By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Analyze the ways in which majority groups have judged the perceived threats posed by minority groups.
- Describe the range of methods majority groups in the United States and around the world have used to oppress minority groups.
- Discuss the relationship between the relative power of majorities and minorities and the government’s level of responsiveness to their desires.
- Identify current and historical examples of systemic and temporary civil rights abuses in the United States and around the world.
Those in the majority are able to influence the creation of public policy that affects both those in the majority and those in the minority. While majoritarian politics might seem democratic—the word democracy comes from the Greek demos and kratos, which translates to “the people rule”—world politics and history have shown how easily majoritarian politics can create hardship, discrimination, and a loss of civil rights for groups that lack the political, numerical, cultural, or religious influence of majority groups.
People who identify as LGBTQ+ experience discrimination and degradation from majorities who see them as not fitting into traditional conceptions of heterosexual gender roles. As discussed above, political culture can change, but despite historic achievements, many countries continue to deny LGBTQ+ couples the same rights afforded to heterosexual “straight” couples. For example, same-sex couples are not permitted to adopt children (or no law allows for this) in most countries.30 The United States Supreme Court did not affirm the right of same-sex couples to adopt until 2017.31 Most European countries have legalized same-sex adoption, but it is considered legal in few other countries around the world. In 2002, South Africa became the first country in Africa to allow same-sex couples to adopt,32 but LGBTQ+ activists in the country still feel unsafe due to widespread discrimination.33
One of the ways those in power can seek to remain in power is by controlling whose voices can be heard and counted in elections. The failure of federal and state governments to enforce voting rights protections in the United States provides another troubling example of majoritarianism. Despite the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 and the 19th Amendment in 1920, many American states continued to limit suffrage on the basis of sex and race. Policy makers justified denying voting and other political rights to Black Americans and women on the grounds that their participation would diminish the overall quality of the electorate because women34 and Black Americans35 were not deemed qualified to engage in the political process. Though constitutional amendments protected the right to vote for Black Americans,36 American states and their White-majority (often all-White) legislatures found ways to limit Black political participation including literacy tests, poll taxes, and White-only primaries. These efforts are referred to as Jim Crow laws. The Jim Crow era, a period during which laws perpetuating institutional racism and the denial of Black Americans’ constitutional rights were enforced across the southeastern United States, lasted from 1877 to about 1965.
Voter suppression continues to be a major problem in the United States. The Voting Rights Alliance documents 61 forms of voter suppression that range from limits on early voting, stricter requirements for voter identification (including not allowing Native American tribal IDs), and fewer opportunities for same-day registration to polling site discrimination, gerrymandering, and employers not giving time off from work for voting.37 Voter suppression in the United States today is not just one event, but a slow accrual of opposition to the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965 and its many subsequent renewals in Congress. One of the provisions of the original VRA was that more than a dozen states that had low voter turnout in the 1964 election and that had historically limited voting access to minorities had to seek federal approval of any changes in their voting laws. Their track records were poor, and the state governments had not shown the ability to oversee their own elections in ways that aligned with the protections in the US Constitution. States had challenged these “pre-clearances” before, but for years the VRA remained resilient.38 The VRA was reauthorized with overwhelming support from congresspersons across the political spectrum as recently as 2006, when even the staunchest conservatives in the Senate joined their colleagues in a unanimous vote. However, after the election of Barack Obama in 2010, several states started to push against the VRA by making voting much more difficult. Ari Berman writes in The Nation,
“After the 2010 election, GOP officials approved laws in more than a dozen states to restrict the right to vote by requiring proof of citizenship to register to vote, shutting down voter registration drives, curtailing early voting, disenfranchising ex-felons and mandating government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot—all of which disproportionately target communities of color.”39
Then, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder (2013) that the historic provisions of the Voting Rights Act no longer applied 50 years after the civil rights movement and that Congress had overreached in 2006 when it reauthorized the VRA for 25 years. Many conservatives saw the decision as a win for states’ rights, while others saw it as a major step back on civil rights. Almost immediately, Republican-majority legislatures across the country passed laws to limit voters’ rights and access to the polls.
Many of those who support stricter voting laws hold that they are necessary to prevent voter fraud. After the 2020 election, former President Donald Trump repeatedly insisted that the election had been rigged and that he was the actual winner.40 Despite no confirmed evidence of voter fraud, his supporters participated in small armed protests around the country, culminating in the January 6 insurrection in Washington, DC. Many participants accused the federal and state governments of being complicit in a massive election cover-up. The Brennan Center investigated all reports of voter fraud in the United States and found comprehensively “that fraud is very rare, voter impersonation is virtually nonexistent, and many instances of alleged fraud are, in fact, mistakes by voters or administrators. The same is true for mail ballots, which are secure and essential to holding a safe election amid the coronavirus pandemic.”41 Still, between January 1 and December 7, 2021, at least 19 states had passed 34 laws restricting voting access, and close to 450 bills with provisions to restrict voting access had been introduced in all but one of the 50 states.42
Ethnic and Religious Discrimination
Participation and full inclusion in a society may take different forms. Sri Lanka’s constitution references the right of all its citizens to practice the religion of their choice, but the constitution does emphasize Buddhism as the majority religion. This creates a situation effectively enabling a religious majority to maintain its power through the constitution. According to Chapter 2 of its constitution, “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.”43 Every Sri Lankan president and prime minister has been Buddhist, despite the presence of strong and vocal Muslim and Hindu minorities.44 It is important to note here that religion and religious freedom, particularly in the American context, are civil liberties because they are protected by the Free Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. However, when a government policy favors one religious community over another or limits the collective religious freedom of an entire group, it becomes a civil rights issue too.
The kingdom of Bhutan conducts a 300-question happiness survey every five years,45 and since 1972, the kingdom has emphasized Gross National Happiness as a priority for the country’s people.46 But Bhutan is not a happy place for minorities like the Lhotshampa, or “people of the south.” The government, representing the interests of the majority, has forced this community of Nepali-speaking, majority Hindu people to speak the national language, Dzongkha, and to wear the national dress. Laws passed in 1977 and 1985 denied the Lhotshampa citizenship.47 The large-scale civic and social exclusion of the Lhotshampa led to a refugee crisis in the 1990s as the Lhotshampa were expelled from Bhutan, becoming stateless refugees.48
Civil Rights Abuses toward Native Americans
The centuries-long denial of civil rights to the original Indigenous people in the United States is a prime example of how a government can act in the interests of protecting a majority while simultaneously failing to protect and violating the civil rights of a particular group. Even the term “Native American” is a blanket category that contains hundreds of tribes, many with their own distinct languages. Between 1776 and 1887, the United States federal government seized over 1.5 billion acres of Indigenous land, which covered over three-fourths of what is now called the continental United States.49
The federal government has directly participated in civil rights abuses against Native Americans, frequently failing to honor the 374 treaties with various tribes and nations signed and ratified in the 18th and 19th centuries.50 Treaties are legally binding, and the government’s failure to honor the treaties constitutes a breach of the rule of law.51 This failure has resulted in lost income, dignity, and traditional ways of life for Indigenous peoples.
The Invasion of America
This video provides a time-lapse map of the US seizure of over 1.5 billion acres of land from Indigenous Americans.
In 2020, the US Supreme Court ruled that much of eastern Oklahoma is tribal land of the Creek people and not under jurisdiction of the state government.52 Many activists continue to fight for the return of sacred and tribal lands, including the Great Sioux Reservation, whose Black Hills are the site of Mount Rushmore, and the Southern Paiute, “whose territory once included the northern rim of the Grand Canyon.”53
Compounding the history of stolen land and broken treaties, generations of Indigenous American and Canadian culture and language were lost when the governments of the United States and Canada forcibly removed Indigenous children from their homes and sent them to “boarding schools” for religious and cultural indoctrination. From 1860 to 1978, the US federal government, working with Christian-based organizations and churches, placed thousands of children into approximately 357 schools around the country, where the children were often victims of physical and sexual abuse.54 According to one report, 83 percent of all Indigenous school-age children in 1926 were in boarding schools.55 A national movement among Native groups is working to record, teach, and preserve Indigenous languages after nearly 65 of their traditional languages have already been classified as extinct.56
For decades, Native American activists have also expressed horror and outrage over the disappearance, kidnapping, and trafficking of Indigenous women—one of many civil rights issues affecting Native Americans exponentially more than other groups. According to the organization Native Hope, the loss of land pushes Native Americans to live off reservations where they have little to no tribal support and exist at the margins of non-Indigenous society. Federal programs like the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) do not account for all cases, creating huge discrepancies in the number of women reported missing versus actually missing.57 Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that “from 1999 to 2019, homicide was the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls ages 12 to 30.”58 Indigenous women receive unequal protection and representation in the media. Whereas the country is often obsessed with stories about true crime and missing White women, there has historically been less attention paid to missing and kidnapped women of color.59
Japanese American Internment
On December 7, 1941, Japanese armed forces attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in the US territory of Hawaii. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war the next day, and on December 8, 1941, the US entered World War II. Two months later, the president signed Executive Order 9066, which gave the Secretary of War the power to “prescribe military areas . . . from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.”60 What transpired was the forced internment of Japanese Americans, one of the most profound and consequential episodes of civil rights infringement in US history.
This executive order imposed curfews and resulted in the relocation of approximately 120,000 US citizens of Japanese descent to internment camps.61 In signing this order, President Roosevelt codified the widespread loss of civil rights for Japanese Americans. Under the implementation of the executive order, Americans of Japanese descent were determined to be those who had at least one parent or grandparent who was Japanese. Most of the relocation centers were located in California and other West Coast states because that is where the majority of Japanese Americans lived. Approximately 127,000 individuals—of which about two-thirds, or 84,000, were natural-born US citizens, most of whom had never been to Japan—were placed into relocation camps. Because the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 forbade Japanese immigrants from securing citizenship, about one-third of those relocated were resident aliens.62
The US Supreme Court reinforced the motives behind President Roosevelt’s executive order. Individuals living in the United States, whether or not they were citizens and whether they were born in Japan or in the United States, were presumed to be loyal to Japan during World War II. Their loyalties to the United States were questioned because of their ancestry. The Court heard two cases focusing on the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066. In the earlier case, Hirabayashi v. United States (1943),63 the Court ruled in a unanimous decision that a curfew requiring US citizens of Japanese descent to be in their homes between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. (which affected their ability to work, among other concerns) did not violate the 5th Amendment’s Due Process clause. In the later case, Korematsu v. United States (1944), the Supreme Court ruled in a 6–3 decision that Fred Korematsu’s arrest for violating an exclusion order did not violate his due process rights. As the Court noted in its majority opinion:
“... all legal restrictions which curtail the civil rights of a single racial group are immediately suspect. That is not to say that all such restrictions are unconstitutional. It is to say that courts must subject them to the most rigid scrutiny. Pressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; racial antagonism never can.”64
The US Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 5th Amendment Due Process clause in the Hirabayashi and Korematsu cases contributed to institutionalized discrimination against US citizens based on membership in an ethnic group. In accepting the executive branch’s implementation of Executive Order 9066, the Court determined that civil rights could be denied to US citizens based on the executive branch’s definition of membership in a specified ethnic group.
Eighty years later, we continue to reflect on the indignities of internment, on how the president of the United States ordered this violation of the rights of thousands of Americans based on the perceived threat that some in power believed those Americans represented merely by virtue of their race, and on how the Supreme Court affirmed his actions. The injustice of internment illustrates a failure of checks and balances and of the separation of powers, which normally form the bedrock of American political culture, in the face of an acute and irrational fear of fellow human beings.
George Takei’s 2014 TED Talk: “Why I Love a Country that Once Betrayed Me”
Actor George Takei talks about his childhood experience as a Japanese American during Japanese internment in World War II.
When the subject of slavery comes up in the United States, it is almost always in the context of what happened in the 19th century or in relation to President Lincoln. What many people do not realize is how pervasive slavery continues to be around the world. The International Labour Organization estimated that in 2016, 40.3 million people globally were bound in modern slavery, including 15.4 million in forced marriages.65
According to Kevin Bales, professor of contemporary slavery at the University of Nottingham, the major components of slavery include “violence or its threat, loss of control over one’s life, obligation to another, lack of free movement and lack of payment.”66 Modern slavery takes many forms, including sex trafficking of adults and children, forced labor, domestic servitude, forced child labor, and the recruitment of child soldiers.67 According to the Global Slavery Index, while forced labor and slavery are often part of the production and manufacture of goods, the responsibility to eradicate slavery falls on governments, businesses, and consumers. Their reporting indicates that only seven countries have taken a stance on fighting slavery among labor practices: the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, France, China, and Brazil.68 The challenge of fighting slavery is compounded by the fact that slavery is still not illegal, as per constitutions or laws, in many countries, including Canada and Sweden.69
For their work in drawing global attention to the sexual enslavement of women and the use of rape as a weapon of war, human rights activists Nadia Murad70 and Dr. Denis Mukwege71 were jointly awarded the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. Both Murad and Mukwege waged very public and decisive battles to raise awareness for the civil rights abuses felt especially by women, whose bodies are often violated during battle and war. The Prize was a recognition of their work from outside the government to persuade governments to enact change and protect the civil rights and dignity of women. In her Nobel Prize speech, Murad, a member of the minority Iraqi Yazidi community, spoke of a global recognition of human rights:
We celebrate these days the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which aims at preventing genocides and calls for the prosecution of their perpetrators. My community has been subjected to genocide for more than four years. The international community did nothing to deter it nor to stop it. It did not bring the perpetrators to justice. Other vulnerable communities have been subjected to ethnic cleansing, racism and identity change in plain sight of the international community.
In subjugating women, children, or specific racial or ethnic groups, slavery maintains the power of some groups at the expense of others. Thus, slavery is not just a denial of civil liberties; its abuse and denial of equal treatment represent extreme civil rights violations. The same powerful groups that practice slavery often control the political institutions that should be preventing it, enabling the abuse and subjugation of entire segments of society.
The United States’ experience with slavery and related racial discrimination demonstrates how majority and minority status are determined and how those determinations affect who holds power. At the time of the writing of the Declaration of Independence, enslaved people from Africa comprised a large share of the population of what would soon become the United States. Of the 56 signatories of the US Declaration of Independence, it is estimated that as many as 41, including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Hancock, as well as most signatories from the South, were slaveholders.72
These same persons who claimed that the government had a responsibility to guarantee “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” supported slavery as an institution. Upon declaring their independence, the founders set to work creating a government. The government they created concentrated power at the state level. The Articles of Confederation, the first constitution, allowed slavery to flourish in the southern states because each state held so much power to shape its own affairs. However, it was the Three-Fifths Compromise contained in the second US Constitution that codified how the White American majority saw Black bodies—as objects that counted toward population, but not as people with their own rights. This preserved the power of the majority and oppressed those designated as a minority. According to Article I, Section 2:
"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."
This constitutional provision differentiated between “free persons” and “all other persons” (enslaved people). Each enslaved person counted as three-fifths of a person for representation purposes, although their enslaved status meant they did not have civil rights, including the right to select those representatives. Though the language of the Three-Fifths Compromise remains in the Constitution,73 the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865 nullified slavery and the idea of representation of enslaved people.74
Like other major civil rights changes, the nullification of slavery in the United States came only after prolonged and intense struggle and, in the case of slavery, civil war. Changes in a country’s constitution in the form of constitutional amendments correspond with changes in political culture, and changes in political culture can be slow to evolve. Though the 13th Amendment removed its constitutional force, the legacy of the Three-Fifths Compromise goes on. The system it instituted affects the way Americans perceive and receive representation in Congress depending on where they live,75 and the US Census still counts “persons” and not citizens.76