MINORITIES (Social Science)

The term minority and how it is used and defined has changed over time. Typically, social scientists use the term to define a group’s social, political, and economic power in a society. Historically, in society, the term has also been used to focus on physical traits such as phenotype in African Americans and other people of color (Parrillo 2006).

According to Joe Feagin and Clairece Booher Feagin, Louis Wirth defined minorities as "a group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination" (Feagin and Feagin 2003, pp. 10-11). Vincent N. Parrillo explains that not everyone agrees with Wirth’s definition:

Richard Schermerhorn, for example, notes that this "victimlogical" approach does not adequately explain the similarities and differences among groups or analyze relationships between majority and minority groups. A third attempt to define minority groups rests on examining relationships between groups in terms of each group’s position in the social hierarchy. This approach stresses a group’s social power, which may vary from one country to another, as, for example, does that of the Jews in Russia and in Israel. The emphasis on stratification instead of population size explains situations in which a relatively small group subjugates a larger number of people (e.g., the European colonization of African and Asian populations). Schermerhorn adopts a variation on this viewpoint. He also viewed social power as an important variable in determining a group’s position in the hierarchy, but he believes that other factors are equally important. Size (a minority group must be less than half the population), ethnicity (as defined by Wirth’s physical and cultural traits), and group consciousness also help to define a minority group. (Parrillo 2006, pp. 15-16)

Social scientists hold a variety of views about what it means to be a minority. The anthropologists Charles Wagley and Marvin Harris listed five defining characteristics shared by minority groups throughout the world (Parillo 2006, p. 16): minority groups receive "unequal treatment"; they are "easily identifiable because of physical or cultural characteristics," as in, for example, the phenotype of African Americans and other minorities of color; they tend to "share a sense of peoplehood—that each of them shares something in common with other members"; "membership in the minority group has an ascribed status; a person who is considered a member of a particular minority group is born into it"; and they have a tendency to marry within their own minority group, either by choice or by necessity, because of the social isolation that they experience in their lives.

The term minority often is used to describe people who have "less power, are oppressed, or are a subordinate segment within a political unit" (Myers 2007, p. 42). A person can be classified as a minority based on his or her religious affiliation, age, disabilities, sexual orientation, or gender. And a person can belong to both a minority group and the majority group. For example, "An American Roman Catholic who is white belongs to a prominent religious minority group but also is a member of the racially dominant group" (Parrillo 2006, p. 17). Women are considered a minority group based on their gender and because they have been oppressed and controlled (Myers 2007), and women of color are often considered a minority within a minority. One can be born a member of a majority group and later become a member of a minority group (e.g., the elderly). People can be born with disabilities such as polio, blindness, and missing limbs, or disabilities can occur over the course of a person’s life (Parrillo 2006).

Contemporary scholars hold that it is not accurate to classify a group as a minority based on the numerical representation of that group. "Scholars today consider it more accurate to use the term dominant group for the majority group and the term subordinate group for a minority group. This usage is appropriate because a majority group in this sense can be numerically a minority…. [I]f current trends continue, the white majority, in population terms, is likely to become a statistical minority in the United States by the middle of the twenty-first century" (Feagin and Feagin 2003, p. 11). But whites will still constitute the majority based on their economic and political power.


The struggle for equal rights has been an ongoing challenge for minority groups, which historically have been discriminated against in the United States. They have also been subject to stereotypes that are psychologically harmful and deny a people their humanity. Along with racial discrimination, the belief in stereotypes can affect the physical, economic, and life chances of minority groups (Feagin and Feagin 2003). "Negative stereotypes and images of African Americans and other Americans of color are constantly used, refurbished, played with, amended, and passed along in millions of white kinship and friendship networks, from one community to the next and one generation to the next" (Feagin 2006, p. 44). These "racial stereotypes and prejudices are useful for whites in explaining why certain people of color do not have as much or do as well as whites across multiple areas of the society" (Feagin and Vera 2001, p. 8). The stereotypes applied to different minority groups are remarkably similar. African Americans are depicted as lazy, violent, criminal, untrustworthy, and unintelligent. Latinos have been viewed as inferior, criminal, and uninterested in education or their families (Suarez-Orozco and Paez 2002). In contrast, Asian Americans have been stereotyped as the model minority, a term created by whites as an example of what other minorities groups should become—hardworking, intelligent, and docile (Feagin and Feagin 2003). Some might view this stereotype as positive, but others contend that "the model minority myth hurts Asian Americans" (Wu 2002, p. 67). It is a stereotype that pits other minorities and Asian Americans against each other, implying to African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans that they too can have the American dream if they model themselves after Asian Americans. Native Americans have struggled for years with the stereotypes and racist images that portray them as savages; currently they are fighting the use of racist Native American images that are used for sports mascots. Since the attacks of September 11 th, 2001, Arab Americans have been battling stereotypes that depict them as terrorists, treacherous, and cruel (Feagin and Feagin 2003).

Minority groups, specifically African Americans, have been instrumental in fighting for the equal rights of all citizens in the United States. In the 1960s the Voting Rights Act and the civil rights movement led the way for minority groups of all ethnicities to receive equal rights in the United States. The success of the movement prompted other movements, such as the women’s rights movement and, more recently, a movement to secure rights for undocumented immigrants in the United States.


The political voice of minority groups has changed over time. In the U.S. Senate in 2007 there was one African American, Barack Obama from Illinois; two Asian Americans, Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel K. Akaka, both from Hawaii; three Hispanic Americans, Ken L. Salazar from Colorado, Melquiades R. Martinez from Florida, and Robert Menendez from New Jersey; and no Native Americans (though Ben Nighthorse Campbell from Colorado served in the Senate from 1993 to 2005). In 2007 sixteen Senate seats were held by women.

In the United States, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans are all considered minorities in society, based on their economic and political standing. Presently, these minority groups are still underrepresented in politics. However, in South Africa, black South Africans are the statistical majority but white South Africans, the statistical minority, control a majority of the land and much of the economic power. Some scholars would say that black South Africans are the minority group because they are the subordinate group. Furthermore, white South Africans are the majority group in this sense, even though they are numerically the minority, because they are the dominant group and control all of the economic power.


According to Marcelo Suarez-Orozco and Mariela Paez, "in a widely cited report, scientists at the U.S. Bureau of the Census concluded that by the year 2050, some 50 percent of the U.S. population would be members of ethnic minorities" (2002, p. 1). According to Dale Maharidge, "By 2050 Hispanics will make up about 21 percent of the American population, blacks 15 percent, and Asians and Pacific Islanders 10 percent" (Maharidge 1996, p. 13). According to a May 2007 U.S. Census Bureau press release, the minority population in the United States surpassed the 100 million mark in 2006. The report noted, "Hispanic remained the largest minority group, with 44.3 million on July 1, 2006—14.8 percent of the total population. [African-American] was the second-largest minority group, totaling 40.2 million. They were followed by Asian (14.9 million), American Indian and Alaska Native (4.5 million), and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander (1 million)____ [N]on-Hispanic whites who indicated no other race totaled 198.7 million in 2006." The U.S. census report also indicated that the District of Columbia, California, New Mexico, Hawaii, and Texas are "majority-minority." However, unless minorities gain additional political and economic power, they will remain minorities.

The report stated that the minority population is growing, but will this pattern continue as younger generations of Hispanic groups self-identify as white and racial boundaries shift? According to Jonathan W. Warren and France Winddance Twine, "In the 1990 census, more than half of the Hispanic population racially self-identified as white … and in 1992 that about 95 percent of Latinos self-identified as white" (Warren and Twine 1997, p. 213). According to Clara E. Rodriguez, "what Latinos say they are in standard U.S. racial terms is not necessarily what they are perceived to be by others" (Rodriguez 2000, p. 136). Ethnic minorities self-identify as white based on their age, education, socioeconomic status, citizenship, length of time in the U.S., and language (Rodriguez 2000). As immigrants self-identify as white, the white population will grow and they will most likely remain the dominant majority numerically, economically, and politically.

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