One of the most influential Constitutional clauses during the mid to late 20th century has been the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment that forbids any state to "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. This clause has not been interpreted to mean that everyone is to be treated the same, but that certain divisions in society, such as sex, race, and ethnicity are suspect categories, and that laws that make distinctions that affect these groups will be subjected to especially strict scrutiny. In recent years, these suspect categories have been expanded to include discrimination based on age, disability, and sexual preference.
CIVIL RIGHTS FOR RACIAL AND ETHNIC MINORITIES
The United States has always been home to many different racial and ethnic groups that have experienced varying degrees of acceptance into American society. Today major racial and ethnic minorities include African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans.
EQUALITY FOR AFRICAN AMERICANS
The history of African Americans includes 250 years of slavery followed by almost a century of widespread discrimination. Their efforts to secure equal rights and eliminate segregation have led the way for others.
After the Civil War, civil rights were guaranteed for former slaves in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. However, many discriminatory laws remained in states across the country, and the states of the defeated Confederacy passed Jim Crow laws, which segregated blacks from whites in virtually all public facilities including schools, restaurants, hotels, and bathrooms. In addition to this de jure (by law) segregation, strict de facto (in reality) segregation existed in neighborhoods in the South and the North.
The 1896 court decision Plessy v. Ferguson supported the segregation laws. Homer Plessy sued the state of Louisiana for arresting him for riding in a whites only railroad car. The Court ruled that the law did not violate the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, as Plessy claimed. The majority opinion stated that segregation is not unconstitutional as long as the facilities were substantially equal. This separate but equal" doctrine remained the Court’s policies until the 1950s.
In 1909 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was founded to promote the enforcement of civil rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The NAACP struggled for years to convince white-dominated state and national legislatures to pass laws protecting black civil rights, but they made little progress until they turned their attentions to the courts. The NAACP decided that the courts were the best place to bring about change, and they assembled a legal team that began to slowly chip away at the separate but equal doctrine.
From the mid-1930s to about 1950, they focused their attention on requiring that separate black schools actually be equal to white schools. Finding little success with this approach, Thurgood Marshall, an NAACP lawyer for Linda Brown in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, argued that separate but equal facilities are "inherently unequal" and that separation had "a detrimental effect upon the colored children." The Court overturned the earlier Plessy decision and ruled that "separate but equal" facilities are unconstitutional. Following this landmark case was over a decade of massive resistance to desegregation in the South, but organized protests, demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins led to massive de jure desegregation by the early 1970s.
De jure desegregation was insured by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 24th Amendment, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The 1964 act banned discrimination in public facilities and voter registration and allowed the government to withhold federal funds from states and local areas not complying with the law. The 24th Amendment banned paying a tax to vote (the poll tax) ö a practice intended to keep blacks from voting. The 1965 act outlawed literacy tests and allowed federal officials to register new voters. As a result, the number of registered black voters increased dramatically, and today registration rates of African Americans are about equal to those of whites. The Johnson Administration also set up as part of the "Great Society" an Office of Economic Opportunity that set guidelines for equal hiring and education practices. To comply with the new guidelines, many schools and businesses set up quotas (a minimum number of minorities) for admission or employment.
Schools were not integrated overnight after the Brown decision, and active resistance continued through the early 1960s. In 1957 Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus used the state’s National Guard to block the integration of Central High School in Little Rock. President Dwight Eisenhower responded by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and sending in 500 soldiers to enforce integration. In 1962 James Meredith, an African American student, was not allowed to enroll at the University of Mississippi, prompting President John F. Kennedy to send federal marshals to protect Meredith.
To break down de facto school segregation caused by residential patterns, courts ordered many school districts to use busing to integrate schools. Students were transported from areas where they lived to schools in other areas to achieve school diversity. The practice proved to be controversial, but the courts upheld busing plans for many years. However, by the late 1990s and early 2000s federal courts had become increasingly unwilling to uphold busing or any other policies designed to further integration. For example, in 2001 a federal court determined that the Charlotte-Meklenburg school district in North Carolina no longer had to use race-based admission quotas because they had already achieved integration.
Today de facto school segregation still exists, especially in cities, where most African American and Hispanic students go to schools with almost no non-Hispanic whites. So by the early years of the 21st century, the goal of integration expressed in Brown v. Topeka in 1954 has not been realized.
RIGHTS FOR NATIVE AMERICANS
Of all the minorities in the United States, Native Americans are one of the most diverse. Almost half of the nearly 2 million people live on reservations, or land given to them as tribes by treaties with the U.S. government. 308 different tribes are formally registered with the government, and among them, almost 200 languages are spoken. Enrolled members of tribes are entitled to certain benefits (such as preferred employment or acceptance to college) administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs of the Department of the Interior. The benefits are upheld by the Supreme Court as grants not to a "discrete racial group, but rather, as members of quasi-sovereign tribal entities."
Poor living conditions and job opportunities on reservations have been the source of growing Native American militancy. Tribes have demanded more autonomy and fewer government regulations on reservations. Some recent cases have involved the right of tribes on reservations to run and benefit from gambling operations that the government has regulated. Some tribes are demanding better health care facilities, educational opportunities, decent housing, and jobs.
Under Article I, Section 8, Congress has full power under the commerce clause to regulate Indian tribes. Congress abolished making treaties with the tribes in 1871, but until recent times tribal governments were weak, many reservations were dissolved, and many tribes severed their relationship with the U.S. government. During the past twenty years, both the tribes and the government have shown revived interest in interpreting earlier treaties in a way to protect the independence and authority of the tribes. With the backing of the Native American Rights Fund (funded in part by the Ford Foundation), more Indian law cases have been brought in the last two decades than at any time in our history. Colorado elected the first Native American (Ben Nighthorse Campbell) to Congress in 1992.
Latinos compose the fastest growing minority group in the United States today. The approximately 35 million Latinos (an increase of about 60 percent since 1980) may be divided into several large subgroups:
Mexican Americans - About 15 million are Mexican Americans who live primarily in the Southwestern United States: Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California. Traditionally, Mexican Americans are strong supporters of the Democratic Party
Puerto Ricans - The second largest group consists of 2.7 million Puerto Ricans, living primarily in northern cities, such as New York and Chicago. Since Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, many Puerto Ricans move back and forth between island and homeland.
Cubans - A third group has come since the early 1960s from Cuba, many fleeing to Florida from Castro's regime. The immigration has continued over the years. In many areas of southern Florida, Cuban Americans have now become the majority group. In contrast to Mexican Americans, Cubans tend to be politically conservative and support the Republican Party.
Central and South American countries - A rapidly growing number are emigrating from political upheaval in Central American countries, such as Nicaragua and Guatemala. As political unrest in these areas continues, people are coming to live near relatives already in the United States.
A major issue for Latinos centers on English as a Second Language education in U.S. public schools. Latino children often find language a barrier to success in school, and schools have struggled to find the best ways to educate them. Supporters of ESL education believe that Spanish instruction should be provided and encouraged, whereas critics claim that such education hampers the learning of English, a necessary skill for success in the United States. In recent years, bilingual programs established in the 1960s have come under increasing attack. In 1998, California residents passed a ballot initiative that called for the end of bilingual education in the state. After the courts backed the initiative, the states of Arizona and Massachusetts also banned bilingual education.
Latinos, like blacks, have become increasingly involved in politics, and by the 1998 election 19 Latinos were members of the House of Representatives. Two Latinos were elected to the Senate in 2004.
THE RIGHTS OF ASIAN-PACIFIC ISLANDERS
About 8 million Americans are of Asian origin, a number that is rapidly increasing. Asian Americans come from many different countries with different languages and customs. About 40 per cent of our immigrants now are from Asia, mostly from the Philippines, China, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Pakistan, and India. The Chinese were the first major group of Asians to come to the United States, attracted by expansion in California and the opportunities to work in mines.
Until recently, Asians were severely limited by U.S. immigration policies. Discriminatory immigration and naturalization restrictions were placed on the Chinese in 1882, and remained in place until after World War II. In 1906 The San Francisco Board of Education excluded al Chinese, Japanese, and Korean children from neighborhood schools. During World War II, Japanese Americans on the West Coast were placed in internment camps because of the fear that they would conspire with a Japanese attack from the Pacific Ocean. A major influx of Asians began in response to new U.S. immigration laws passed in the 1960s, which based immigration quotas more on occupation and education than on region of origin. Immigration policies now favor many Asians, especially those with high educational and professional qualifications enforced by current immigration laws.
A number of groups have come at least partly as a result of Cold War politics since World War II. Koreans are a growing group, concentrated in southern California, Hawaii, Colorado, and New York City. Korean businesses have been the object of violent attacks, such as in the 1992 Los Angeles riots and separate, more recent incidents in New York City. The most recent arrivals are refugees from the political upheavals in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Some estimates suggest that by 2050 as many as 10 percent of all Americans will be of Asian-Pacific Islands origins.