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Minority groups in the United States

Minorities in other parts of the world

The functioning of minorities in society

Research on minorities


Contemporary sociologists generally define a minority as a group of people—differentiated from others in the same society by race, nationality, religion, or language—who both think of themselves as a differentiated group and are thought of by the others as a differentiated group with negative connotations. Further, they are relatively lacking in power and hence are subjected to certain exclusions, discriminations, and other differential treatment. The important elements in this definition are a set of attitudes—those of group identification from within the group and those of prejudice from without—and a set of behaviors—those of self-segregation from within the group and those of discrimination and exclusion from without.

Among those who do not study minority groups, the common tendency is to take the word “minority” literally and simply to say that a minority is a small group of people who live in the midst of a larger group. At least two defects make this simple definition useless. First, groups are not “naturally” or “inevitably” differentiated: cultures (either of the minority or the majority, or—usually—both) must define them as differentiated before they are so. People of different races, nationalities, religions, or languages can live among one another for generations, amalgamating and assimilating or not doing so, without differentiating themselves. Like everything else that is social, minority groups must be socially defined as minority groups, which entails a set of attitudes and behaviors. Second, relative numbers in and out of the group have not been found to be definitionally important. Sociologically speaking, it makes no sense to say that Negroes are not a minority group in those few counties of Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina where they constitute a numerical majority of the population, but that they are a minority group in the rest of the South. Likewise, even though the Bantus constitute around 80 per cent of the population of South Africa, sociologists have defined them as a minority group because they occupy a subordinate position. Many nations have no single “majority group” in terms of numbers. Thus it is necessary either to counterpose a “minority” to a “dominant” group, in terms of power, or to abandon the term “minority” altogether and call it a “subordinate” group.

Origins of national minorities. The origin of the term “national minorities” can be traced to Europe, where it was applied to various national groups who were identified with particular territories by virtue of long residence in them but who had lost their sovereignty over these territories to some more numerous people of a different nationality. In some cases the minority groups ceased altogether to occupy their original territories and were dispersed throughout the nation of which they were now subjects. More often they stayed in the same place but in a subordinate position, since the dominant political and economic institutions were now run mainly for the benefit of the larger national group. The latter usually enacted laws to regulate the political existence of the minorities; for instance, they might have to send their own community leaders to the national assembly instead of being able to vote individually for candidates in a national election. Even the areas in which they could live or the occupations they could pursue might be determined by law; at the least, the dominant nationality regarded them with suspicion, as the Czechs were regarded under the Austro–Hungarian Empire.

Changing social definitions. A minority need not be a traditional group with a long-standing group identification. It can arise as a result of changing social definitions in a process of economic or political differentiation. The increasing saliency of a certain occupation, for example, can set apart the people who practice that occupation, if occupations are more or less hereditary in the society, and cause them to be considered a minority group. Language or religious variations in a society can be considered unimportant for thousands of years, but a series of political events can so sharpen the religious or linguistic distinctions that the followers of one variation who happen to be without much power in the society are thereafter considered a minority.

These processes can be illustrated by developments in India. The Marwaris, allegedly originating in Rajasthan, were until the late eighteenth century merely another occupational caste among the thousands of castes that make up India. They were moneylenders and small merchants, who were of no greater importance in the social structure than any other occupational caste until the rise of capitalism gave a great new importance to their economic functions. The new economic salience of the hereditary occupation created a salience for the people who practiced the occupation and made them into a despised, feared, and envied minority. The process was aided by the increased geographic dispersion of the group caused by a broader demand for their occupational services.

Language differentiation based on geographic dispersal has been going on in India since time immemorial within two great language stocks, the Dravidian of southern India and the Indo-Aryan of northern India. The differentiation of Dravidian into Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Kannada and several dozen lesser languages was not marked by definite historical events any more than was the differentiation of Latin into Italian, French, Spanish, and Rumanian. The modern development of political boundaries, which occurred at first under the British for administrative convenience and, after 1948, under the independent government of India, made language a salient basis of differentiation because the political boundaries were drawn as closely as possible to language boundary lines. Thus, it has been largely within the past few decades that language has become one of the most distinctive marks of a minority in India, and the basis of considerable group conflict.

Minority groups in the United States

In the United States, the term “minority groups” can be applied only in an extended sense. All citizens of the United States belong legally to a single American nationality; there are no laws that regulate the political status of any group of citizens according to their or their ancestors’ national origin. Moreover, there is no single nationality group in the United States that either forms a numerical majority or enjoys a de facto political dominance; this state of affairs has existed at least since 1830.

This is not to say, however, that discrimination and prejudice are unknown in the United States, but that, since there is no one “majority group” with a special claim to American nationality, the handicaps faced by American “minority groups” cannot be explained in terms of their national origin as such. The crucial factor would appear to be the degree to which any group has been allowed to become assimilated into the mainstream of American life and to enjoy the same opportunities as the majority of Americans. Most immigrant nationality groups suffered some discrimination during their early years in the country but were later assimilated. Those groups that were not allowed to assimilate—notably, the Negroes—have continued to be objects of prejudice for most of their fellow citizens, and in this sense they constitute “minorities,” even though the number of Negroes far exceeds that of many a group that does, indeed, have a common national origin outside the United States but now thinks of itself as “American.”

This does not mean that members of assimilating groups in the majority completely lose all their memories of ancestry; they may pass along to successive generations selected aspects of traditional culture—often of a ceremonial nature—and at the very least they pass along knowledge of the name of the ancestral homeland. [SeeAssimilation.]

Racial minorities. Racial groups are distinguished from each other by their possession of certain physical features inherited as the result of endogamy over a long period. Few races, however, are biologically pure, nor do most people use strictly biological criteria in deciding that a person belongs to one racial group rather than another. Thus, in the United States, a Negro is defined as someone of whom it is known that at least one of his ancestors was a Negro; the definition will hold even if, to all appearances, the individual is a “white.” Moreover, although the principal racial minorities of the United States—the American Indians, the Chinese, the Filipinos, the Negroes, and the Japanese—all have members with some Caucasoid ancestry, they are still regarded as “nonwhite.” The dominant white majority generally chooses to over-look the fact that they, too, are not “pure,” since many whom they accept as white have some Negroid or Mongoloid ancestry.

Nationality groups. The principal nationality groups in the United States came originally from Europe and, in spite of some admixture from other races, can plausibly regard themselves as having a common racial ancestry. It is not race, therefore, but culture—and the history of each culture—that provides the most salient distinctions between them. Immigrants of the second and third generations generally adopt English as their major or only language and assimilate their values and manners—at least in the more socially visible aspects of their behavior—to those of the majority. There are thus no permanent physical reminders of their ancestors’ minority status, and they are not usually regarded as belonging to a minority group.

The major exceptions to this are those groups—such as the Scandinavians of Wisconsin and Minnesota—that have remained in isolated rural areas, having little contact with the dominant American culture and therefore being under no pressure to assimilate themselves. Their status as national minorities is not the result of discrimination and prejudice on the part of the majority but of deliberate choice or sheer lack of opportunity. It cannot be said, however, that they surfer from their minority status, since they enjoy the full privileges of American citizenship and are not compelled to maintain their traditional way of life or to inhabit any particular territory.

Finally, a new type of nationality minority is being created by immigration of victims of political persecution; the best example is the Cubans, con centrated mainly in south Florida and New York City, who plan to return to their home country after an expected future political revolution there.

Language minorities. Some groups in the United States speak a language other than English, although they are not recent immigrants; indeed, they have continued to speak their own language over many generations. They are therefore best designated as “language minorities” although they tend to have other distinctive cultural traits, it is principally their language that sets them apart from the majority of the population.

The outstanding example of such a minority is the Spanish-speaking people who live in the sparsely populated rural areas of New Mexico and southern Colorado. Their position is similar to that of some European national minorities, since most of their ancestors were originally Mexican citizens whose territories were incorporated into the United States after the Mexican War of 1846–1848. They have been able to maintain a distinctive way of life because they are both isolated and poor; this same isolation tends to protect them from the discriminatory attitudes of the dominant, English-speaking population, who have not, on the whole, found it necessary to impose any legal or political disabilities upon them.

Religious minorities. Discrimination on grounds of religion, although expressly forbidden by the constitution, has long been practiced in the United States with varying severity against a large number of groups. Chief among these groups are the Jews, the Muslims, Christians of the Eastern Orthodox church, and various Protestant and Orthodox sects. Roman Catholics, too, although their total number in the United States, according to some estimates, was more than forty million in 1960, share some of the disadvantages of minority-group status, though to a decreasing extent. One special feature of membership in a religious minority is that it can be acquired voluntarily, regardless of racial or national origin, though most members, of course, are following the religion of their parents.

The position of the Jews is unlike that of other religious minorities because there are more Jews than there are active believers in the Jewish religion. Indeed, it is likely that in the United States believers and nonbelievers are about equal in number, although most of the latter would undoubtedly regard themselves as Jews nonetheless. This raises the question of whether there is any single objective basis for classifying them as Jews. One criterion can be ruled out completely: there is no such thing as a Jewish race, as should be obvious from the endless variety of racial, national, and linguistic characteristics to be found among Jews. It therefore seems best to describe them, for summary purposes, as recent descendants of persons known to have followed the Jewish faith.

Minorities in other parts of the world

Outside the United States, racial minorities are found predominantly where race is considered important in the culture. This is mainly in Africa, where whites, Negroes, and immigrants from India variously consider themselves or each other as minorities. The Ainus are a racial minority in Japan, but the other group that is subjected to discrimination in that country—the eta—are to be considered a caste minority (some authors would prefer not to call castes “minorities” when they are of the same race, religion, nationality, and language as the majority group). To some extent, native Indians are considered minorities in parts of South America. But in a country like India, where race is not considered important, racial differences are not the basis for the formation of minority groups (religion and language are).

Nationality differences continue to provide the source of minorities throughout Europe (including the Soviet Union, which extends into Asia). Some of these are in the process of disappearing as distinctive minorities because of assimilation, such as the Scots, Irish, and Welsh in the British Isles. Some are of very ancient origin, and their minority status has not changed appreciably in centuries, such as the Basques in Spain and the Greeks in Turkey, who also use a language different from that of the majority in their respective countries. Other minorities are being newly created by virtue of recent migrations for economic reasons, such as the Italian minority in Sweden. Sometimes political refugees form a new nationality minority, such as the Poles in Great Britain and the Baits in Sweden. Some retain their status as minorities through language differences or through international conflict, such as the German-speaking, Austrian-backed Tyrolese in the Italian province of Alto Adige. Mainly outside Europe, some nationality minorities seems to maintain their distinction through politcal differences with the majority, such as the Karens of Burma.

Language is often closely associated with nationality, as we have seen. But there are some linguistic minorities which seem to owe their origin to differences of social class rather than of nationality; notable examples are the Swedish-speaking Finns and the German-speaking people of eastern Europe. Perhaps the contemporary nation with the most salient language minorities is India. When the states of India were divided mainly along linguistic boundaries, only the 14 languages spoken by the largest numbers of people could be assigned a state. As the states quickly assumed political importance and language became socially identified as the main basis for their differentiation, those who spoke languages other than the dominant one of their state became minorities. Such minorities included people who spoke one of the hundreds of “little” languages of India, for whom there was no state at all, including most of the “scheduled tribes,” as the British administrators called the small “primitive” groups living outside the mainstream of Indian life. They also included those who spoke one of the major languages but were not residing in the state where their language was dominant. As language became a national issue in independent India, the language minorities usually became the objects of prejudice and discrimination.

Religious differences are still a prime source of minorities, although in Europe perhaps not as much as in past centuries. Perhaps the most destructive conflict of the post-World War II period has been the one between Muslims and Hindus in India, and a most bitter—though small-scale—conflict has been that between the Muslims and Jews in Palestine. Protestant minorities have been subject to a good deal of discrimination in Catholic Spain and parts of South America. Catholics feel themselves to be a minority in several countries where Protestants form a majority, although the prejudice or discrimination directed at them is not very strong, as it once was. The Jews, who have been the most persecuted minority in modern times, are still the subject of considerable prejudice and discrimination in several countries of Europe, particularly in the Soviet bloc. Religious minorities also include the Christians in Muslim countries, pagans and atheists in Christian countries, the Hutterites and Doukhobors in Canada, the minor religious groups of the Indian subcontinent, and several others.

The functioning of minorities in society

A minority’s position involves exclusion or assignment to a lower status in one or more of four areas of life: the economic, the political, the legal, and the social-associational. That is, a minority will be assigned to lower-ranking occupations or to lower-compensated positions within each occupation; it will be prevented from exercising the full political privileges held by majority citizens; it will not be given equal status with the majority in the application of law or justice; or it will be partially or completely excluded from both the formal and the informal associations found among the majority. Not infrequently, the minority also voluntarily excludes itself partially or completely from participation in these areas of life, partly as a means of maintaining traditional cultural differences. Accompanying the objective subordination and segregation of the minorities are usually to be found some subjective attitudes of mutual hostility, although these may sometimes be publicly denied and camouflaged. Majority-minority relations invariably involve some conflict, although this may take varied forms and operate on different levels.

There seem to be three types of attitudes of hostility or prejudice with which the dominant group regards the minority and with which the minority may attempt to counter the dominant group. The complex etiologies of each of these, which differ somewhat from society to society, cannot be analyzed here. The first is an attitude in which power is the main element: the dominant group wishes to exploit the minority for economic, political, or sexual purposes, or for prestige, and the minority group seeks to escape their exploitation. While the achievement of ascendancy in terms of one or more of these scarce values may be brutal (including enslavement of the minority), it is seldom personal, nor does it, except accidentally, result in the death of a minority person. The second attitude is ideological: the dominant group believes that it has a monopoly on the “truth” (as may the minority group also). The achievement of ascendancy by one ideological group over the other results in drastic efforts to convert the minority to the dominant group’s version of the “truth” failing that, it banishes the minority by exile or death. The third attitude is racist: the dominant group believes itself to be biologically superior to the minority group, and it stereotypes the minority in terms of negatively valued characteristics. (The minority may have the same attitude toward the dominant group, but since it lacks power, this has few or no behavioral consequences.)

Different social systems of conflict accompany these three different attitudes of hostility. For example, the caste system is generally associated only with the racist attitude; this system prohibits mobility across group lines and equal-status relationships and requires endogamy, systematized displays of inferiority by the minority, and occupational division of labor. Racism also has a pathological form which insists on the physical extermination of the minority race because it is alleged to threaten the “purity” of the dominant race. Where power seems to be the main ingredient in the conflict between dominant and minority groups, there is one form or another of exploitation: for example, there may be slavery, piracy, tribute, suzerainty over the minority’s political or military institutions, differential remuneration for work, or seizure of the minority group’s women for sexual purposes. Where the ideological element seems to be the main factor in the hostility of the dominant group toward the minority, the majority group generally offers the minority the alternatives of conversion or extermination. Ideological conflict is at once the most brutal and the most generous toward the minority, depending on whether or not the minority will accede completely to the beliefs of the dominant group.

In the contemporary world, the religious minorities of India and Palestine offer examples of ideological conflict, as do the political minorities of some communist countries. Power conflict is most evident in dominant—minority relations in northern and central Africa and in South America. Racism is today most frequent in South Africa and in the United States, although it is apparently still strong in Germany and in eastern Europe.

Role of minorities in social change. From the preceding discussion, it will readily be understood that the different roles of minorities in the society will affect their impact on general social change. In general, the existence of minorities in a society offers a constant stimulus and a constant irritant that for several reasons provoke social change. Minorities are often carriers of a culture different from that of the dominant group, and the contact and clash of cultures have long been hypothesized as sources of social change. Even when minorities carry no traditional alien culture, their partial exclusion from the general society serves as a basis for the development of some deviant culture.

In addition, apart from their cultural differences, minorities are sources of social dissatisfaction and social unrest, which are conditions for social change. As conflict groups, minorities tend to upset the status quo: they require the dominant to readjust to them regularly, and sometimes they are able to make coalitions with other minorities within the society or with outside societies in order to change the balance of power. Minorities will often join reform or revolutionary factions or parties among the dominant group, since often the best chance for improving their lot within the existing society is offered by a turnover of elites. Some minorities probably include a disproportionate number of inventive and otherwise creative individuals, because their alienation from the society in which they are forced to live without full participation gives such individuals a perspective that is not possible for the more fully integrated; the “marginal man” between two subsocieties has been identified by some sociologists as one type of “creative man” (Stonequist 1937). If necessity be the mother of invention (which it probably usually is not), minority members are more often beset by necessity than are dominant group members. At least in the limited area of seeking expedients to improve their unhappy lot, minority members are influenced by this creative aspect of necessity.

These general sources of social changes created by the existence of a minority in a society are probably best seen in that situation where power considerations by the dominant group maintain the existence of the minority. Where power and material exploitation are not involved, the dominant group is often either generous or unconcerned about letting the minority group go its own way, and that may often create the stimuli for social change. For example, while the powerful dominant group in the society is bent on accumulating wealth or retaining political ascendancy, the weak minority group can concentrate on acquiring knowledge and wisdom, which in the long run become stimulants of social change. The ideational tolerance often practiced by power-controlling groups some-times results in their own destruction; for example, the historian Edward Gibbon held this to be true about the relations between Romans and Christians in the later stages of the Roman Empire.

On the other hand, where ideological or racist considerations maintain the existence of a minority in a society, there is less freedom for it to create conditions that are conducive to social change. Ideational deviation—cultural or individual—is not tolerated where it becomes open and obvious, and racists must constantly prove the incapacity of the minority group by squelching all evidence of creativity whenever it threatens to appear among minority members. Where the dominant group is either racist or believes it holds a monopoly on truth, it is likely to regulate closely the education, cultural expression, and other innovative tendencies of the minority group, thus severely inhibiting the minority as a source of social change. Yet, under these circumstances, the minority group becomes schooled in subtlety and ingeniousness and may stimulate change where it is least expected: the songs, humor, and folk tales of the Negro slaves in the nineteenth-century American South can be seen in retrospect to have had a leavening effect on the white society, and the Jews in medieval Europe—repressed as they were—invented a merchant capitalism which eventually was accepted by the whole society (Sombart 1911).

It should not be assumed that the existence of a minority in a society operates solely to create social change. Dominant–minority relations often inhibit change. They tend to make the dominant group rigid in maintaining the status quo. The existence of an exploited or repressed minority makes even the most powerful dominant group fearful, and fear can discourage all forms of social change. Dominant–minority relations are usually wasteful and inefficient—they waste the time and energy of the dominant group in maintaining the repression, and they prevent the minority group from producing at its maximum potential—and this waste of material and intellectual resources restricts creative social change.

Research on minorities

Research on minorities can be considered as having taken place within two frameworks. One is the framework of the ethnologist, who is concerned with describing the culture of a specific society where the society is the minority group. Whereas the usual ethnological study is of a geographically separated society, the ethnological study of a minority group has to consider its subject group living in physical proximity to one or more other groups. The institutions, the customs, and the daily life of the minority groups are considered under this approach. The second framework is that of the sociologist, who concentrates on the relationship between minority and majority groups, not on the distinctive cultural characteristics of either group, except insofar as they are pertinent to understanding the relationship. The relationship between majority and minority is analyzed in terms of general processes, such as conflict, accommodation, and assimilation. A variation on this approach has been one which treats minority–majority relations as social problems, with special emphasis on aspects (e.g., Brown & Roucek 1937), causes (e.g., Hughes & Hughes 1952), and results of discrimination and prejudice (e.g., Myrdal 1944).

There are other variations in the literature. J. H. Franklin (1947) has analyzed the American Negro problem as a historian, M. R. Konvitz (1946) has examined the position of the alien under American law, and Gordon Allport (1954) has analyzed majority–minority relations in terms of the psychological concept of prejudice. Yet these authors also treat their subject matter as social problems. Practically all monographic studies are limited to a single majority–minority group situation, as is Ruth Glass’s study of the West Indians in London (1960). However, other empirical studies attempt to draw together the findings of a number of monographs: for example, A. H. Richmond’s work The Colour Problem (1955) or Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris’ more ethnologic Minorities in the New World (1958).

The largest number of empirical studies, usually published as articles in the professional social science journals, are highly specialized studies of the history, demography, economic status, political and legal rights, educational attainments, or other achievements of specific minorities. In addition, there are studies of prejudice, group identification, social change, or other such broad concepts, which are, however, usually based on very narrow and limited samples of the population.

Much of the literature soon becomes irrelevant, partly because it is limited to description and partly because of the value orientations guiding the research; these orientations are seldom made explicit and thus cannot be readily taken into account by the reader. There is a need for research using analytic concepts, thus permitting nomothetic rather than purely empirical generalizations. There is also a need for research that considers the dynamics of social change affecting and affected by minorities and majority–minority relations. The rapid changes in intergroup relations in contemporary life, occurring under a great diversity of cultural conditions, permit unrivaled opportunities for sociologists wishing to study the dynamic principles involved in all social change.

Arnold M. Rose

[See alsoAnti-Semitism; Assimilation; Constitutional law, article oncivil rights; Ethnic Groups; Prejudice; Race; Race Relations; Sects and cults.]


Allport, Gordon W. 1954 The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. → An abridged paperback edition was published in 1958 by Doubleday.

Brown, Francis J.; and Roucek, Joseph S. (editors) (1937) 1952 One America: The History, Contributions and Present Problems of Our Racial and National Minorities. 3d ed. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Burma, John H. 1954 Spanish-speaking Groups in the United States. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press.

Clark, Kenneth B. 1965 Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power. New York: Harper.

Claude, Inis L. 1955 National Minorities: An International Problem. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Conference ON Race Relations IN World Perspective, Honolulu, 1954 1955 Race Relations in World Perspective. Edited by Andrew W. Lind. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press.

Drake, ST. Clair; and Cayton, Horace R. (1945) 1962 Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City. 2 vols., rev. & enl. New York: Harcourt.

Finkelstein, Louis (editor) (1949) 1960 The Jews: Their History, Culture and Religion. 3d ed., 2 vols. New York: Harper.

Franklin, John H. (1947) 1956 From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes. 2d ed., rev. … enl. New York: Knopf.

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Glass, Ruth (1960) 1961 London’s Newcomers: The West Indian Migrants. Center for Urban Studies, University College, London, Report No. 1. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → First published as Newcomers: The West Indians in London. Chapters 2 and 3 analyze geographical distribution and discrimination in housing.

Hughes, Everett C.; and Hughes, Helen M. 1952 Where Peoples Meet: Racial and Ethnic Frontiers. Glencoe, III.: Free Press.

Kane, John J. 1955 Catholic–Protestant Conflicts in America. Chicago: Regnery.

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The term minority and how it is used and defined has changed over time. Typically, social scientists use the term to define a groups social, political, and economic power in a society. Historically, in society, the term has also been used to focus on physical traits such as phenotype in African Americans and other people of color (Parrillo 2006).

According to Joe Feagin and Clairece Booher Feagin, Louis Wirth defined minorities as a group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination (Feagin and Feagin 2003, pp. 1011). Vincent N. Parrillo explains that not everyone agrees with Wirths definition:

Richard Schermerhorn, for example, notes that this victimlogical approach does not adequately explain the similarities and differences among groups or analyze relationships between majority and minority groups. A third attempt to define minority groups rests on examining relationships between groups in terms of each groups position in the social hierarchy. This approach stresses a groups social power, which may vary from one country to another, as, for example, does that of the Jews in Russia and in Israel. The emphasis on stratification instead of population size explains situations in which a relatively small group subjugates a larger number of people (e.g., the European colonization of African and Asian populations). Schermerhorn adopts a variation on this viewpoint. He also viewed social power as an important variable in determining a groups position in the hierarchy, but he believes that other factors are equally important. Size (a minority group must be less than half the population), ethnicity (as defined by Wirths physical and cultural traits), and group consciousness also help to define a minority group. (Parrillo 2006, pp. 1516)

Social scientists hold a variety of views about what it means to be a minority. The anthropologists Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris listed five defining characteristics shared by minority groups throughout the world (Parillo 2006, p. 16):

minority groups receive unequal treatment;

they are easily identifiable because of physical or cultural characteristics, as in, for example, the phenotype of African Americans and other minorities of color;

they tend to share a sense of peoplehoodthat each of them shares something in common with other members;

membership in the minority group has an ascribed status; a person who is considered a member of a particular minority group is born into it; and

they have a tendency to marry within their own minority group, either by choice or by necessity, because of the social isolation that they experience in their lives.

The term minority often is used to describe people who have less power, are oppressed, or are a subordinate segment within a political unit (Myers 2007, p. 42). A person can be classified as a minority based on his or her religious affiliation, age, disabilities, sexual orientation, or gender. And a person can belong to both a minority group and the majority group. For example, An American Roman Catholic who is white belongs to a prominent religious minority group but also is a member of the racially dominant group (Parrillo 2006, p. 17). Women are considered a minority group based on their gender and because they have been oppressed and controlled (Myers 2007), and women of color are often considered a minority within a minority. One can be born a member of a majority group and later become a member of a minority group (e.g., the elderly). People can be born with disabilities such as polio, blindness, and missing limbs, or disabilities can occur over the course of a persons life (Parrillo 2006).

Contemporary scholars hold that it is not accurate to classify a group as a minority based on the numerical representation of that group. Scholars today consider it more accurate to use the term dominant group for the majority group and the term subordinate group for a minority group. This usage is appropriate because a majority group in this sense can be numerically a minority.... [I]f current trends continue, the white majority, in population terms, is likely to become a statistical minority in the United States by the middle of the twenty-first century (Feagin and Feagin 2003, p. 11). But whites will still constitute the majority based on their economic and political power.


The struggle for equal rights has been an ongoing challenge for minority groups, which historically have been discriminated against in the United States. They have also been subject to stereotypes that are psychologically harmful and deny a people their humanity. Along with racial discrimination, the belief in stereotypes can affect the physical, economic, and life chances of minority groups (Feagin and Feagin 2003). Negative stereotypes and images of African Americans and other Americans of color are constantly used, refurbished, played with, amended, and passed along in millions of white kinship and friendship networks, from one community to the next and one generation to the next (Feagin 2006, p. 44). These racial stereotypes and prejudices are useful for whites in explaining why certain people of color do not have as much or do as well as whites across multiple areas of the society (Feagin and Vera 2001, p. 8). The stereotypes applied to different minority groups are remarkably similar. African Americans are depicted as lazy, violent, criminal, untrustworthy, and unintelligent. Latinos have been viewed as inferior, criminal, and uninterested in education or their families (Suarez-Orozco and Paez 2002). In contrast, Asian Americans have been stereotyped as the model minority, a term created by whites as an example of what other minorities groups should becomehardworking, intelligent, and docile (Feagin and Feagin 2003). Some might view this stereotype as positive, but others contend that the model minority myth hurts Asian Americans (Wu 2002, p. 67). It is a stereotype that pits other minorities and Asian Americans against each other, implying to African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans that they too can have the American dream if they model themselves after Asian Americans. Native Americans have struggled for years with the stereotypes and racist images that portray them as savages; currently they are fighting the use of racist Native American images that are used for sports mascots. Since the attacks of September 11th, 2001, Arab Americans have been battling stereotypes that depict them as terrorists, treacherous, and cruel (Feagin and Feagin 2003).

Minority groups, specifically African Americans, have been instrumental in fighting for the equal rights of all citizens in the United States. In the 1960s the Voting Rights Act and the civil rights movement led the way for minority groups of all ethnicities to receive equal rights in the United States. The success of the movement prompted other movements, such as the womens rights movement and, more recently, a movement to secure rights for undocumented immigrants in the United States.


The political voice of minority groups has changed over time. In the U.S. Senate in 2007 there was one African American, Barack Obama from Illinois; two Asian Americans, Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel K. Akaka, both from Hawaii; three Hispanic Americans, Ken L. Salazar from Colorado, Melquiades R. Martinez from Florida, and Robert Menendez from New Jersey; and no Native Americans (though Ben Nighthorse Campbell from Colorado served in the Senate from 1993 to 2005). In 2007 sixteen Senate seats were held by women.

In the United States, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans are all considered minorities in society, based on their economic and political standing. Presently, these minority groups are still underrepresented in politics. However, in South Africa, black South Africans are the statistical majority but white South Africans, the statistical minority, control a majority of the land and much of the economic power. Some scholars would say that black South Africans are the minority group because they are the subordinate group. Furthermore, white South Africans are the majority group in this sense, even though they are numerically the minority, because they are the dominant group and control all of the economic power.


According to Marcelo Suarez-Orozco and Mariela Paez, in a widely cited report, scientists at the U.S. Bureau of the Census concluded that by the year 2050, some 50 percent of the U.S. population would be members of ethnic minorities (2002, p. 1). According to Dale Maharidge, By 2050 Hispanics will make up about 21 percent of the American population, blacks 15 percent, and Asians and Pacific Islanders 10 percent (Maharidge 1996, p. 13). According to a May 2007 U.S. Census Bureau press release, the minority population in the United States surpassed the 100 million mark in 2006. The report noted, Hispanic remained the largest minority group, with 44.3 million on July 1, 200614.8 percent of the total population. [African-American] was the second-largest minority group, totaling 40.2 million. They were followed by Asian (14.9 million), American Indian and Alaska Native (4.5 million), and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander (1 million).... [N]on-Hispanic whites who indicated no other race totaled 198.7 million in 2006. The U.S. census report also indicated that the District of Columbia, California, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Texas are majority-minority. However, unless minorities gain additional political and economic power, they will remain minorities.

The report stated that the minority population is growing, but will this pattern continue as younger generations of Hispanic groups self-identify as white and racial boundaries shift? According to Jonathan W. Warren and France Winddance Twine, In the 1990 census, more than half of the Hispanic population racially self-identified as white and in 1992 that about 95 percent of Latinos self-identified as white (Warren and Twine 1997, p. 213). According to Clara E. Rodriguez, what Latinos say they are in standard U.S. racial terms is not necessarily what they are perceived to be by others (Rodriguez 2000, p. 136). Ethnic minorities self-identify as white based on their age, education, socioeconomic status, citizenship, length of time in the U.S., and language (Rodriguez 2000). As immigrants self-identify as white, the white population will grow and they will most likely remain the dominant majority numerically, economically, and politically.

SEE ALSO Affirmative Action; Ethnicity; Ethnocentrism; Intergroup Relations; Jingoism; Majorities; Model Minority; ationalism and Nationality; Other, The; Racism; Subaltern; Whiteness


Feagin, Joe R. 2006. Systemic Racism: A Theory of Oppression. New York: Routledge.

Feagin, Joe R., and Clairece Booher Feagin. 2003. Racial and Ethnic Relations. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Feagin, Joe R., and Hernan Vera. 2001. White Racism. New York: Routledge.

Maharidge, Dale. 1996. The Coming White Minority. New York: Vintage.

Myers, John P. 2007. Dominant-Minority Relations in America: Convergence in the New World. New York: Pearson Education.

Parrillo, Vincent N. 2006. Strangers to These Shores: Race and Ethnic Relations in the United States. New York: Pearson Education.

Rodriguez, Clara E. 2000. Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity in the United States. New York: New York University Press.

Suarez-Orozco, Marcelo M., and Mariela M. Paez. 2002.Latinos: Remaking America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

United States Census Bureau. 2007. Minority Population Tops 100 Million.

United States Senate. Minorities in the Senate.

Warren, Jonathan W., and France Winddance Twine. 1997. White Americans, the New Minority? Non-Blacks and the Ever-Expanding Boundaries of Whiteness. Journal of Black Studies 28 (2): 200218.

Wu, Frank H. 2002. Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White. New York: Basic Books.

Ruth Thompson-Miller

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Subdominant or subordinate groups.

The term minorities is misleading and inappropriate when discussing subdominant or subordinate groups in Middle Eastern history and society. It is a term rooted in the naive assumption of Western social scientists that minor demographic groups can wield only minor political and economic power. In the states of the Middle East, demographic minorities have exercised considerableeven dominantpolitical and economic power. In the past, an ethnically distinctive minority, Muslims from the Caucasus, ruled the Arabic-speaking majority for centuries (the Mamluk dynasty of Syria [12501516] and Egypt [12501517]). During the twentieth century, in Iraq and Lebanon, the only two Arab states where Sunni Muslim Arabs are a minority, the traditional dominance of Sunni Islam has given its adherents disproportionatein Iraq, dominantpower. The internal disorders that have torn these polities apart are due in no small part to the contradiction between the majoritarian democratic principles to which all pay lip service and the very different realpolitik.

Furthermore, the basesreligious, ethnic, or linguisticby which one defines such groups are inconsistent over time and place. In addition, the very existence of such groups and the markers that define them have become a controversial political and intellectual issue. A given group might be considered part of the majority by one criterion in one century; in the next, by very different criteria, it might be considered ormore significantlymight consider itself an oppressed minority. The process also may be reversed so that an oppressed minority may attempt to join the formerly oppressing majority.


Groups in the Islamic Middle East have been defined largely by religion. The traditional minoritiesor, more accurately, subdominant groupshave been Christian and Jewish. Within these there have been further divisions by virtue of dogma, rite, and ethnic-linguistic identity. The Ottoman Empire, which dominated the Middle East and North Africa into the twentieth century, recognized most such groups as components of the so-called Millet System. The traditional states of Morocco and Iran followed practices that reflected their different social and religious needs. Because in Morocco, unlike the Ottoman Empire, the Jews were the only significant indigenous non-Muslim group, the institutional arrangements governing them were less elaborate, and their status tended to vary with the reigning Alawite dynasty (1654). The most significant Christian and Jewish groups in Iran under Qajar rule (17951925) were the Armenians, with small groups of Jews and Nestorians, as well as Zoroastrians. Because of the hostile attitude of Iranian Twelver Shi`ism toward non-Muslims, the opportunities of such groups have been much more restricted than in the Sunni world. However, because of their larger number and economic importance, Armenians in Iran on the whole have fared better than other non-Muslims.

In addition to Christians and Jews, there was another religiously defined subdominant category, Muslim sectarians. For the Ottomans these were Shiʿites. In Iran, in addition to Sunni Muslims, there arose a messianic syncretistic offshoot of Shiʿism, the Baha'i faith. Such groups, unlike Christians and Jews, presented a unique threat to Muslim states because they articulated claims to power based on a similar religious discourse. Unlike Christians and Jews, who had been conditioned by more than a millennium of Muslim rule to accept the principle of status quo, religiously dissenting Muslims had to be retaught that principle from time to time.

Shiʿism represented a significant challenge to Ottoman authority in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the rival Safavid dynasty in Iran attempted to use its Shiʿa coreligionists in eastern Anatolia as a fifth column in the Persian-Turkish wars. As this conflict diminished, both Ottoman Sunni rulers and Shiʿite subjects pretended that their differences did not really exist. This process was hastened by the Shiʿite application of the Islamic principle of taqiyya (caution), a doctrine of dispensation that justifies concealing one's true beliefs lest they antagonize the authorities. In the mid-nineteenth century an offshoot of Shiʿism, the Druze of Syria and Lebanon, emerged as a short-lived irritant to Ottoman rule in the region when they helped precipitate a conflict with a rival sectarian group, the Christian Maronites. However, it was only in the last quarter of the twentieth century, decades after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, that Shiʿa became a force in the Arab world. In Lebanon, as a result of the urbanization of previously rural populations and emigration of the Christian elite brought on by years of civil war and foreign invasions, the poor and ignored Shiʿite community of southern Lebanon became a majority that could no longer be ignored. In Iraq, despite comparable upheaval, a Shiʿite community nearly as large, in relative terms, failed to gain comparable influence.

By the nineteenth century in Iran, as a result of the Safavids' successful campaign to convert the country to Twelver Shiʿism centuries earlier, Sunni Islam was reduced to the unaccustomed status of a statistically insignificant religion largely limited to the rural Kurdish community, and thus trebly marginalized. There was also a smaller Sevener Shiʿite community. A far more dangerous religious challenge arose from within Twelver Shiʿism. At first it manifested itself in the Bab movement, which arose in open rebellion to proclaim a new scripture superseding the Qurʾan. Once defeated, it reemerged nonviolently as the Bahaʾi religion, whose tolerant outlook proved attractive in the twentieth century. However, Shiʿite religious authorities regard it as heresy.

Ethnicity and Linguistics

In the twentieth century, recognized markers of group identity became newly significant in political terms, with extremely disruptive consequences. Ethno-linguistic-regional identity, as it was called, tried to superimpose itself on strong religious affiliations. The quality of being Aleppine, Arab, Azeri, Berber, Cairene, Damascene, Egyptian, Hijazi, Khorasani, Kurdish, Jerusalemite, Najdi, Persian, Syrian, Turkish, and so forth had always existed. Traditionally such identities had been sources of group feeling, of ethnic pride and humor, of poetry, of distinctive cuisine and speech; but they had not been the basis for political organization, power, and sovereignty. Muslims (whether Arabic-speaking or Turkish-speaking or whatever) ruled non-Muslims (whether Arabic-speaking or Turkish-speaking or whatever). Although the latter might on occasion have wealth and exercise political influence, it was always behind the scenes and under the table. Modeling themselves on the newly dominant European notions of national political sovereignty, in the wake of the collapse of the traditional Islamic polities during and after World War I, Middle Eastern peoples attempted to fit the round peg of their traditional religious communal identities into the square hole of ethno-linguistic politics. This seemed to change the basis for determining dominant versus subdominant roles. And it required a number of uneasily and inconsistently reached decisions, none of which wereor areself-evident. What were the new identities to be? Egyptian, Syrian, or Arab? Turkish or Turanian? Azeri, Turcoman, or Persian? These are merely samples of the host of complex questions that had to be answered for new nations and states to emerge.

In the new nation-states of the Arab world all speakers of ArabicChristian, Jew, and Muslim (both Sunnis and Shiʿa)were to be equal; there no longer were to be religious minorities. But that theory hardly described the far more complex and tortured reality. Different Christian groups chose different responses to these opportunities. By and large the Orthodox of Syria and Lebanon identified themselves with their traditional allies, Sunni Muslims, and attempted to support the cause of Arab nationalism. The Maronites, by contrast, preferred the independence of Lebanese identity. Although individual Copts had played a notable role in the rise of Egyptian nationalism, they grew marginalized as it increasingly transformed into Arab nationalism. Even less than Christians, some individual Jews participated in the early stage of Egyptian and Syrian nationalism; but the rise of Zionism and the conflict over Palestine, along with strong religious discrimination, excluded them from any lasting role. There has, however, been one political success story in the politics of religious minorities: the Alawites who dominate Syria's ruling elite, a small Shiʿite sect so extreme that some Muslims deny they are part of Islam. Two factors explain their unique achievement. During the colonial period the French recruited them for military service, so that by the 1960s they were overrepresented in the Syrian officer corps, the country's only electorate. They also denied their sectarian traditions and flocked to the Baʿth party, a bastion of secular Arab nationalism.

The smaller ethnic groups of the Muslim world that lost in the game of national musical chairsnotably the Kurds of western Asia and the Berbers of North Africa, who previously had some claim to power and dominant status by virtue of their Sunni identityare now ignored and suppressed minorities within new political boundaries. During the 1920s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his Turkish Republic, through war and diplomacy, rid Anatolia of most of its Armenians and Greeksthough a large proportion of them in fact spoke Turkish as their first languageand then tried to redefine the only non-Turkish group remaining, the Kurds, as Mountain Turks. Iran has been more successful than most states in the Middle East in welding its varied subdominant groupsTurkic-speaking Az-eris, Turcomans, Qashqaʾis, as well as the Arabs of Khuzistan and the Sunnisinto a relatively coherent polity. Although Persian speakers constitute a bare majorityif thatthey have successfully used the appeal of Shiʿite Islam, to which 90 percent of the population adheres, to maintain the country's unity.

The redrawing of the map of the Middle East and North Africa after World War I created new sub-dominant groups without abolishing the old. In short, the region suffers from the worst of both worlds: it is riven both by the old confessional loyalties and by the new political demands of ethnic nationalism.

see also bahaʾi faith; christians in the middle east; druze; jews in the middle east; maronites; millet system; shiʿism; sunni islam; zionism.


Braude, Benjamin, and Lewis, Bernard, eds. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire: The Functioning of a Plural Society. 2 vols. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1982.

benjamin braude

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