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State of the World's Minorities 2008 - United States

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 11 March 2008
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities 2008 - United States, 11 March 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/48a7eade2d.html [accessed 20 September 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

One consequence of the influence and reach of the United States as a global superpower in 2007 is that minority rights concerns within its own society have grown more varied. In addition to its historically derived indigenous and Afro-descendant minorities it must now also consider a range of other issues related to vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities.

In the context of counter-terrorism, the continued holding of hundreds of mainly Muslim detainees in offshore custody without charge or trial has served to maintain focus on the Islamic religious minority within the United States. In 2007 they continued to express misgivings at what they saw as unwarranted profiling and increasing xenophobic actions directed against their persons and assets.

Issues related to other minorities within the US also had a decidedly international dimension, especially with respect to the Americas. Spanish-speaking immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean now represent one of the fastest growing minority groups in the United States. Since many of the immigrants – whether legal or undocumented – are of indigenous and Afro-descendant ancestry, the need for the continued migration of these marginalized groups to the United States in search of opportunity can be seen as another indication of the general low status of minorities in the Americas as a whole.

Native Americans

In 2007, the approximately 2.5 million Native Americans were increasingly urban and many reservations derived self-supporting revenues from gaming casinos and resource extraction. However, Native Americans as a whole still lagged behind in education and income, and were high up the unemployment and poverty indicators.

In 2007 they continued to seek redress for alienated lands and fractured cultures, and to claim right of ownership to significant parts of some states like New York, California and Nevada.

The Onondaga Indian Nation has gone to court claiming rightful ownership to a 2 million acre territory in New York State that runs from the Canadian border to Pennsylvania, and includes cities like Syracuse and Binghamton. One key indigenous aim is the environmental cleanup of hazardous waste from Lake Onondaga.

According to the US Justice Department, the Western Shoshone Indian Nation is also seeking to confirm title to more than 60 million acres of land comprising most of the state of Nevada and parts of California, Idaho and Utah. Prior attempts at settlement have failed and, despite a bill before Congress to provide $150 million in financial compensation, the Western Shoshone have refused to accept money and indicated that their land is not for sale.

African-Americans

African-Americans have made substantial gains, especially in the past decade, nevertheless, as in the rest of the region, this Afro-descendant population (36 million) continued to lag in all social indicators in 2007 and to seek an end to complex forms of social and economic discrimination that are mainly historically rooted.

At the end of 2007 questions were raised even about sustainability of the supposed gains and the difficulty of passing them on to the following generation. A study by the Pew Charitable Trusts released in November 2007 revealed an as yet unexplained downward economic trend among nearly half of the African-Americans surveyed.

According to the study, 45 per cent of the African-Americans whose parents were solidly middle income in 1968 fell to the poverty or near-poverty levels of income distribution in the next generation, ending up among the lowest fifth of the nation's earners. Only 16 per cent of Euro-Americans showed a similar downward trend.

Justice

Besides the fragile nature of middle-income life, for many African-Americans obtaining just and equal treatment under the law continued to be an issue. With the post-Hurricane Katrina resettlement of the mainly African-American victims still unresolved, the State of Louisiana in 2007 also experienced mass protests over unequal treatment of minorities in the justice system.

This took the form of the largest civil rights demonstration in the United States for more than two decades. On 20 September 2007 an estimated 50,000 mainly African-American protesters from across the country travelled to the small town of Jena Louisiana to petition the justice system to uphold the law with respect to the trial of juveniles.

Six teenagers faced years in adult prison for violent altercations that followed a silent protest vigil under a tree on the Jena High School lawn, where symbolic neo-segregationist nooses were found hanging.

Authorities directed the full force of the law upon the defendants. However Louisiana's Third Court of Appeals overturned the conviction on the grounds that one of the main defendants was improperly tried as an adult.

Participants saw their demonstration in national terms, indicating that the mistreatment of the so-called 'Jena 6' was just a local reflection of a nationwide historical pattern of unjust treatment by the judicial system, especially given the connections of the case to racism, xenophobia and so-called hate crimes.

With reports continuing to surface in the national media regarding symbolic noose hangings – including on the office door of an Ivy League professor and in the locker room of a Long Island police station – African-American protesters once more took to the streets. Thousands of demonstrators descended on the Justice Department building in Washington DC on 17 November 2007 to demand a federal crackdown on hate crimes and a stronger official response to continued public displays of racial antagonism. The demonstrators pointedly marched around the government building seven times in an apparent reference to the biblical story of the fall of Jericho.

African-American incarceration

Despite a strong rule-of-law tradition in the Unit ed States, minority defendants continued to complain of unequal prison sentences in 2007. There was also concern about unfair use of race during jury selection, which critics claim is designed to exclude African-American jurors.

Justice Department figures indicate that African-Americans account for less than 14 per cent of the national population, however they constitute nearly 44 per cent of the 2.2 million people in jail, with a large percentage being 18–24-year-olds.

According to a Washington-based think-tank, the Sentencing Project, some states, like Iowa, imprison blacks at more than 13 times the rate of whites, which has a socially devastating multiplier effect. Moreover, only 27 per cent of African-American inmates incarcerated nationally were there for violent crimes. Of all inmates locked up for minor drug offences, 62 per cent were African-American, having received mandatory five-year sentences.

According to the Washington Post, federal judges, law enforcement and civil rights groups have long criticized the stricter federal penalties for crack cocaine (primarily used by African-Americans), versus lighter penalties for the same amounts of powder cocaine, (more generally used by European-Americans) and deemed it a race-based double standard. The US Sentencing Commission, which sets incarceration guidelines, has come under increasing fire from civil rights organizations and prisoner advocacy groups to decrease these sentences by at least two years.

In November 2007 federal authorities announced reduced penalties for new cases, and a plan to retroactively reduce prison sentences. This could result in the unprecedented nationwide release of 19,500 mostly African-American inmates. The new proposal was immediately challenged by the Justice Department and further fuelled the debate about race and the justice system; especially since an earlier sentence-reduction initiative for crimes involving marijuana, LSD and OxyContin – which primarily involve whites – was made retroactive.

Political participation

Of great significance is that these events in 2007 were occurring at a time when a first-generation African-American senator Barack Obama – of partly Kenyan heritage – was demonstrating a significant ability to obtain the substantial financial and popular support needed to mount a credible US presidential election campaign. Also among Democratic Party contenders was New Mexico governor and former UN ambassador Bill Richardson, who is of Hispanic heritage.

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