State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2010 - United States of America

The election of the first US president of identifiable African descent represented a watershed moment in world history. It inspired hope among marginalized groups in the US and raised expectations that greater respect for diversity would follow in the actions of the administration itself. Having received 67 per cent of the Latino or Hispanic vote and 63 per cent of the Asian American vote, since taking office in 2009 the Obama administration has sought to fulfil election promises to minority groups, all of whom looked forward to seeing some reflection of national demographic composition in the new administration

Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority in the country, and at 14.5 per cent of the total population are well on their way to becoming the largest minority in the US. In March 2009, the new president chose an encounter with the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to unveil a comprehensive new education reform plan. And in August 2009 Sonia Sotomayor – whose family background is Puerto Rican – became the first Hispanic woman and the third female ever to serve on the Supreme Court, in the life-tenured position as the nation's 111th justice. Sotomayor's ten-week confirmation hearing raised issues of gender and ethnicity. This included criticism by Republicans over her prior case rulings on property rights, in a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by white fire-fighters in New Haven, as well as her comments on the role of diversity in the judiciary. The new justice received a unanimous vote from Democratic senators, while only nine of the Senate's 40 Republicans voted in her favour.

Minority representation

Other notable Hispanic appointments included Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of Labour Hilda Solis, as well as Cecelia Munoz, director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, Nancy Sutley, the Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Louis Caldera, the head of the White House Military Office, and Moises Vela, the Vice-President's Director of Administration.

Eric Holder became the nation's first African American Attorney-General. Two African American women were also appointed: Susan Rice as Ambassador to the UN and Melody Barnes as domestic policy adviser. President Obama also named Asian Americans Eric Shinseki and Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Steven Chu to serve as Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Energy Secretary respectively.

Economic recession

One of the first acts of the new Obama administration was to pass a US $787 billion economic stimulus package aimed at combating the sharp downturn in the global economy, which several publications, including The Economist, attributed to a crisis within the financial sector of the US itself. While the effects of the recession were widespread throughout the US, it had a notably strong impact during 2009 on African American and Hispanic communities, exacerbated by the persistent unfavourable socio-economic gap between these groups and the rest of the population.

During 2009, the US unemployment rate rose to 6.7 per cent, which translates into some 12 million unemployed people. However, figures indicate that for male and female Hispanics, unemployment rose to 12.9 per cent, while the rate for African Americans reached 16 per cent, more than twice the national average. African Americans are especially susceptible to downturns in the economic cycle compared to other Americans and have not recovered from losses during the 2001 recession.

Among the hardest hit sectors were construction and manufacturing, which employ a much higher percentage of Hispanic workers compared to the general population. In the larger context, rising Hispanic unemployment poses a special challenge not only in the US but also in the rest of the hemisphere, since it results in less money being available for Hispanic immigrants to send back to LAC home countries as remittances.

The loss of jobs also meant an increasing and widespread inability to make mortgage payments, which led to a large number of housing foreclosures in African American and Hispanic communities. The Boston-based non-profit organization United for a Fair Economy reported that African American borrowers stand to lose between US $71 billion and US $92 billion in assets. Moreover, foreclosures produce ripple-effect challenges in terms of abandoned houses, devaluation of neighbourhoods and shortfalls in state and municipal services, as well as potential increases in crime.

Religious tolerance – the Fort Hood shooting

In November 2009, a mass shooting at the world's largest military installation (339 square miles) in Fort Hood, Texas, strongly tested the nation's levels of religious tolerance, particularly the capacity of US society to separate violent acts by individual Muslims from the religion of Islam as a whole.

On 5 November, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a 39-year-old US-born army psychiatrist of Palestinian descent opened fire on his fellow service members at the Soldier Readiness Centre in Fort Hood, killing 13 people and wounding another 30, before being shot and severely wounded by civilian police officers.

The killings raised a public outcry and risked increasing anti-Muslim feeling across the US. The fact that Hasan's former imam later praised him publicly online for the shooting, while encouraging other Muslims serving in the military to 'follow in his footsteps', did little to calm any anti-Islamic public sentiments.

The shooting was widely condemned, including by Nadal's family, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and by dissident Saudi cleric Salman al-Ouda (reportedly a former inspiration to Osama bin Laden), who expressed concern that the incident would have negative consequences. Analysts and officials discussed Hasan's psychological state and possible motive, including the fact that he appeared upset about an imminent first-time combat deployment to Afghanistan and that his work involved counselling soldiers leaving for and returning from stress-producing battle zones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brian Levin of the Centre for the Study of Hate and Extremism, according to the Huffington Post, suggested that the incident fell somewhere between a crime, terrorism and mental distress. Iraq Veterans Against the War (Fort Hood chapter) demanded that the military overhaul its mental health care system and halt the repeated deployments of the same troops.

Hasan, who is now paralysed from the waist down as a result of his wounds, was charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder and 32 counts of attempted murder under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and may face additional charges at court-martial. Following the incident, national surveys by Rasmussen Reports found that 65 per cent of Americans favoured the death penalty in Hasan's case, and that 60 per cent want the case investigated as an act of terrorism. However, 80 per cent also said that they were concerned this could start an anti-Muslim backlash.

Native American land claims

In an effort to meet campaign pledges to Native Americans, the Obama administration agreed in December 2009 to pay US $3.4 billion to settle a long-running Native American land claim case. In 1996, Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfoot Nation, filed a complaint alleging that for more than a century the US government had mismanaged billions of dollars in income from natural resources on Native American land.

The dispute dates back to the 1887 Dawes Act, which handed over resource-rich Native American communal land to white-owned companies. As in the rest of the Americas, the indigenous concept of communally held land as opposed to privately owned property was an integral part of Blackfoot Nation identity and overall belief system. Nevertheless, under the Act, their territory was divided into individual plots with each family being assigned a portion of land. The individual families were then supposed to be compensated for the use of their land. However, the claims were disputed and grew more complicated with each passing generation.

Many unsuccessful attempts were made to arrive at a settlement, including several trials with the plaintiffs claiming they were owed some US $47 billion. Under the settlement the US government has agreed to pay US $3.4 billion to settle the dispute. Following Congressional approval, the Interior Department will use US $1.4 billion to compensate the 300,000 members of the Blackfoot Nation and establish a US $2 billion fund to purchase land from them.

African American farmers

The issue of foreclosure, dispossession and land loss continues to be a major factor in rural America, even in situations where communal ownership is not involved. In another effort to fulfil campaign promises, President Obama announced plans in May 2009 to provide US $1.25 billion to settle a long-standing $3 billion class action discrimination lawsuit brought by African American farmers against the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

In the 1990s, African American farmers filed a lawsuit (Pigford v. Glickman) charging the USDA with a history of racism and discrimination in its federal loan and subsidy programmes. Their charges were supported by the lead plaintiffs' evidence as well as by government reports, investigations and studies over a 30-year period. All concluded that the USDA treated African American, Hispanic, Native American and women farmers unfairly by taking longer to process their loan applications and denying a higher percentage of their loans.

The lack of access to credit over the years may have contributed greatly to a general loss of African American farmland due to foreclosure. In 1978, over 30,000 African American farmers owned land in the US, and it is estimated that currently some 53 per cent of the USDA's land holdings once belonged to African-American farmers.

In 1999, a US District Court judge certified the discrimination case as a class action suit. The USDA agreed to an out-of-court settlement of between US $450 and US $600 million. Although it was the biggest settlement in history for a civil rights case, it was considerably less than the farmers had asked for and the plaintiffs were barred from participating.

With over 14,000 outstanding complaints and another 3,000 submitted that have not been processed, in 2009 the president decided that the US $1 billion the government has already provided was insufficient, and requested instead a US $1.25 billion settlement package. The USDA also ordered a temporary suspension of all foreclosures.

Hispanic farmers

Other minority farmers with similar complaints of discrimination have also been seeking redress. During 2009, more than 100 mostly Mexican American farmers in several states sought to have charges of loan grant discrimination against the USDA treated as a class action suit in light of their land losses.

The suit was first filed in 2000 and sought to end what the Hispanic farmers claim is blatant discrimination in the awarding of operating and disaster loans between 1981 and 2000. Furthermore, in 2009 they stated that nothing has changed since the suit was filed nine years ago and cited the continuing power loan officials have to influence land ownership and profitability, which, when misused, can become an effective instrument for dispossessing them of their land and water rights.

Hispanic farmers claim that the members of local USDA loan boards were mostly prosperous farmers who gave loans to their friends and acquaintances. This caused excluded Hispanic farmers to go bankrupt, leading to foreclosures. The lands would then be put up for auction and bought, usually by prosperous local white farmers.

Although a federal judge granted class-action status to the case filed by the over 14,000 African American farmers in 1999, another judge denied the same designation for the 100 plus Hispanic farmers. Using the example of the African American farmers' lawsuit, lawyers for the Hispanic farmers petitioned the US Supreme Court in 2009, seeking a review of the decision that their clients cannot sue as a class. Thus far the court has rejected their request.

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