Ethnic Minorities

  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

An ethnic minority is a group of people who differ in race or color or in national, religious, or cultural origin from the dominant group—often the majority population—of the country in which they live. The different identity of an ethnic minority may be displayed in any number of ways, ranging from distinctive customs, lifestyles, language or accent, dress, and food preferences to particular attitudes, moral values, and economic or political beliefs espoused by members of the group.

Characteristically the minority is recognized, but it is not necessarily accepted by the larger society in which its members live. The nature of the relationship of the ethnic minority to the larger society will tend to determine whether the minority group will move in the direction of assimilation in the larger society or toward self-segregation. In some cases ethnic minorities have been simply excluded by the majority, a striking example being African Americans in the American South during the late-19th and 20th centuries.

Ethnicity and the Melting Pot
Different countries have different combinations of minorities within their borders. Some countries are relatively homogeneous, and the defining characteristics of nationality in their populations appear to apply to almost all members. In Japan, for example, the ethnic majority, as measured by the government, embraces some 99 percent of the population; Koreans, the only measurable minority, make up less than half a percent. As a result, the Japanese have had very little experience with accommodating other ethnic groups and have frequently been charged, whether fairly or not, with cultural elitism.

At the other extreme, in the United States, nationality is quite widely assumed to be hyphenated. Even the aboriginal population is identified as "native American" to distinguish it from Anglo-American, African American, and so on. The United States, accordingly, is perceived throughout the world as a successful experiment in ethnic mixing, the preeminent melting pot to many.

Another, strikingly successful example of a multiethnic country is Switzerland, where French-, German-, and Italian-speakers divided between Roman Catholic and Protestant adherents live and work in exceptional harmony and prosperity. Ethnic diversity in the Swiss case appears to have had a stimulating effect rather than a divisive one. Studies of structural conditions in Switzerland suggest that harmony may coexist with diversity where important characteristics are shared. There, at least, linguistic and sectarian differences have proved in recent centuries to be subordinate to the condition of being Swiss—and perhaps also European. Although not a melting pot, like the United States, Switzerland is a model of ethnic toleration.

Patterns of Settlement. Shifting political and religious lines, altered economic conditions, and natural disasters have created more immigrants than have the sum total of human wanderlust and fortune hunting. The first waves of settlement in colonial North America, for example, arose in many cases from religious persecutions in Great Britain and the continent of Europe. In the 17th century English Puritans and French Huguenots emigrated to the New World in search of toleration. They were followed by Scots-Irish peasants impoverished by the enclosure of common lands at the turn of the next century. Roman Catholics suffering from a variety of legal disabilities in 18th-century England and Scotland settled parts of Maryland, while Scandinavian farmers in the early-19th century sought an adequate growing season in the northern Middle West. A potato blight and consequent famine in the mid-19th century forced millions of rural Irish into involuntary exile in the urban slums of an industrializing United States.

At the same time that the Puritans were settling parts of New England the proprietors of royal land grants in the mid-Atlantic and southern colonies were underwriting the transportation of white European indentured servants to work their land. When these eventually earned their freedom, the planter aristocracy found a cheaper and more permanent substitute kidnapped and enslaved Africans sold as chattel whose children and later progeny likewise became personal property.

The demands of industrialization and a corresponding need for a large pool of cheap labor acted as a magnet attracting a flood of immigration from southern and eastern Europe, to replace the upwardly mobile Irish-Americans, at the turn of the 20th century. Railroad building in the American West pulled in a wave of Chinese coolie labor. Other groups arrived for a variety of reasons, but the main social characteristic of the American experiment, its multiethnic mix, never changed.

As new ethnic groups arrived earlier ones were absorbed into the predominantly white population of mostly European extraction. Usually this took place in a generation or two, in some cases longer. But multiethnicity was the rule and the melting pot—assimilation of ethnic minorities into the ever-changing majority—the ideal.

Minority Identity and Assimilation. An unfortunate secondary characteristic of ethnic minority status is that it is often accompanied by prejudice and discrimination. Ethnic minorities tend to be at a disadvantage in most situations, most often because they are stigmatized as different from the norm. Religion and, most significantly, skin color are more apt than almost anything else to provoke prejudice, and the resistance to assimilation encountered by persons of different skin color is pronounced and long-lasting.

In the United States the greatest hostility toward ethnic minorities repeatedly has come from those Americans most threatened by the newcomers. At times those threatened have included a majority of working men and women, and the government has usually responded by enacting harsh and restrictive immigration laws or quotas. Hence, immigration has tended to occur in waves—most pronounced in the mid-19th century and early- and late-20th century, when the demand for labor was most urgent and jobs most plentiful.

The rate of assimilation of these new arrivals has generally depended on several factors, some positive, some not. First and foremost, different skin color has tended to be exclusionary, although recent immigrants to the United States from India and Caribbean countries have enjoyed economic success and social acceptance of a kind only rarely experienced by the descendants of early America's slaves—a consequence, perhaps, of their having a homeland to refer to instead of a history of dependency and discrimination. In addition, older people are apt to be less assimilable than young, and men generally less so than women. Those arriving on the crest of demographic waves are more likely than other immigrants to encounter hostility and rejection. The farther away from their original cultures, the more easily, it appears, are émigrés able to adjust.

The most positive factor affecting change and acceptance is the degree of similarity, especially of language and religion, of the dominant and minority cultures. Moreover, if the immigrant group has economic resources or the means, including education, to obtain them, its acceptance will be correspondingly easier. This is especially so in the United States, where class is largely defined by economic success.

Government has an important interest in social cohesion, but it is almost impossible to force social change. Where the host society does not want to accept new arrivals, therefore, government is hamstrung. Such an impasse may produce an undesirable and unfair outcome in which a minority becomes acculturated but not assimilated. This is the classic situation requiring legal minority and civil rights laws to stave off ethnic conflict. Such a minority will inevitably seek ways to assure the equal protection of the laws, as American blacks have done in the civil rights struggles of the 20th century.

Recent Demographic Trends. The late 20th century has seen the end of empires and the emergence of a host of new nation-states. It also has witnessed corresponding ethnic upheavals, especially along religious lines: on the Indian subcontinent, where Hindus and Muslims split into separate countries ( India and Pakistan) along religious lines, with massive migrations and more than a million dead; in sub-Saharan Africa, where tribal and religious ties triggered bloody conflicts in the aftermath of new nationhood (Rwanda is a recent example); and in Russia and Yugoslavia, where ethnic minorities have sought autonomy or outright independence and in some cases have been the victims of "ethnic cleansing."

Demographic upheavals in the Western Hemisphere followed grants of independence to former European colonies in the Caribbean after World War II. At the same time, a technological revolution in agriculture throughout the hemisphere, aided and abetted by the predilection of U.S. employers to employ cheap illegal aliens, forced millions of farmworkers off the land and into cities ill prepared to take care of them. Pervasive telecommunications systems and a perception of growing income disparities worldwide accelerated both internal and international migrations in ensuing decades. Many of the new arrivals on U.S. shores were Asians and skilled Latin Americans, who were inevitably charged with taking jobs from native-born Americans.

In recent years new patterns of settlement have appeared as immigrant groups have sought solidarity, and sometimes exclusivity, in their struggle to attain political influence and economic security. Thus many Cuban-Americans are settled in the state of Florida, where they are changing the character of the state. Mexican Americans have settled mostly in the U.S. Southwest, to which they have lent a distinct regional flavor, and Latin-American migrant labor has tended to put down roots along its traditional picking routes in the Midwest and West.

The American Mosaic
The period since World War II in the United States has seen not only a steady increase in the numbers of immigrants but also a marked change in their composition. Until 1959, Europeans made up 60 percent of U.S. immigrants. By 1990 their proportion had dwindled to less than 10 percent each year. By then, Asia and the Western Hemisphere each contributed more than 40 percent.

Minority Education. In line with its more multicultural population and in consequence of a decades-long, perhaps reactive trend of older ethnic groups and African Americans to emphasize their overseas origins through "ethnic pride," the United States in the 1960s and thereafter gradually deemphasized its traditional stress on acculturation and assimilation of ethnic minorities and took up the idea of multiculturalism. In its more traditional rendition, the concept of cultural pluralism connotes simply "unity within diversity," while its more radical rendition encourages ethnic minorities to avoid absorption into the dominant culture by insisting on their uniqueness and separateness.

Initially, this conceptual shift spurred an undertaking in the public schools to respect ethnic diversity by providing bilingual education to immigrant children, as required by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At first noncontroversial, bilingualism became a touchstone of controversy as urban school districts, in many cases ordered by the courts, sought to instruct their diverse ethnic populations in many different languages.

At the same time, some public colleges and universities enacted open enrollment policies that assured college acceptance to all high school graduates applying. New curricula on ethnic studies were introduced. These increasingly competed with the canon of traditional, Eurocentric curricula and accordingly were charged with having depreciated standards of scholarship. Private institutions, under similar pressures from minority groups, also modified curricula and experienced the same array of approval and criticism.

Multiculturalism and National Identity. By the 1990s, opinion on ethnicity, although still deeply divided, was moving back toward the idea of the melting pot, of acculturation and assimilation, although still within the frame of multiculturalism. Bilingual education and ethnic-studies college majors, in particular, came under increasing attack.

While many of the recent immigrants tended to be brown-skinned or darker, they did not appear to be following patterns of acculturation different from those of earlier immigrant groups. Moreover, the success of these newcomers helped to soften the severity of the color line, the most intractably prejudicial aspect of U.S. society.

While extreme economic and social inequalities continued to divide Americans not only in the United States but throughout North America, the divisions, as in the past, appeared to reflect class more than ethnicity.

Bibliography: Bogue, D. J., et al., The Population of the United States, 3d ed. (1997); Brown, Michael E., et al., eds., Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict: An International Reader (1997); Glazer, Nathan, We Are All Multiculturalists Now (1997); Glazer, Nathan, and Moynihan, D. P., Beyond the Melting Pot, 2d ed. (1970) and , as eds. Ethnicity (1975); Guibernau, Montserrat, and Rex, John, eds., The Ethnicity Reader: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Migration (1997); Guidieri, Remo, et al., eds., Ethnicities and Nations (1988); Horowitz, Donald L., Ethnic Groups in Conflict (1985; repr. 1987); Hutchinson, John, and Smith, Anthony D., eds., Ethnicity (1996); Levinson, David, Ethnic Groups Worldwide: A Ready Reference Handbook (1998); Lieberson, Stanley, and Waters, M. C., From Many Strands: Ethnic and Racial Groups in Contemporary America (1988); McAll, Christopher, Class, Ethnicity, and Social Inequality (1992); Moynihan, Daniel P., Pandaemonium: Ethnicity in International Politics (1993); Musgrave, Thomas D., Self-Determination and National Minorities (1997); Nash, Manning, The Cauldron of Ethnicity in the Modern World (1989); Naylor, L. L., Cultural Diversity in the United States (1997); Rhea, Joseph Tilden, Race Pride and the American Identity (1997); Sowell, Thomas, Ethnic America: A History (1983) and Race and Culture: A World View (1995); Thernstrom, Stephan A., et al., eds., The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups (1980).

  • Subjects:
    Culture and Diversity, Immigration, Tolerance and Acceptance, Prejudice and Tolerance Experiences
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