Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - United States

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 16 July 2009
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 - United States, 16 July 2009, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
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.

Presidential elections

The size, complexity and global influence of the United States make it unique in the Americas. The population profile includes African descendants, indigenous peoples and minorities from within the country and the rest of the Americas, as well as from around the world.

In November 2008, Democratic senator Barack Hussein Obama, an African American (partly of Kenyan heritage) became the first person from a minority to be elected president. Media estimates are that about 20 per cent (5.8 million) more ethnic minorities voted in the November 2008 election compared to 2004. Obama received 96 per cent of the African American vote, 67 per cent of the Latino/Hispanic vote and 63 per cent of the Asian American vote. The ethnic minority voters overwhelmingly favoured the campaign's focus on social and economic issues: access to employment, health and quality education.

Obama graduated from Harvard Law School and worked as a grassroots community organizer before becoming a senator. He provides strong evidence for the role access to good-quality education can play in promoting change and helping minorities achieve political, economic and other human rights.

In March 2009 the new president unveiled a comprehensive education reform plan at the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, stressing the need to reach those who have been historically excluded. The plan includes investing in early childhood education; encouraging better standards; recruiting, training and rewarding good teachers; and promoting excellence.

US educators in recent years have been increasingly concerned about the apparent decline of the US education system. The country has fallen from second to eleventh place globally in the portion of students completing college, and this situation has disproportionately affected African American, Native Americans and Hispanic Latino Americans. Inner-city schools, which generally have large minority populations, have drop-out rates of over 50 per cent.

The 2000 US census found that 27.7 per cent of African Americans had less than high school education, and only 14 per cent had an undergraduate or higher degree, compared with 19.6 and 24 per cent, respectively, of the total US population. Moreover, in 2007 more than 9 per cent of all black adults were incarcerated or on probation or parole, as opposed to about 4 per cent of Hispanics and 2 per cent of Euro-Americans.

In February 2009 the US College Board reported that African-Americans are notably under-represented in the Advance Placement (AP) programme, which offers students college-level courses and exams while still in high school, thereby enabling them to receive college credits acceptable at many universities.

While 14 per cent of last year's 3 million high school graduates were African American, African Americans represented only 8 per cent of the 460,000 taking AP exams, and just 4 per cent of those who passed. Hispanics, at 15 per cent of all graduates, were proportionally represented in the AP exams.

Asian students made up 10 per cent of all those who took AP exams, despite being just 5 per cent of the overall US high school graduating population. However, a March 2008 report prepared by New York University, the US College Board and a commission of mostly Asian-American educators and community leaders, challenged the stereotype of the high-achieving Asian-Pacific American student.

The report stresses that the test scores of Asian Americans tend to match the income and educational level of their parents, and that there are real educational disparities within this very diverse population group.

AP credits are seen as being particularly useful for minority families with limited budgets, since they can cut college time by an average of two years (approx. $18,000) and also introduce students early to college-level disciplines.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)

The majority of African American college students (76 per cent) now attend standard universities, but some choose to attend one of the 103 so-called Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which are a legacy of the pre-civil rights era.

HBCUs, which constitute only 3 per cent of America's 4,084 higher learning institutions, enrol 14 per cent of all African American students and play a valuable role in providing a culturally supportive environment. In 2008 the all-female Spelman College had 6,000 applicants for the 525 places offered.

A majority of students at black colleges come from low- or middle-income families, and nearly 98 per cent require loans and scholarships, which became much less accessible between 2007 and 2008, in some cases causing nearly 10 per cent of the students to drop out before completion.

In the government's reform plan, HBCUs will have access to more than $800 million for infrastructure projects on HBCU campuses, and $500 million for technological and federal grants for students from low-income families.


Latinos are the fastest-growing minority group in the country, having increased more than 60 per cent since 1990; they now form 4.5 per cent of the total US population and are the second largest minority in the US.

Many Latino immigrants to the US are of mixed (mestizo) or indigenous descent. In 2000, about 59.3 per cent of Latinos were Mexican Americans with the rest being from Central and South America, The number of Mexican migrants to the United States over the past 28 years is 26 million.

In 2008, Latinos in the USA continued to suffer high levels of poverty, ill-health, discrimination, arrest and incarceration, and low-quality education. One in five lives below the poverty line, and one in three has no health insurance coverage. More than twice as many young Latino men are in prison as young white men.

According to a study released in February 2009 by the Pew Research Center, Latino convicts also now represent the largest ethnic population in the federal prison system, accounting for 40 per cent of those convicted of federal crimes. Nearly 48 per cent were convicted of immigration crimes, with drug offences being the second most prevalent charge.

According to figures from the US Department of Justice, the United States has the highest incarceration rate and the biggest prison population of any country in the world in recorded history. The Pew Center study found that in 2008 state spending on prisons had increased 300 per cent over the last 20 years. Critics say that the privatization of the US penal system has contributed to the sharply increased rates of incarceration and has encouraged corrupt practices, such as bribes to judges to help fill the institutions. In February 2009 two judges in the state of Pennsylvania pleaded guilty to accepting more than $2.6 million from a private youth detention centre in return for handing out long sentences to youths and teenagers.

Educators have compared the costs of incarceration to education, arguing that the money would be much better spent on early education programmes for at-risk minorities. Children in these programmes are less likely to drop out and much more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and earn more in their jobs.

The average tuition cost for a full-time student at a public four-year institution of higher learning in the US is about $9,000 a year, while incarcerating one inmate for a year costs $29,000, with no obvious positive multiplier effect.

Native Americans

Indigenous Native Americans remain the most educationally disadvantaged of all minorities in their country: they continue to have the lowest high school and university graduation rates of all groups in the country.

Most Native American children attend public schools. Programmes such as bicultural education and Native-run schools established under the Indian Education Act of the early 1970s have improved the situation, but only marginally – in part because of a shortage of qualified Native American teachers.

Alaska Natives who were concerned about the disappearance of their languages have begun to organize their own schools. However, they receive little financial support and serve only a small minority of the students interested in attending such schools. Consequently, parents were left with no choice but to send their children to English-speaking public schools designed for Euro-American children.

Representatives of the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Indigenous Youth have indicated that many Alaska Native peoples are adversely affected by government policies that call for English-language proficiency. Indigenous languages are mostly ignored or are taught as foreign languages. Such policies have helped to sever the ties between indigenous youth and their ancestors, and have been especially detrimental to people's confidence.

Indigenous law

In January 2008 the first female Native American US attorney was formally sworn into office. Diane J. Humetewa of the Hopi nation, who was previously a tribal liaison officer, also sits on the Native American Issues Subcommittee. This is composed of US attorneys who have jurisdiction in Native American ter ritories, and who are responsible for informing the Attorney General about indigenous issues.

For the Navajo Nation, a key legal concern is the continued unwillingness of businesses and the United States government to acknowledge the valid ity of Navajo judicial system which that nation's Council has institutionalized in its government structures since 2002. The system, which takes into account Navajo values and culture, is the basis of the group's common law and has influenced the very structure of Navajo government.

Navajo concerns about proper recognition of customary law indicate the importance indigenous peoples of the Americas place on ensuring that such specifics are adequately reflected in the final draft of the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Meanwhile, in a gesture of support and solidarity with indigenous people in the rest of the Americas and worldwide, in 2008 the Gila River Indian Community Council passed a resolution ratifying the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Gila are the first federally recognized tribal nation within the United States to support the UN Declaration of September 2007, and leaders indicated that their actions were intended to affirm their own inherent right to self-determination as well as to demonstrate transnational solidarity with Ak-Chin, Pee-Posh, Salt River, Thono O'otham and other ethnically related indigenous groups who live on the Mexican side of the border with the United States.

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