Minorities Research Paper

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A minority group is usually defined as a group of people with common interests or characteristics which distinguish them from the more numerous majority of the population of which they form a part or with whom they live in close proximity within a common political jurisdiction. Minorities may be composed of people with common interests in a range of activities such as sports, environmental issues, professional occupations, and leisure pursuits. The term ‘minority interest’ is often used to suggest that a particular activity attracts the interest of less than a majority of the relevant population.

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1. Social Science Definition

In social science and more widely in public discourse, the term has come to mean groups that have a minority status that is relatively long-lasting or permanent and is based on ethnic or cultural attributes. ‘Minority’ is thus a term used to define people with distinct ethnic, national, religious, or linguistic affiliations. People belonging to minorities are thus often recognizable by their dress, language, place of residence, special cultural practices, or ethnicity. Minority status may be imposed on a group of people by majority prejudice and discrimination. Thus gypsies are defined as minorities in many European countries by majorities who disapprove of their lifestyle and modes of behavior.

2. Minorities and Power

An important characteristic of minorities is that they are assumed to have less power than the majority group. The term minority thus not only implies a numerical minority but political powerlessness as well. Minorities are assumed to be weak and inferior, often discriminated against by the majority, and excluded from sharing political power. The description of a group as a minority thus reflects their lack of power and inferior status as much or more than their numerical status. A majority group, by contrast, is assumed to be politically, economically, and ideologically dominant, and references to it as a majority reflect its political ascendancy. The majority may use its numerical and political superiority to try to eliminate the minority by forcing its members to adopt the language, religion, and customs of the majority. However, such pressures usually have the reverse effect, in strengthening the identity of the minority, its internal cohesion, and its pride in its cultural traditions. Oppressed minorities are capable of fierce and prolonged resistance to majority pressure as can be seen by the long civil war in the Sudan and the nationalist campaign in Northern Ireland.

3. Minorities and Democracy

In democracies, minorities are often considered to deserve special protection against the arbitrary actions of the majority. This is partly a recognition that minorities should be allowed to contribute to the policy-making process if they are to be subject to its decisions and accept them as legitimate. However, it is also a recognition that the oppression of minorities is against liberal democratic traditions and a violation of human rights. It is also a matter of realpolitik, as minorities that are pushed too far can resist violently and impose huge costs on the majority for their oppression. Thus in many countries minorities are given special status and are accorded special institutional arrangements and legislation to combat their social, economic, and political exclusion. These arrangements may involve federalism, rights entrenched in a constitution, local autonomy, or antidiscrimination legislation.

4. Minorities in Power

This assumption of minority powerlessness may not always be correct. History is full of examples of minorities ruling majorities: European colonial governments ruled overseas territories in Africa, Asia, and the Americas; minority white governments exercised power in Rhodesia, as did the apartheid regime in South Africa; and the Tutsi minority rules the majority Hutus in contemporary Rwanda and Burundi. However, even when minorities are in power, this is considered in our democratic age to be illegitimate, fragile, and vulnerable to overthrow by the majority.

5. Reseatment Towards Successful Minorities

Political powerlessness may not mean exclusion in all areas of social activity. Sometimes minorities occupy important niches: for example, the Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia have powerful roles in the economy. Successful minorities who occupy important and prominent positions are often the focus of majority resentment and frustrations and may become the targets for political attacks and violence. The Chinese in Indonesia have periodically been the victims of savage anti-Chinese riots, while the appalling example of the Holocaust is a constant reminder of how a successful and apparently well-integrated minority can become the victim of extreme racist scapegoating and stereotyping leading to genocide.

6. Women and Minority Status

The position of women provides an interesting example of the confusion between the numerical and political dimensions of the term, and shows how a majority group can be redefined as a minority. In most societies women form a majority of the population but they are systematically excluded from the most power ful roles in society. Women form a minority, often a small minority, of politicians, judges, industrialists, bankers, administrators, church leaders, and officers in the armed forces. This exclusion of women from the powerful positions in society means that they appear to be a minority even though they form an overall numerical majority. The exclusion of women from positions of power is fundamental to their construction as a minority.

7. Types of Minorities

In the contemporary world there are two types of minorities that are critically important in the government of modern states. These are indigenous, territorially based minorities, often known as ‘national minorities’ and ‘transnational minorities,’ created by the processes of international migration.

7.1 Indigenous Minorities

Indigenous, territorially based minorities can also be of two types. The first are often described as ‘first nations.’ These are the indigenous, aboriginal, peoples who were often overwhelmed by later migrations. Thus in North and South America and in Oceania, European migration in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries caused the original indigenous peoples to be defeated, displaced, and almost exterminated. In recent decades, first nations have had considerable success in asserting their claims to be regarded as nations and gaining recompense for broken treaties signed with their ancestors. Canada in particular tried to redefine its relationship with its native peoples in the Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples in Canada (1996). The report advocated a new partnership between native peoples and Canada, with Canada recognizing their right to ‘nation’ status and autonomy. It recommended that native peoples be treated as partners at federal, provincial, and local levels. Treaty agreements have been signed at provincial level as well as federal level, for example by the government of British Columbia granting native peoples land rights and political autonomy. In 1999 the Nunavut area became a territory and the first part of Canada to be governed by one of Canada’s ‘first nations,’ in this case the Inuit.

In New Zealand the Maori have raised issues regarding their community rights under the Treaty of Waitangi and these demands have been recognized by the New Zealand government. This has resulted in the significant transfer of resources such as land, control over fisheries, and the promotion of their language. There are five Maori seats out of a total of 120 in the New Zealand House of Representatives; these are elected from a separate Maori roll. Maori can choose to register on either the Maori or general electoral rolls. The change from a single-member, simple majority electoral system to a form of proportional representation in 1996 has significantly increased minority representation in the New Zealand parliament.

In Australia and Brazil, the campaigns on behalf of aboriginal people are finding it much more difficult to get government recognition and support and much less progress has been made in recognizing their rights and protecting their interests.

7.2 National Minorities

In Europe, the term ‘national minorities’ is used to refer to territorially based minorities such as the Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Scots or Welsh in the UK, or the Bretons and Corsicans in France. These minorities were created during the processes of state-building in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as core populations such as the Castilians, English, and French expanded their political sovereignty and incorporated neighboring territories inhabited by different ethnic groups, or by previously autonomous national groups sometimes enjoying their own constitutions and laws as in the cases of the Catalans and Scots.

7.2.1 Managing national minorities.

Territorial minorities can present major problems of statecraft for the countries into which they are incorporated. They may have close affiliations to people in neighboring states and therefore can be a source of claims for secession or international conflict. Alleged illtreatment of ethnic Germans in Poland, whose rights were protected by bilateral treaties, was the pretext for Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and the start of World War II. Similar accusations of Czech mistreatment of the Sudeten Germans the previous year had been used to justify German intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1938. There are numerous examples of territorial minorities which overlap borders in Europe, such as the Hungarian minority in Romania, the German minorities in Denmark and the Netherlands, and the German-speaking Austrian minority in the Alto-Adige region of Italy. Africa provides as many examples of such territorial minorities as Europe, owing to the arbitrary nature of the boundaries drawn by the colonial powers, which split tribal and linguistic groups with impunity. Thus there is a Somali minority in Kenya and Fulani minorities in Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger. Some national minorities are well integrated and identify strongly with the nation-states in which they reside, for example, the French and Italian-speaking Swiss or the Swedish-speaking Finns. Other national minorities resist their incorporation and campaign strongly for independence or union with another state; examples of these are the Basques in Spain, or the nationalists in Northern Ireland who wish to leave the UK and join the Republic of Ireland.

7.2.2 Claims for independence.

The problem for multinational states is that if territorially based minorities feel oppressed and alienated, then they can easily challenge the legitimacy of their continued incorporation, generate nationalist claims, and demand independence. This is less true, of course, for first nations who tend to be very small minorities in the countries where they reside and whose objectives tend to be limited to demands for cultural recognition, limited autonomy, and control over traditional lands and other resources. National minorities represent the most serious challenge. There are many states that have been created through secession from another state, for example, Ireland, Norway, and Finland. The collapse of multinational empires such as the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Soviet empires left many nation-states in their wake. The collapse of the former Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991 led to the creation of five new states. Multinational states would thus seem to have a high potential for fragmentation into their constituent parts. This explains why territorial minorities are often granted special rights of autonomy, language and national representation in order to encourage their acceptance of the legitimacy of existing political arrangements. This process of acceding to minority demands represents a shift in the politics of multinational states, as such rights were usually lost during the earlier processes of nation-building. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the unique position of Quebec in Canada is a good example of what is sometimes called asymmetrical federalism, where one province has special rights, for example, over language and immigration, that are not accorded to the other provinces.

7.2.3 National minority nights.

Baubock (1994) argues that there are three kinds of reasons for respecting national minority rights. First, there are those grounded in historical agreements that promised autonomy as a condition for voluntary integration. These apply to many first nations, and countries such as Canada, New Zealand, and the USA are renegotiating treaties with first nations and compensating them for treaties that were broken. Secondly, minorities may have strong claims for rights owing to persistent discrimination and disadvantage resulting from the dominance of a hegemonic majority. The problem here is that suppression of rights is often fiercest when the majority group fears territorial secession by the minority. The systematic suppression of the Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, of the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, and of groups such as the Chechens in the Russian Federation, are based on fears that these minority groups will create their own states or join neighboring states, thus reducing the national territory. States tend to regard their territorial integrity as an inviolable principle and will use extreme measures to maintain this. Finally, Baubock argues, liberal democracies should recognize the general value of secure membership in cultural and political communities for individual autonomy and well-being. This might mean granting local autonomy, protecting the local language and religion, and encouraging investment in minority areas. These policies still might not reduce the local demands for complete independence but might well make them less intense.

8. International Migration

The second major process that has led to the creation of ethnic and cultural minorities has been international migration. In the nineteenth century, migration was largely a process of European settlement of colonial or former colonial territories in America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. European settlers established themselves in particular in North and South America, Southern Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. In many of these places, Europeans settled as majorities, but in others as minorities. There was also some migration of subject peoples at the behest of colonial powers so that indentured Indians, for example, were recruited by the British authorities to work on the sugar plantations in Natal, Fiji, and in the Caribbean. This recruitment led to the establishment of thriving Indian communities in Guyana, Trinidad, South Africa, and Fiji. In the twentieth century, Indians were recruited to build the railways in East Africa and this led to the development of Asian communities in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia. In Fiji, the establishment of a large and successful Indian community has led to considerable tensions between native Fijians who control the land and politics and the economically successful Indians who, in 1946, became a majority of the population. In 1987, after a native Fijian coup, thousands of Indo-Fijians left the country, leaving native Fijians in the majority once more. The new constitution entrenched the rights of native Fijians, reducing Indo-Fijians to second class status.

8.1 Economic Migration

In Western Europe, immigration has been of considerable importance since World War II. Some 30 million people from all over the world have moved to Western Europe to find work and settle in these secure and prosperous economies. A great deal of migration has been internal to Europe, with people moving from Eastern and Southern Europe to Germany, France, and the UK, but large numbers of Turks, Africans, Asians, and Caribbeans have also been in involved in this migration. Germany has attracted the largest numbers of immigrants and in 1999 had a foreign population of nearly seven and a half million, over 9 percent of the population of reunited Germany.

France has a foreign population of 3.6 million, many of whom are Portuguese, Algerian, and Moroccan, but also Africans from francophone West Africa. Britain’s immigrants came initially from Ireland and then from the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. In 1999 Britain had an ethnic minority population of 3.7 million, some 6.3 percent of the total UK population.

8.2 Including Minorities

Immigrant communities established through international migration pose very different issues of political management to those posed by indigenous territorial minorities. Immigrants make few political demands on their new countries until they have established substantial communities. Their demands are likely to be for equal treatment, recognition of cultural values and activities, and access to citizenship. They rarely occupy specific territories. They therefore have no claims to be nations. They tend to settle in cities, to have diverse backgrounds, and usually have limited political rights at first, though extensive social and economic rights. They may be welcomed for their skills, labor, or investment, but initially are regarded as newcomers who must develop close ties with their new country before they can be admitted as citizens. Only if they have ethnic or colonial connections with their host country, as ethnic Germans coming to Germany from Eastern Europe or Commonwealth citizens coming to the UK, do they have citizenship rights from the time of settlement.

8.3 The Challenge of Migration

Postwar migration has contributed to the creation of a greater diversity of peoples in Western Europe, but also to concerns about discrimination, disadvantage, and racial violence. The settlement of large numbers of non-European immigrants was unexpected, as few believed that the huge level of economic growth and prosperity in Europe that developed after World War II would be so sustained, creating such a massive demand for both skilled and unskilled labor. Some countries such as France, the Netherlands, and Sweden welcomed immigrants and encouraged them to settle and to naturalise. Other countries, such as the UK and Germany, were more cautious. The popular response to immigration was neutral during periods of rapid economic growth, but more hostile in periods of recession. In the 1970s there was strong support for immigration controls in the UK, led by the populist politician Enoch Powell. In the 1980s the antiimmigrant Front National gained significant popular support in France, which was sustained for two decades. In Austria in the 1990s, the Austrian Freedom Party, another anti-immigrant party, gained 27 percent of the vote and a place in a coalition government.

8.4 Integrating Minorities

Even countries which were founded by immigrants and consider themselves as countries of immigration, such as the USA and Canada, are concerned about the integration of immigrants and their willingness to become loyal citizens of their new country. Traditional assumptions that immigrants would assimilate into the US melting pot and disappear into the general population have proved outdated as minorities continue to exist and thrive across the generations. Schlesinger (1992) has even warned that the huge levels of immigration and the creation of new minorities could lead to the ‘disuniting of America’ (by which he means the USA). Similar concerns are often raised in Europe. Will new minorities create their own identities, loyalties, and institutions separate from those of the majority?

The evidence is mixed. It is clear that immigrants place a high priority on learning the language of their new country of residence and encouraging their children to learn the language and integrate into the education and labor markets. Naturally immigrants wish to preserve their customs, religion, and traditions, but a high degree of integration quickly takes place if it is allowed to do so. Attempts at forcible integration of new minorities usually result in resistance and hostility by the minority towards the majority. Schlesinger’s concerns are thus exaggerated as there is plenty of evidence of the rapid integration of new immigrant minorities and high rates of their naturalization. Long-settled minorities such as African Americans can face much greater problems of acceptance and integration due to their historical legacy of slavery and oppression. Sustained discrimination and racism against a minority will increase its feelings of solidarity, alienation, and frustration. This may result in violent explosions as happened in Watts in Los Angeles in 1968 and in Brixton in London in 1981. A positive welcome to minorities and a recognition of their economic, cultural, and political contribution to their new society is the best strategy for fostering equality, justice, and unity.


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