Ethnic Prejudice

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Ethnic Prejudice

Ethnic prejudice is the holding of negative opinions, beliefs, or attitudes about people for the simple reason that they belong to a specific ethnic group. Scholars at the start of the twenty-first century had not reached a precise definition of the complex concept of ethnic group. The broadest definition is that ethnic group is a group recognized by certain markers. Markers include a unique culture, common national origin or ancestral history, and/or certain physical traits such as skin color or facial characteristics. Not only does an ethnic group identify itself by such markers, but nonmembers identify it by the same markers. While many ethnic groups have all three markers, not all three are required. When the group has at least one of the determining markers, it may be considered an ethnic group.

Unique cultural traits

Unique cultural traits encompass language, religion, marriage choices, food preferences, music, dances, literature, games, and occupations. Religion is one of the most defining traits of an ethnic group. Members come into the group through birth and prefer marriages between group members. There is a strong sense of loyalty, solidarity, and varying degrees of resistance to outsiders joining the group. Ethnic groups advocate for their own group interests by leaders promoting certain cultural practices. Most have been involved in conflict with another ethnic group at some point in their history.

National origin or ancestral history

Ethnic group members look back on a common national origin or ancestral history to create a bond among themselves. Frequently members of an ethnic group live concentrated in a specific geographical area of the world. However, an ethnic group differs from a family or town by having a much larger population. The Basques of Northern Spain and Southwestern France, numbering nearly three million people, are an excellent example of an ethnic group that remain geographically concentrated in a region that has been their homeland for thousands of years. Some Basques have left through time, most notably to Argentina, Mexico, the United States, Chile, and Venezuela.

Jewish people have maintained ethnic identity although for most of their history they have not lived in their ancient homeland in the Middle East. Israel, the modern-day Jewish homeland, was created after World War II (1939–45) in 1948 to provide a safe haven for the surviving European Jews who had faced genocide by Nazi Germany during the war. Through a common ancestral history Jews held their ethnic identity intact for centuries even though they lived throughout the world and Hebrew, the Jewish language, was used mainly in religious practices. Not only do ethnic group members look back to a common history but forward to a shared future.

In the early 2000s, ethnic groups with millions of members persist even in the highly mobile world. Many persons identify ethnically even as they live within a larger diverse society far from their original homeland. For instance, Polish Americans or Danish Americans live far from Poland or Denmark. Although they speak English and are U.S. citizens with intentions to stay in the United States, many still think of themselves as uniquely Polish or Danish, connected culturally and historically to their original ethnicity.


To conform to the values of a new group or country, ultimately losing one's original ethnic identity to the new dominant culture.
ethnic discrimination:
A major consequence of ethnic prejudice by treating differently or favoring one ethnic group for some arbitrary reason.
A group feeling superior to other groups because of physical traits or cultural differences including religious beliefs or other long-held traditions.
The movement of people from one country to another intending to reside permanently in the new country.
Shifting the blame for one's own difficulties, failures, and mistakes onto someone else, such as another ethnic group.
Defining a group with characteristics, usually exaggerated, that supposedly apply to every member of that group.

Physical or race characteristics

At the start of the twenty-first century, the meaning of race is highly controversial. Most people think of race as defined by physical characteristics such as skin color or facial features. However, social scientists and anthropologists, those who study human societies, find the term so confusing that they advocate no longer using it. They see a group that some would call a race as having a web of many physical and cultural traits too complex to allow physical characteristics alone to define a single ethnic group. For example, if people with white skin are defined as a racial group known as whites then people with black skin could be defined as a racial group known as blacks. However whites are not an ethnic group because they have many differing cultural traits and countries of origin. Likewise African blacks are ethnically very different from black people of the Caribbean. Nevertheless, in the everyday world and for the everyday man, physical characteristics often continue to define ethnicity. Within this volume prejudice against Black Americans is studied in Chapter 4, Racial Prejudices. Likewise prejudice and discrimination directed at blacks in England, blacks in South Africa, and the Australian aboriginal people are studied in the Racial Prejudice chapter.

Viewing other ethnic groups

There are three ways in which every ethnic group in the world views other ethnic groups. First, all ethnic groups are ethnocentric. Ethnocentric means members consider their own way of life—their culture—to be the right way, superior to all others. They judge other groups by their own standards.

Second, people in all groups engage in stereotyping, both stereotyping their own group and other groups. Stereotyping means defining a group with characteristics that supposedly apply to every member of that group. Members of an ethnic group usually stereotype their own group in an exaggerated positive light. For example, Norwegians and Swedes stereotype themselves as tall, strong, beautiful people with a strong work ethic. Ethnic groups typically stereotype other groups negatively. Exaggerated or inaccurate negative characteristics are applied to all members of the ethnic group. Examples of common negative stereotyping are that all Italians are part of organized crime and all Roma, more commonly known as Gypsies, steal. Europeans stereotype Americans by saying all Americans own and carry guns.

Third, eager to blame someone other than themselves for their troubles, people in all ethnics groups engage in scapegoating. Scapegoating is shifting the blame for one's own difficulties, failures, and mistakes onto someone else. Ethnic scapegoating shifts blame onto another ethnic group, a group that is unable to adequately defend itself against the charges. In the 1930s and World War II (1939–45) German Nazis blamed all of Germany's economic difficulties on the Jews living in the country. In Central Africa in the early 1990s the Hutu blamed Rwanda's economic and political problems on the Tutsi. In both cases, scapegoating led directly to genocide (systematic destruction of a cultural, ethnic, or racial group).

Negative stereotyping and scapegoating of entire ethnic groups is based on inaccurate, incomplete, or oversimplified information. Such practices lead directly to ethnic prejudice. For instance, those outside a stereotyped group become suspicious, distrustful, and fearful of that group, perhaps because of some random experience with one member of the group, or one piece of inaccurate information, hence they are prejudiced against that group. They do not wish to live, go to school, or work with any member of the stereotyped group. They are likely, if they have power, to act out against that group in a discriminatory manner by restricting their freedom of movement or access to an education.

Ethnic discrimination

Ethnic discrimination involves negative actions or behaviors toward people or groups solely because of their ethnicity. Discriminatory actions include restrictions on job opportunities, education, religious worship, housing, use of a particular language, and on participating in a political process such as as holding office or voting. Ethnic discrimination is most often carried out by a majority ethnic group against a minority ethnic group. It may also involve two ethnic groups relatively equal in numbers, political, and economic power.

Ethnic discrimination can involve individuals discriminating against individuals. For example, an apartment manager refuses to rent an apartment to a family of a certain ethnic group; an employer ignores a job application from a person belonging to a particular ethnic group.

Ethnic discrimination can also be applied against whole ethnic groups by laws and policies of a government or institution. The internment (round up and placement in remote guarded camps) of Japanese Americans during World War II by the U.S. government is an example of discrimination against an entire ethnic group.

Degrading (attempting to make an ethnic group appear less than human) is a common discriminatory practice. German Jews during World War II were forced to pin yellow stars to their outer clothing to identify themselves as Jews. With hate-filled propaganda, the Nazi German government tried to convince the non-Jewish German people that Jews were less than human and had no right to live. In the early 1990s the Hutu officials of Rwanda convinced the Hutu peasantry that members of the Tutsi ethnic group were evil beings with tails and should be exterminated.

Genocide is the most extreme form of ethnic discrimination. About one and a half million Armenians of southwestern Asia were the victims of a genocide carried out between 1915 and 1918. Russian dictator Joseph Stalin (1878–1953) allowed seven million Ukrainians to starve to death in 1932 and 1933. Nazi Germany exterminated six million European Jews during the late 1930s and World War II. In 1970 Cambodians were murdered by Cambodian communist leader Pol Pot (1925–1998) and his Khmer Rouge. Two million died, either executed, of starvation, or in performing hard labor for the Khmer Rouge. Hutu exterminated up to 800,000 of their fellow Rwandans, the Tutsi, in only a few months in 1994.

A phrase with the same meaning as genocide is ethnic cleansing, which came into worldwide focus in the 1990s when the media used it to describe the killing among Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, and Kosovo Albanians as the country of Yugoslavia broke apart. Genocide is normally supported by a government, such as the mass killing of ethnic Kurds by Iraqi forces in 1988 under the leadership of Saddam Hussein (1937–2006).

Homogeneous or heterogeneous countries

An ethnically homogenous country is one that is made up almost entirely of people from one ethnic group and that group dominates the country. Of the world's approximately two hundred countries, only a handful are ethnically homogeneous (of the same kind). Examples are Japan, Saudi Arabia, Puerto Rico, Norway, Finland, and Iceland. Ninety-nine percent of Iceland's population is composed of Icelanders. In Saudi Arabia, 90 percent of the people are of the Eastern Hamitic Arab group.

The majority of nations have two or more ethnic groups. They are called ethnically heterogeneous countries. In the twenty-first century, the United States is an ethnically heterogeneous country made up of at least two hundred ethnic groups. In some heterogeneous nations, one majority ethnic group dominates in all areas, politics, economy, and culture, such as the United States where whites of northern and western European ancestry have historically dominated. Minority ethnic groups often experience prejudice and discrimination. In other countries ethnic groups have relatively equal influence. Sometimes these groups live peacefully; in other instances they constantly struggle to gain power over the other.

Ethnic conflict

By the mid-twentieth century, following World War II, countries began to gain independence from European control, especially in Africa and Asia. More powerful ethnic groups asserted cultural, political, and economic influence on weaker ethnic groups, which led to resentments, prejudicial attitudes, and discrimination. In many of these countries, when freed from European control, long-simmering ethnic prejudice and discrimination surfaced.

When the Soviet Union broke apart in the early 1990s, ethnic groups long suppressed by the world superpower asserted themselves not only in eastern Europe, but Africa and Asia as well. Ethnic groups had long been controlled by the government in Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union. As independent countries emerged from the old Soviet Union, so did suppressed ethnic group rivalries. A key example is the ethnic conflict experienced with the breakup of Yugoslavia formerly controlled by the Soviets. Ethnic Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims, highly distrustful of each other, vied for political control of the region.

In 1900 there were approximately fifty countries in the world. That number had quadrupled by the year 2000 to over two hundred. Competition between ethnic groups over natural, economic, and political resources threatened the unity of many countries. In some, separatist movements developed. An ethnic separatist movement is created when an ethnic group attempts to become politically independent and establish a separate country. A few examples of separatist movements include the Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, Chechen-Inguish in Russia, Kashmiri in Northern India, Basques of Northern Spain, Kurds in the Middle East, and Ossetes in Georgia, previously part of the Soviet Union. These movements rarely saw success despite long-standing struggles.

In other countries, governments discriminate against and suppress minority ethnic groups, threatening the groups' very survival. Survivalist conflicts are numerous. Several examples of ethnic groups struggling for survival include the Indo-Fijians in Fiji, Nepalese in Bhutan, Chakma in Bangladesh, and Roma in Europe.

Less frequent than separatist and survival conflicts but extremely intense are ethnic conflicts called irredentist conflicts. These disputes involve claim to a certain territory by an ethnic group based on historical or ancestral rights. The classic irredentist example is the Israeli/Palestine ethnic conflict. Both groups claim ancestral and ancient homeland rights to the same territory where Israel was founded in 1948. The intensity of conflict remained high into the twenty-first century punctuated through time with a number of wars, ongoing terrorist strikes by Palestinians, and Israeli military occupation of Palestinian lands.

Another irredentist conflict involves the Nagorno-Karabakh region between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It is a mountainous region in western Azerbaijani. Only a small strip of Azerbaijani land separates Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia. The region is inhabited mostly by ethnic Armenians who desire to unite with Armenia. The area has been in contention throughout the twentieth century but the conflict was suppressed from 1923 until 1991 by the Soviet Union. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan were controlled by the Soviet state during that time period. At the breakup of the Soviet Union, bloody riots occurred in cities of both countries over Nagorno-Karabakh. In May 1994 an uneasy ceasefire was established but not before twenty thousand people were dead and a million people had been displaced from their homes. No solution to the irredentist dispute had been found as of late 2006.

Adding to the varied, confusing, and conflicting ethnic picture by 2000 was immigration of people from different ethnic groups across national boundaries. Like millions of immigrants before them, these people sought employment and an improved economic life. For example, Arab Muslims from northern Africa immigrated to France and Germany in search of employment following World War II to help rebuild Europe from the ravages of war. Likewise Mexicans had begun immigrating to the United States for employment in large numbers as early as 1910. Ethnic groups migrating to countries more prosperous than their homeland became an important aspect of the global economy by supplying needed labor. However, it also caused social problems by the resulting close contacts of ethnic groups.

Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims

At the end of the twentieth century, no region of the world better illustrated ethnic conflict than that of the Balkan countries formerly united as Yugoslavia. In 1945, following World War II, the Federal Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia was established as a communist country (a nation whose government and economy are controlled by a single political party) under the control of the Soviet Union. The Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia included six states: Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose population included the ethnic groups of Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croatians; Croatia, whose majority population was Croatian; Serbia, predominantly populated by Serbs with Albanians in its southern region known as Kosovo; Slovenia, with its population overwhelmingly Slovene; Montenegro, predominately Montenegrin; and, Macedonia, dominated by the Macedonians.

In 1990, with the demise of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia began to break up. One year later the six states became five independent countries; only Serbia and Montenegro remained united as one nation, called Serbia. Slovenia and Macedonia proved somewhat stable but conflict erupted among the Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, and Croats of Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia. The resulting ethnic war was the bloodiest in Europe since World War II.

The people known as Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, and Croats belong to three distinct ethnic groups. All three speak their own dialect of the Serbo-Croatian language. Originally farmers, after World War II Serbs increasingly migrated to cities where they became wage earners. Serbs are strongly influenced by Eastern European culture. Their religion is Eastern Orthodox.

Bosnian Muslims, sometimes referred to as Turks, were originally ethnically the same as Serbs but converted to the Muslim religion in the fifteenth century. Bosnian Muslims live mostly in cities and are professionals, business owners, and government workers.

Croats are predominately rural farmers, but many live in cities of southern Croatia. Croats are strongly influenced by the Western European culture in literature, art, science, and education. They are geographically near the Italian cities of Genoa and Venice. Croatian culture reflects Italian culture. Croats are Roman Catholic.

In the 1990s the long history of ethnic differences among Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, and Croats exploded into ethnic war over who would govern whom and what territory would be controlled. All three feared dominance by the other, which they believed would mean discrimination against and forced changes in their ethnic traditions. The war was brutal on all sides. Serbs tortured, raped, and murdered Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Croats fought back with equal brutality. Homes and businesses were looted and destroyed. Churches, museums, public buildings, and cemeteries—all symbols of ethnic identity—were destroyed. Media labeled the conflict as an ethnic cleansing.

The end of the conflict came in 1995 when air forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) struck at Serbian artillery positions. NATO is a military defense alliance established in April 1949 among Western European and North American nations to protect each other from foreign attack. Ultimately two hundred thousand Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and Serbs were killed. Hundreds of thousands fled their homes. The world was dismayed to witness a seemingly civilized region as it transformed into a bloody ethnic battlefield. The United Nations (an international organization created to resolve conflicts in the world and provide humanitarian aid where needed) responded by establishing the first international tribunal or court to prosecute war crimes (violating international laws of war such as mistreatment of civilians). The UN War Crime tribunal is permanently located in The Hague, Netherlands. The court began its operation in November 1993. It first indicted (formal criminal charges) a former Serbian military commander of a detention camp located in Bosnia. The commander was indicted for crimes against humanity. Serb president Slobodan Milosevic (1941–2006) was indicted in May 1999 for crimes against humanity in Kosovo. He was the first sitting head of state in history to be indicted for war crimes. Milosevic's Bosnian Serb army commander General Ratko Mladic (1943–) was also indicted. Later indictments were issued for violating the customs or laws of war, breaches of the Geneva Convention (international law addressing humanitarian concerns) in Croatia, and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Tribunal has indicted 161 people since it began in 1993. It planned to conclude all trials in 2008 and all appeals of its rulings by 2010.

Sri Lanka

The Tamil-Sinhalese ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) has been long and bloody, lasting from the 1950s into the early twenty-first century. Sri Lanka is an island immediately off the southern tip of India. The conflict involves two ethnic populations—the Sinhalese and Sri Lankan Tamils. The Sinhalese make up approximately 75 percent of the population. They live on the central, western, and southern portions of the island where they control political and economic activities. About 75 percent of Sinhalese practice the Buddhist religion. Sinhalese speak the Sinhala language.

The Sri Lanka Tamils make up approximately 11 percent of the population or 18 to 19 percent if combined with Indian Tamils brought to Sri Lanka by the British in the 1800s to work on tea plantations. The Sri Lanka Tamils live in the eastern regions and northern Jaffna peninsula. Most Tamils practice the Hindu religion. Tamils speak a dialect of Indian Tamil that is spoken in southeastern India.

Sri Lanka gained its independence from Britain in 1948. Tamils, favored by the British, had long held the best jobs in the government, business, and as professionals. English was the common language in business. Sinhalese, discriminated against by the British, resented the Tamils' preferential treatment. Because of the discriminatory treatment, the Sinhalese had considerably less wealth than the Tamils. When S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (1916–2000) was elected prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1956 he promised he would make Sinhala the official language. He also promised the Sinhalese increased powers in line with their majority status on the island. In 1956 Bandaranaike passed the Sinhala Only Act making Sinhalese the country's only official language. Greatly resented by the Tamils, this act put Tamils at a disadvantage to hold any government positions. Tamils began to protest the Act. The protests and counter-Sinhala protests turned violent. Between 1958 and 1973 the Sinhalese-dominated government passed more laws that further discriminated against the Tamils in education and employment opportunities. By 1976 the Tamils had made no progress in gaining political power, and they continued to be blocked from access to education and jobs. This ethnic discrimination led the Tamils to pursue separation from the Sinhalese.

As so often is the case when ethnic discrimination results in violence, the youth of Sri Lanka took up the cause. Youth of the Sinhalese community organized the People's Liberation Army. Tamil youth likewise joined in violent outbursts against Sinhalese. In 1981, Sinhalese security forces burned down the Tamil library in Jaffna and terrorized the Tamil public including bombing raids on Tamil villages. Tamil youth responded with rioting and violence. Sinhalese retaliated by burning any remaining Tamil homes and businesses in southern Sri Lanka.

India tried to intervene to halt the violence and began sending troops to the island. Between 1987 and the summer of 1989, India sent a total of 80,000 troops. At the Sinhalese government's request, Indian troops were withdrawn in late 1989 and early 1990. Talks between the Sinhalese government and Tamil leadership began, but soon broke down. Heavy fighting resumed, claiming tens of thousands of lives. While moderates within both ethnic groups were fatigued with the fighting and wished to bring it to an end, extremists on both sides prevailed, and fighting continued into the early 2000s.

Gypsies in Europe

According to United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a branch of the United Nations, ethnic prejudice and discrimination against the Roma group, commonly known as Gypsies or Travelers, is the most serious human rights problem in Europe at the start of the twenty-first century. Gypsies migrated from India to modern-day Europe in the thirteenth century. They were craftspeople, traders, and artists. Gypsies supplied farming communities with handmade tools and baskets, veterinary care, temporary labor, and, on occasion, entertainment with music and dancing. The migrating Gypsies had no ambitions to conquer territory but instead earned their living from performing odd jobs, seeking out work on a day-to-day basis.

Most Europeans worked hard farming the land and did not approve of Gypsies' nomadic lifestyle. Through the centuries Europeans looked down on Gypsies as idle, roaming people with strange value systems based on ideas about luck, superstitions, and taboos. Gradually western, central, and eastern Europeans stereotyped Gypsies as lazy, believers in the supernatural, prone to stealing, antisocial troublemakers, and even dangerous people. They were not allowed to participate in politics or to live within non-Gypsy communities. Their children were not welcomed in schools. Gypsies grew to be distrustful of non-Gypsies and tended to interact only with their own group.

During the late 1930s and World War II, Gypsies, along with European Jews, were targeted for extermination in a genocide carried out by Nazi Germany. They were considered undesirable by the Germans who promoted racial purity. Tens of thousands of Gypsies were deliberately murdered by the Nazi military. Within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) entire groups of Gypsies were shipped to farms and state enterprises to work in the most backbreaking jobs. Many died from exhaustion or were executed when unable to work further. Through the twentieth century police in various European cities and towns singled out Gypsies for harsh treatment, such as beatings or unwarranted jailings. Because of the distrust of Roma by the more settled populations, the Roma were forced in some areas to register with the countries through which they planned to travel. Registration gave local officials a way to keep track of them, if not punish them for being in the area.

With the breakup of the USSR in 1990, Gypsy communities were repeatedly attacked by violent prejudiced groups such as Skinheads. Skinheads are young people who belong to hate groups whose purpose is to violently attack minority groups they find offensive. In the 1990s and early 2000s, entire Gypsy communities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia were brutally destroyed by such hate groups.

At the start of the twenty-first century the number of European Gypsies is difficult to estimate. Reliable figures are impossible since some countries do not attempt to count Gypsies. Best estimates put the population between seven and eleven million, the majority living in countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Gypsies are the European continent's largest minority.

The majority of Gypsies have little or no education. Communities do their best to keep Gypsies out. Gypsies live in substandard housing. Medical care is essentially nonexistent. Gypsies' infant death rate is as high as 50 percent. A Gypsy's life expectancy is below fifty years of age.

UNESCO reports that up to 80 percent of Gypsies of working age in eastern European countries such as Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia are unemployed. As old stereotypes linger, employers are reluctant to hire Gypsies. Their trading practices of selling door to door and on the street are outlawed in most countries. Discriminatory laws against rummaging through garbage at dumps are aimed directly at Gypsies. In France 70 to 80 percent of the Gypsy population receive welfare payments that are paid only to France's poorest people. Even in Britain the "travelers," as Gypsies are still called, live in total poverty.

A few nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international groups have taken up the Gypsy cause. They push for economic and social programs to integrate Gypsies into regular societies. However, given centuries of prejudice and discrimination, the difficulties faced are extreme and Gypsies' survival struggle goes on.

The French foreigner issue

In the second half of the twentieth century, the foreigner issue surfaced in Western Europe. Following World War II, Western European nations encouraged laborers from countries in Africa and Asia to enter and work in reconstruction of their severely war-damaged cities. Between 1946 and 1974, roughly one million immigrants legally entered France from Northern Africa and Asia. France prided itself on its immigration policy based on the promise of liberty, equality, and social acceptance as long as the new immigrants adopted France's values and culture and accepted the French way of life. To the dismay of the French, only some of these early immigrants, overwhelmingly members of the Muslim faith, attempted to assimilate (conform to the values of a new group or country, ultimately losing one's original ethnic identity to the new culture) and become French.

By 1974, France had experienced a number of difficult economic years primarily due to increasing worldwide oil prices. No longer needing a foreign workforce, the government moved to limit the number of foreign laborers entering the country. However, France's southern coastline was long and unguarded, and Northern Africa was only a short distance across the Mediterranean Sea. Workers continued to pour into France illegally, that is, they secretly came into the country without any legal documents, such as work visas.

Ethnic prejudice and discrimination grew against the foreigners who declined to renounce their ethnic identity. These Muslim foreigners built mosques, shopped in their own marketplaces, ate their traditional foods, and wore their traditional clothing, including traditional head coverings for women. In 1972 the Front National (FN) anti-immigrant party organized and gained popularity. During the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s as French unemployment rates soared, violent attacks against the workers and their families increased. Young men and women of legal immigrant families felt betrayed and exploited by a nation that used their fathers and grandfathers to reconstruct the country following World War II, then refused them employment when France's economy turned bad. French blamed the foreign workers and their families for taking away much-needed jobs. In reality, the workers took the lowest jobs—unpleasant, unsafe, and paying very low wages. These were jobs Frenchmen and women would not take. Nevertheless the workers became the scapegoats for the French who blamed their employment difficulties on the foreign population. The FN party kept this idea in front of the French through propaganda (information designed to sway public thought on a topic) and staging public protests.

Ethnic prejudice and discrimination against the Muslim communities continued. Immigrants lived in substandard housing in growing slums, were shunned by French society, and were prohibited from applying for a long list of jobs unless they were legal French citizens. Even if they secured decent employment, on-the-job harassment was often harsh. The social aspects of Muslim and French lifestyles proved irreconcilable. Muslims viewed the French culture as offensive. For example, alcohol was banned in Muslim communities, but was a regular part of French meals. The fashion styles of French women were unacceptable to Muslims, who covered up all but the faces of their women from the public eye.

By the mid-1990s, an estimated five million illegal foreign residents, predominantly from North Africa, lived in France. Most came from Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. When counted together, legal and illegal foreigners accounted for an estimated 25 percent of France's 58 million residents in 1995. Further, their birthrate was high, which rapidly increased their numbers.

Violence erupts

In November 2005, violence erupted in Clinchy-Sous-Bois, a suburb only a thirty-minute drive south of the Eiffel Tower, a landmark in Paris. Clinchy-Sous-Bois was a decaying suburban slum typical of the places where immigrants and their families had been isolated. They lived in housing projects of concrete block apartments with broken windows covered by plywood, obscene graffiti marking walls, and any open area littered with cans and bottles.

Even though in the early 2000s France's economy improved, overall unemployment was still 10 percent. In the housing project it was upwards of 40 percent. In addition to housing and employment issues, further discrimination resulted in poor education and abuses on Muslim religious traditions. Muslims were outraged in 2004 when France banned Islamic head scarves and other religious symbols in schools. Hopelessness and anger of Clinchy-Sous-Bois youth broke into open rioting. Young people reacted by setting fire to buildings and cars they could never afford. The riots spread across France wherever there were poor Muslim communities.

Ethnic conflict is likely to grow in Western Europe as Muslim immigration from North Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Asian countries such as Pakistan continues. People from these countries do not assimilate easily into the Western European life. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, not only France, but Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, and Sweden all reported troubling ethnic issues related to immigration of foreign workers, widespread prejudice, and discrimination against the workers.

United States

The United States throughout its history has approached ethnic diversity differently from other nations. The United States is the only nation in the world founded on the belief that a mix of people from many countries would be beneficial to its well-being and prosperity. The first immigrants to America were from England and Northern and Western European nations. The dominant culture in America quickly became that of white European culture. New immigrants were welcomed and expected to adhere to America's basic beliefs of individual rights and freedom for all. New Northern European immigrants assimilated easily, as did those from England, Germany, Netherlands, and Scandinavia.

Two glaring exceptions to assimilation were blacks brought from Africa to work as slaves on Southern plantations and Native Americans who were the original or indigenous people of the land called the United States. The uniquely American idea of equality and rights for all ethnic groups did not include the blacks and Native Americans, both of whom the highly prejudiced dominant society considered uncivilized.

When Southern and Eastern European immigrants began arriving in America in large numbers in the 1880s, assimilation was more difficult. The dominant Southern European ethnic group was Italian. The dominant Eastern European ethnic group was Polish. Both faced considerable discrimination in housing and employment. Both experienced poverty living in ghettos, predominantly in New York City. Assimilation took several generations because of prejudice and discrimination against these peoples. Likewise, European Jews and the Irish who fled the potato famines of the mid-nineteenth century initially experienced strong ethnic prejudice and discrimination in the United States. Gradually later in the twentieth century all were accepted into, broadened, and enriched American culture. By the twenty-first century immigrants have come to the United States from all over Europe including northern, central, and eastern European nations, and they have overall experienced little discrimination. Many retain a strong tie to their ethnic origins while at the same time becoming full citizens of the United States.

Immigrants from Asia

Immigration from Asia tells a different story. Chinese and Japanese were first brought to America in the second half of the nineteenth century to work in mines of the west and to build railroad lines into the western United States. Those who remained in America after their labor was no longer needed concentrated in tight enclaves (a distinct community within a city) on the West Coast, predominantly in San Francisco. They suffered prejudicial and discriminatory treatment in all aspects of their lives. They were excellent workers who did not complain, took jobs white Americans considered beneath them, and were highly self-sufficient, rarely venturing out of their communities. For these very reasons, the public resented them. U.S. immigration laws essentially shut off immigration from Asia by the mid-1920s. During World War II, Japanese Americans were forced by the U.S. government to live in guarded camps hastily constructed in remote areas. Many citizens living along the West Coast feared sabotage and attacks along the coast like at Pearl Harbor. Prejudice and discrimination against Asian immigrants extended back to 1882 when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banning Chinese immigrants from entering the United States.

Not until 1965 was immigration open once again to Asians as the American public, influenced by the Civil Rights Movement of the early 1960s, had a greater sense of equal treatment of all peoples. Although arriving from all Asian countries, the largest groups came from Japan, China, the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam. As a whole, Asian Americans by 2000 had good incomes as a large percentage of the Asian American immigrant population had graduated from college. The most serious ethnic strife for Asians existed between black Americans and Koreans and Vietnamese. Perceiving these groups take jobs and profits, black Americans resented both groups opening and operating businesses in black communities. Numerous violent incidents occurred between the groups.

Immigrants from Latin America

In the 1980s and 1990s, most U.S. ethnic concerns focused on illegal immigration from Latin America. The illegal immigration problem in the United States was a major focus of ethnic conflict in the 1990s and continued into the 2000s. Illegal immigrants are persons who live in a country without proper documents. They are also called illegal aliens or undocumented workers or illegals. Most illegal immigrants come into the United States in one of two ways. They secretly cross the border between the United States and Mexico or the U.S.-Canadian border. Others come with legal entry documents such as student, tourist, or business visas but then overstay the time allowed by the visa. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimated in 2000 that 60 percent of U.S. illegal immigrants came secretly over the border while 40 percent overstayed visas. About 34 percent of illegal immigrants came from Mexico and 20 percent from other Latin American countries. Americans in areas where large numbers of illegals congregated believed they took away jobs, drove down wages, and strained social services. INS estimated approximately 7 percent of illegals lived in Florida, 11 percent in New York, 14 percent in Texas, and at least 40 percent, predominantly of Mexican ethnicity, in California (see box).

Immigration concerns that grew in the late nineteenth century in the United States led to creation of an agency to oversee immigration matters in 1891. The agency assigned the responsibility of immigration matters continually moved among departments until 1940 when it became a part of the U.S. Justice Department. Eventually becoming known as the Immigration and Natural Services (INS) it ceased operation in March 2003 when it was transferred to the newly established Department of Homeland Security. Its duties were distributed to several agencies including the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service and U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Persistent and resistant to solution

Ethnic prejudice, discrimination, and conflict are difficult to manage and often all but impossible to halt or resolve. They are deeply imbedded into the psyche of individuals and groups. While at different periods in history discord may subside for a time, as long as decades, it is often just below the surface and will begin again given the right situation. Peace accord (agreement) after peace accord has proven inadequate. Likewise, peacekeeping forces do not solve the problems; often, they are helpless to stop violent acts from continuing.

Ethnic group loyalty is one of the strongest bonds between humans. Loyalties are passed from parents to children, generation to generation. Ethnocentric behavior, stereotyping, and scapegoating defy rational resolutions to prejudice, discrimination, and conflict. Often ethnic conflicts are perceived by groups as struggles for no less than survival of their culture.

An end to ethnic discrimination and conflict is generally achieved only with separation of the two warring groups. Successful separatist movements result in the formation of segregated regions with local control or entirely new countries. Examples of successful separatist movements in recent history include the formation of Bosnia and Croatia from the Yugoslav Federation in the 1990s and East Timor separating from Indonesia. Even new countries are never ethnically pure, so a minority or less successful group is often suppressed to achieve peace. Suppression involves discriminatory actions, which causes resentment to grow, and the suppressed group readies itself to strike back.

California's Propositions

The 1980s and early 1990s proved to be difficult economic times for California. Politicians and the general public scapegoated illegal immigrants as the cause for some of the economic woe. The general belief was that they took jobs away from U.S. citizens and then worked for very low wages, which forced the decrease all wages. In addition, Californians believed illegals' families put added pressure on the state's underfunded education and healthcare systems, which drove up state taxes.

Californians voted on and passed several propositions that directly discriminated against the illegal immigrants. First was Proposition 187, passed on November 8, 1994, by a 59 to 41 percent margin. It excluded illegal immigrants and their foreign-born children (any child born in the United States regardless of his/her parents status is a U.S. citizen by law) from publicly funded medical care, from attending public elementary and secondary schools, from attending publicly funded universities, and from welfare services. The measure's constitutionality was challenged on grounds that it dealt with immigration matters reserved to the federal government for regulation. In 1998 it was allowed by a new California government leadership to die.

In November 1997, California voters again passed a proposition that discriminated against ethnic groups, Proposition 227. Passed by a 61 to 39 percent margin, Proposition 227's key provision states that all public school children in California should be taught in English. The United States does not have an official language, rather English is merely considered the main or common language. An English-as-the-official-language movement gained momentum in the early 2000s. Since the 1980s almost half of U.S. state legislatures either by law or change in the state constitution have designated English as the official language. National legislation continues to be debated.

Opponents of Propositions 187 and 227 contended that both were ineffective, that they targeted helpless persons such as children, that they had detrimental consequences such as children and teens of illegals on the streets because they were not allowed in school, and were highly prejudicial and discriminatory in intent. Proponents argued that they were necessary, saved taxpayers money, improved the job situation for citizens and legal immigrants, and were not prejudicial but instead forced people to take responsibility for breaking immigration laws, including employers who hired illegal immigrants.

Areas of the world that appear especially susceptible to ongoing ethnic conflict are Eastern Europe, where ethnic groups such as the Chechen-Ingush, suppressed for decades by the USSR, struggle for independence from Russia; Africa, where hundreds of ethnic groups lay claim to various regions; and South Asia, with ongoing ethnic unrest in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Myanmar.

The United States, which prides itself on the protection of diversity and was settled by multiple waves of immigrants from the seventeenth century to present day, was one of the world's hotbeds of immigration debate in the early 2000s. By 2006 with fears of foreign terrorist threats, the U.S. public was demanding tighter restrictions on immigration and more forceful treatment of illegal immigrants. Immigration issues came to the forefront of modern-day politics. When new national legislation was proposed to increase immigration restrictions, millions of people took to the streets in protest against it. Among those favoring more restrictive immigration policies the Minutemen Project was started by private volunteers to patrol the border between the United States and Mexico to stop illegal immigration.

For More Information


Fonseca, Isabel. Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Horowitz, Donald L. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

Levinson, David. Ethnic Groups Worldwide: A Ready Reference Handbook. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press, 1998.

Levinson, David. Ethnic Relations: A Cross-Cultural Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1994.

Rudolph, Joseph R., Jr., ed. Encyclopedia of Modern Ethnic Conflicts. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 2003.

Silverstein, Paul A., and Michael Herzfeld. Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.

Tanner, Marcus. Croatia: A Nation Forged in War. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

Yang, Philip Q. Ethnic Studies: Issues and Approaches. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.


Human Rights Watch. (accessed on November 21, 2006).

United States Immigration Support. (accessed on November 21, 2006).

War Crimes Tribunal Watch. (accessed on November 21, 2006).