled that the secretaries of the Interior and Treasury had breached their trust obligations to Native Americans. The court retained judicial oversight of the system for a minimum of five years to ensure that it would be overhauled and ordered the Department of Interior to provide an historical accounting of all trust funds. An appeal by the government, arguing that the court had overreached its authority, was unanimously rejected by a three-judge appeals court panel in February 2001. Finally, in December 2009 a settlement was agreed, with US$1.4 billion awarded directly to the plaintiffs and another US$2 billion to support the repurchase of land.
US government actions have had other negative repercussions, for example when the Reagan administration adopted a policy of discouraging Native-run businesses in favour of contracts between tribes and resource companies. It was also suggested that tribes voluntarily relinquish their legal jurisdiction in civil disputes to encourage companies to locate on reserves. In 1988, amendments to the Indian Self-Determination Act allowed pilot projects for tribes to revise government structures away from the IRA model. By 1995, about half the reservations in the US had somehow modified their systems to make them more compatible with traditional values, though conflicts over forms of government and economic direction at reserves still cause severe tensions. The most forward-looking policy direction coming from the US government was proposed in Hawai’i Senator Daniel Inouye’s report from the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs in 1989. Documenting BIA mismanagement, Inouye and his colleagues suggested that every tribe adopt a democratically approved constitution, on the basis of which new treaties would be negotiated to transfer full governmental power and moneys in toto for use at tribal governments’ discretion. The sole caveat was that tribal governments – which have sometimes been caught in scandals – remain subject to federal corruption laws.
These proposals are the closest the US government has come to the demands of such Native platforms as AIM’s Twenty-Point Programme or the National Congress of American Indians’ 1974 American Indian Declaration of Sovereignty. While they have not yet been enacted, US policy has slowly drifted in this direction. Many Native American activists and scholars argue that social justice can only be achieved with full sovereignty – complete control of land, resources and law in Native jurisdictions – perhaps through Native nations negotiating agreements for Commonwealth-type status within the US. However, since the majority of Native Americans now live in cities, self-determination in Native territories may not by itself guarantee full equality for all the people affected by the legacy of colonization. The Dawes Act forced Native Americans to part with 64 per cent of the land that they retained at the end of the Native American wars of the 1880s and today less than 215,000 sq km remain. Reservations often include the poorest agricultural land, with severe water shortages and limited economic potential. At least 25 per cent of these lands are currently occupied by non-Natives, and on some reserves as much as 90 per cent of the land is held by outsiders. Meanwhile, the Native American population has increased nearly seven-fold over the last century and the land base is unable to sustain them.
From 1946 to 1978, the Indian Claims Commission adjudicated Native land claims, but could provide only monetary, not territorial compensation, and estimated land value based not on current market value but on its worth at the time of taking. Many tribal nations, for example in New York state, were compensated at derisory levels for their lost land. Not until 1974 did the Supreme Court rule that Native Americans had the right to pursue land restoration. Thousands of square kilometres and millions of dollars have since been transferred, though an Act of Congress is required for each such settlement. In some cases, often due to the sacred significance of a particular site, Native nations have refused to accept monetary settlements. The most dramatic example has been the ‘Black Hills Are Not for Sale’ campaign by the Lakota of South Dakota, who turned down US$105 million in compensation for their lands and sacred sites in the late 1970s, a case still in dispute today despite some positive overtures by the Obama administration.
Other pending claims include: the Papago nation of Arizona’s claim on the sacred Baboquivari Mountain Range, where mining has taken place; suits by the landless Schaghticoke and Mohegan peoples of Connecticut and Catawbas of South Carolina for recovery of their former reservations; the Western Shoshone’s land claims, covering 80 per cent of Nevada; and the several-sided dispute between traditional Dineh and Hopi, the Navajo and Hopi tribal councils, the federal government and the Peabody Coal Company over the Big Mountain/Black Mesa lands in Arizona, a case that, perhaps better than any other, indicates the complexity of Native land and sovereignty issues.
The sheer number of disputes reveals the inadequacy of US government mechanisms. These conflicts have been sharpened by the recent realization that Native land is one of the few untapped sources of natural resources left in the United States. Again, much of the richest land was stolen (for example by oil companies in Texas and Arizona) in years past, but large areas remain. In 1975, 25 Native American tribes in the north-west joined together to form the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, modelled on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and some of these tribes have grown rich from mineral and oil profits. However, a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that tribal councils could not limit land uses by non-Natives on reservation land has hampered attempts to control development.
In 1982, 240 out of 300 federally recognized tribes had some energy resources, amounting to 25 per cent of US mineral wealth. Nearly all the uranium in the US is under Native land. Other valuable forest and mining land is directly adjacent to reservation land, sometimes on traditional hunting and fishing or ceremonial grounds, and its use tends to pollute water tables, rivers, lakes, air and other life sources of Native peoples. For example, the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine peoples in Montana were severely affected by the Zortman-Landusky goldmine and its release of thousands of gallons of cyanide solution into the local watershed.
Native Americans have had little success in disputing such corporate incursions and have often not received the due financial benefits of their own holdings. Water diversion, pollution and damming around Native lands, as well as pollution of groundwater, has been sanctioned by the courts. The separation of land and water rights is contrary to international standards, besides being socially, economically and environmentally destructive. In recent years there has been some limited success regarding water rights.
Despite significant progress in recent decades, Native Americans continue to experience significant levels of exclusion and discrimination: 26.2 per cent of indigenous people were living below the poverty line in 2016, compared to a national average of 14 per cent, with education, health and employment outcomes well below the national average. There are concerns that these problems will only worsen as the Trump administration proposed a broad range of budget cuts to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and other public agencies that provide Native American communities with essential support in areas such as housing. While these proposed cuts were buffered by significant boosts in federal support such as the March 2018 omnibus bill – a move that appeared to represent a bipartisan rejection of Trump’s proposals – they nevertheless represented a source of significant concern for the country’s Native American population.
The prolonged federal government shutdown that began at the end of 2018 caused considerable disruption to Native American communities. Healthcare provision and law enforcement were blocked for the 35 days that the shutdown lasted. The timing could not have been worse, as many reservations were hit by heavy snowfall. The lack of road maintenance services – including snow clearance – meant that residents went for days without access to water, food and medicines. More than half of BIA’s Native employees were furloughed.
Although overall Native Americans now enjoy better health, there are still great health disparities between Native Americans and the US general population: the rate of tuberculosis for Native Americans is 4.7 cases per 100,000 persons compared to 0.6 cases per 100,000 for non-Hispanic white Americans. Native youth also have the highest rate of alcohol abuse of any ethnic group in the US. With elevated levels of diabetes, liver disease and a range of other afflictions, Native Americans have a life expectancy that is 5.5 years lower (73 years) than the national average of 78.5 years.
Notwithstanding the measure of recognition secured by many Native American tribes, the historic problem of land rights violations persists, with efforts by certain groups to halt the expansion of oil pipelines on or near their land receiving nationwide and international attention. In recent years indigenous communities including the Ponca Nation and Oglala Lakota have led land rights movements in opposition to the expansion of the Keystone XL pipeline connecting the oil sands in Alberta, Canada to Steele City, Nebraska. The Standing Rock Sioux, along with Jicarilla Apache, Oglala Sioux, Oglala Lakota and others played a central role in protests against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline near to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.
Despite facing widespread violence and evictions, the protests appeared to have achieved some success by the end of 2016, with the pipeline’s expansion put on hold. But after the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency in January 2017, the situation rapidly deteriorated as Trump signed an executive order removing impediments to the pipeline’s construction. In the weeks that followed, the environmental impact assessment and public consultation were put to one side as the remaining protestors were evicted to pave way for the pipeline, which by April 2017 was completed.
In addition to the inspiring role that indigenous communities played in organizing and leading protests, the demonstrations were also notable for the extraordinary levels of violence meted out by public and private security personnel, with hundreds of protestors wounded by rubber bullets, water cannon and attack dogs, leaving some with lasting injuries. Protestors continue to face severe repercussions as a number of activists involved in the demonstrations have been handed down lengthy prison sentences on charges of rioting and trespass.
This arguably reflects a broader trend of targeted discrimination by law enforcement: in recent years Native Americans have been killed by police at nearly the same rate as African Americans. While garnering little to no media attention, indigenous activists have utilized the hashtag #NativeLivesMatter to galvanize support and to highlight the disproportionate levels of police brutality experienced by indigenous people in the country. As is the case with African Americans, these incidents occur against a broader backdrop of social disenfranchisement that – with more than 70 per cent of Native Americans now residing in urban areas – is increasingly evident within metropolitan settings. This is exacerbated by the fact that federal support for Native American populations is primarily concentrated on rural areas, in particular reservations. For instance, only about 1 per cent of spending by the Indian Health Service is allotted to urban programmes, yet Native Americans living in urban areas encounter significant impediments to accessing healthcare as well as education and employment. While these issues intersect with some of the inequalities experienced by other ethnic groups in urban areas, Native Americans experience discrimination where other communities have found opportunities, particularly in relation to accessing urban labour markets.
The number of Native American language speakers continues to decline, and a growing number of Native American children are monolingual English-speakers. Native American communities also still face issues of cultural and religious freedoms, including the denial of access to religious sites, prohibitions on the use or possession of sacred objects, and restrictions on their ability to worship through ceremonial and traditional means.
Ethnicity: Native Hawai’ian
First language/s: English, Hawai’ian
Native Hawai’ians are the descendants of the original Polynesian settlers of Hawai’i, an eastern Pacific island chain. Formerly an independent kingdom and later a US territory, Hawai’i became the fiftieth US state in 1959. In the 2010 Census the number of Native Hawai’ians and Other Pacific Islanders was estimated at 1.2 million or 0.4 per cent of the total population: this included 540,000 Native Hawai’ian or Other Pacific Islander alone (0.2 per cent) and 685,200 (0.2 per cent) in combination with other ethnicities. Native Hawai’ians are concentrated mainly in Hawai’i’s five counties, where they make up over a fifth of the population. Outside Hawai’i, Native Hawai’ians live mainly in California and Alaska.
The colonial experience of Native Hawai’ians is comparable to the plight of indigenous peoples worldwide, with the added complications of tourism. The Hawai’ian tourism industry brings six times more visitors to the island every year than there are permanent residents. It has marketed the islands to the world as a historical ‘hula-hula girl’ paradise.
Pre-contact Hawai’i was governed by a system of family groups and hierarchies, cultivating land on a communal basis. The natural world was regarded as a polytheistic, animistic network of familial relations. A rich culture of music, chant, poetry, dance, story and ritual supported this worldview. When white Europeans (haole) arrived in 1778 with Captain James Cook of Great Britain, they introduced a host of diseases that, within a century, reduced Hawai’i from a pre-contact population of over 800,000 to an indigenous population of fewer than 39,000.
Hawai’i was recognized internationally as an independent kingdom from 1779 to 1893. But by the mid-nineteenth century, the ‘big five’ US sugar companies dominated the Hawai’ian economy. To the anguish of the Hawai’ian people, Queen Lili’uokalani was forcefully overthrown by US marines in 1893, and Congress completed the process with the annexation of Hawai’i as a territory in 1898. Large numbers of Asian and US mainland labourers were imported to work the plantations; the US imposed tight economic control and established military bases. The Hawai’ian language was banned from schools, while traditional religious practices were marginalized or forbidden.
During the Second World War, Hawai’i was placed under martial law by territorial governors. In the immediate post-war period, Japanese and Hawai’ian activists began to assume prominent roles in the local Democratic Party, which was instrumental in gaining statehood for Hawai’i in 1959. Today, no ethnic group in Hawai’i forms a majority. Institutional racism and US influence have preserved the dominance of the haole, but Japanese and Chinese residents have recovered from severe discrimination to assume powerful roles. Most Hawai’ians welcomed statehood as preferable to territorial status, but few benefits have flowed to the indigenous people.
The US Congress allocated just over 800 sq km for Native Hawai’ians in the 1921 Homestead Land Act, and another 5,666 sq km in 1959 as ‘ceded’ lands. A series of state agencies has leased much of this land to industrial, resort or military interests, and most of the rest has never been provided the infrastructure necessary for homesteading. In 1993, President Clinton proclaimed Public Law 103-150, a public apology for the US role in the overthrow of the monarchy, but no new rights or reparations accompanied this gesture. Attempts to resolve questions of state and federal trustees’ misappropriation of lands and resources in court are frustrated by Hawai’ians’ status as ‘wards of the state’ – making Native Hawai’ians the only US group unable to sue the federal government or state for breach of trust.
In the late 1970s, the state Democratic Party attempted to placate Native Hawai’ian pressure by establishing the Office of Hawai’ian Affairs (OHA), a semi-autonomous self-government authority. Many Hawai’ians believe that, as a state agency, the OHA has an inherent conflict of interest. Recent decades have seen the development of a large, radical Hawai’ian nationalist movement, led mostly by Hawai’ian women. The largest of about 40 groups opposed to the OHA approach is Ka Lahui Hawai’i (Hawai’ian Nation), founded in 1987 and with an enrolment of 23,000 ‘citizens’ by 1995. On 17 January 1993, over 15,000 people marched in support of Native Hawai’ian sovereignty. Ka Lahui Hawai’i opposed a state plebiscite initiative for 1996 designed to ratify wardship.
The Hawai’ian nationalist movement has generated protest and discussion of a large number of related issues, including: the crowding, economic exploitation, pollution, land misuse and, in particular, commodification and misrepresentation of Hawai’ian culture caused by the state’s leading industry, tourism; the US military presence, which brings economic dependency, occupies and pollutes thousands of square kilometres of homelands, and may serve as a launching pad for aggression abroad; violation of sacred grounds through geothermal power extraction in the sacred Kilauea volcano on Big Island, the H-3 highway in the Halawa Valley, the disinterment of bodies from Hawai’ian burial grounds by developers and anthropologists, and the test bombing of Kaho’olawe Island; the arrest and imprisonment without bail in August 1995 of Ka Lahui Hawai’i’s official Head of State, Pu’uhonua B. Kanahele, for interfering with the arrest of a Hawai’ian protestor. US influence is heavy, and the ethnically based balance of voter influence discourages politicians from going far to accommodate Hawai’ian rights. Other minorities, notably Filipinos, fear that gains for Native Hawai’ian sovereignty will impede their own progress, while the haole minority continues to resist concrete action to compensate the islands’ indigenous peoples for colonization and to break down corporate power.
Native Hawai’ians still face higher levels of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, incarceration and ill-health, and lower levels of income and education, than the general US population. Native Hawai’ians also have one of the worst death and disease rates of any ethnic group in the US, and high rates of school failure, substance abuse, suicide, homelessness, welfare dependency and incarceration. According to a 2017 report issued by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, Hawai’I has the highest per capita homelessness rate of any state in the US. Native Hawai’ians are overrepresented among the state’s homeless; in 2016, 42 per cent identified as Native Hawai’ian or Other Pacific Islander. Dramatic increases in housing costs, exacerbated by the booming tourism industry, have contributed to this trend.
In their struggle to recover the integrity of Hawai’ian cultures, Native Hawai’ians have created a renaissance in politically charged versions of traditional arts, established immersion schools, made Hawai’ian an official state language and gained a constitutional guarantee of religious rights.
The struggle for Native Hawai’ian self-determination gained some momentum with the proposed Senate bill, the Native Hawai’ian Government Reorganization Act of 2005, nicknamed the ‘Akaka Bill’ after its sponsor, Senator Daniel Akaka of Hawai’i. The bill, if passed, would have recognized Native Hawai’ians as an indigenous people similar to American Indians and Alaska Natives, and created a process for Native Hawai’ians, if they choose, to establish a government that could negotiate with the state of Hawai’i and the United States on issues such as housing, land use and cultural preservation. Those opposing the bill argue that it is unconstitutional because it would divide Hawai’i on the basis of ethnicity. On 8 June 2006, the Senate voted on a procedural motion that would have brought the bill to the floor for a full debate and vote. For that to have happened, 60 votes were needed, but the motion failed by a vote of 56 against and 41 in favour. The struggle for Native Hawai’ian self–determination will, undoubtedly, continue: in 2017, there were reports that Native Hawai’ian activists had meet to discuss the development of a constitution as a legal and constitutional blueprint.
Land rights remains a pressing issue for Native Hawai’ians. In recent years, Native activists have been trying to stop the building of one of the world’s largest telescopes on top of Mauna Kea on Big Island. Mauna Kea is a sacred site for Native Hawai’ians. The mountain is also a crucial and fragile ecosystem, home to endangered plants and wildlife, such as the threatened palila, a bird that can only be found on its northwest slope within a narrow band of elevation. Despite vehement protests and after legal action to try to prevent the project from going ahead, in October 2018, the state supreme court upheld the construction permit for the Thirty Meter Telescope or TMT.
Updated June 2019
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law (Human Rights and Genocide Clinic)
Center for the Study of Urban Poverty, UCLA-Institute for Social Science Research
Human Rights Watch/Americas
World Federalist Movement – Institute for Global Policy
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights/Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education
Black Lives Matter
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies
Tel: +1 202 789 3500
The National Urban League
Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF)
Arab and other Middle Eastern Americans
American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
Arab American Institute
Arab Community Centre for Economic and Social Services
National Iranian American Council (NIAC)
Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
World Jewish Congress
National Council of La Raza (NCLR)
League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC)
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF)
No More Deaths
Native American Rights Fund
National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)
National Tribal Justice Resource Center
Grassroot Institute of Hawai’i
The Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN)
Alaska Native Knowledge Network
Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC)
Updated June 2019
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Sources and further reading
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