Unit Twelve: Dominant Group and Minority Group Relations in a Global Context

In previous units the focus has been on the changing patterns of majority and minority relations in the United States.  The dynamics of race and ethnic relations occurs in other societies around the world as well.  This unit will examine how other countries struggle with issues related to majority and minority group relations.

Traits That Influence Inter-group Relations Around the World

Effects of Colonialism

colonialism6Colonialism or conquest of one racial or ethnic group by another can have a damaging influence on majority-minority group relations.  In a previous unit, colonialist practices were used to describe the current struggles of African Americans here in the United States compared to other ethnic groups which arrived here freely through immigration.  Many of the individual countries which will be explored in greater detail below have had to endure the ravages of colonialism.  A sociologist named Stanley Lieberson examined majority-minority relations both historically and comparatively and concluded that when an “indigenous group”- one that is established in and native to an area- is subordinated to another group entering from the outside, the result usually is conflict and ethnic inequality. Assimilation and inter-group cooperation become very difficult.  Although there are historical examples which don’t fit Lieberson’s theory (Mexico, Brazil), many of the country profiles listed below do fit this theory. But colonialism and domination of an indigenous population by an immigrant population appears to be one of the factors most closely associated with ethnic conflict and inequality.  Much of the ethnic conflict found across the world today can be traced back to colonialism. Sometimes colonial powers drew arbitrary maps that increased the potential for ethnic violence, or they used the strategy of “divide and conquer” where they gave benefits to one ethnic group, while withholding the benefits from another ethnic group. This created infighting and jealousies between the groups, while deflecting criticism and anger from the colonial power.

Colonialism can also produce severe problems between the colonial power and the indigenous population. The colonizing power will use extreme force to subjugate and rule.  Here is a small insight into British colonial rule in Keyna: Caroline Elkins, a professor at Harvard, spent nearly 10 years compiling the evidence contained in her book Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. “The inmates were used as slave labour. Above the gates were edifying slogans, such as “Labour and freedom” and “He who helps himself will also be helped”. Loudspeakers broadcast the national anthem and patriotic exhortations. People deemed to have disobeyed the rules were killed in front of the others. The survivors were forced to dig mass graves, which were quickly filled. Unless you have a strong stomach I advise you to skip the next paragraph.

Interrogation under torture was widespread. Many of the men were anally raped, using knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels, snakes and scorpions. A favourite technique was to hold a man upside down, his head in a bucket of water, while sand was rammed into his rectum with a stick. Women were gang-raped by the guards. People were mauled by dogs and electrocuted. The British devised a special tool which they used for first crushing and then ripping off testicles. They used pliers to mutilate women’s breasts. They cut off inmates’ ears and fingers and gouged out their eyes. They dragged people behind Land Rovers until their bodies disintegrated. Men were rolled up in barbed wire and kicked around the compound.”

 Number of Racial and Ethnic Groups Living Inside a Country

Another factor that influences majority-minority relations is the number or racial or ethnic groups in a society.  Generally speaking, when a society has many groups that are recognized as distinct, it tends to have less racial and ethnic conflict and less inequality than when it has only two groups.  When there are several groups there is often no one group large or powerful enough to dominate the others.  When there are only two groups, it is much easier for one group to discriminate against the other.  The number of different groups may help explain why a place like Hawaii, which has many different groups has relatively peaceful race relations, while a country like Rwanda, which is dominated by two groups, the Hutu and Tutsi, does not.

In addition to numbers, another factor is whether or not ethnic groups are territorially based.  If a subordinate group in concentrated in one area and not dispersed, it increases the chance of ethnic conflict. When a subordinate group is territorial based, a separatist or secessionist movement develops.  Examples would be the French community in Quebec, the Kurds in Iraq, and the Basques in Northern Spain.


When two ethnic groups speak different languages, the potential for conflict between them increases. This is an issue between French and English speaking Canadians.  In recent years it is also created problems in the United States.  A growing Hispanic populations has been demanding bilingual education programs and government materials be printed in Spanish.  This has created a backlash with various groups seeking to make English the official language.

Surges of Immigration

Prejudice and ethnic violence against minorities can be increased during periods where there is a surge in immigration.  The rise of Neo-Nazis in Germany has been in response to the surge of immigrants coming from countries such as Turkey and the former Yugoslavia.  Over the past few decades there has been a surge in immigrants from North Africa into France.  In the summer of 2005 there were mass riots between the new immigrants and French nationals and the police.

Individual Country Profiles

South Africa

nelsonmandelaIn the mid 1600’s the first Dutch settlers began to colonize South Africa.  In time they were replaced by the British. The white population, which never exceeded 20% of the total population, became the dominant group.  Beginning in 1949 and lasting over forty years of South Africa’s history, a legally mandated system of racial classification and segregation was implemented called apartheidUnder apartheid, the law determined who could live where, who could work at what job, who one could marry, and who could vote.  A rigid caste system was put in place because whites came to see the black majority as a threat to their economic supremacy.  The severe discrimination led to violent protests and uprisings.  Blacks who advocated for equal rights were harassed, put in jail, or killed.  Finally, in 1993, an agreement was reached giving blacks the right to vote and hold office.  In 1994 Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in jail as an anti-apartheid activist, was elected the first black president of South Africa.  With Nelson Mandela’s election began the challenging task of undoing decades of institutionalized racial inequality.

Northern Ireland

bloodysundayNot all conflicts are along racial lines.  In Northern Ireland, both groups are white Europeans. Although at first glance the conflict seems to be religious,  the real underlying cause is colonialism.  Britain began setting up military outposts in the sixteenth century. Eventually settlers were brought in and began competing economically with the native Irish.  Although colonialism is the primary cause for the conflict, religion plays an important role as well.  The Irish are predominately Catholic, while the British are predominately Protestant.  There was a low level of conflict between the Irish Catholics and the British for centuries, but the conflict dramatically increased in the late 1960’s through most of the 1990’s.  In the three decades of violence approximately 3,600 lives were lost.  The most dramatic event of the conflict was Bloody Sunday.  On 30th January 1972, 13 Catholics were killed when soldiers of a British paratroop regiment opened fire during a civil rights march in Londonderry.  Many witnesses including bystanders and journalists testify that all those shot were unarmed. Five of those wounded were shot in the back. The day became known as Bloody Sunday. Its impact led to a resurgence of violent opposition to the British presence in Northern Ireland. In the mid 1980’s a wall was built in the capital of Belfast to separate the Catholic and Protestant sections of the city. An agreement was reached in 1998 for a shared National Assembly, proportional representation and guarantees for minority rights. On May 8, 2007  Northern Ireland’s major Protestant and Catholic parties joined together  to form a power-sharing government, marking a “new era of politics” and an end to three decades of sectarian conflict in the province. Protestant Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley was sworn in as the Northern Ireland assembly’s first minister and  Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein assumed the role of deputy first minister.


Former Yugoslavia

ethniccleansingThe roots of ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia goes back centuries and is the product of colonialism.  The many different ethnic groups (Serbs, Croats, Slovenians, Albanians, Kosovarians, Bosnians) were ruled either by Hungry or Turkey. After World War I, in 1918, the modern nation of Yugoslavia was formed.  From then, Yugoslavia was dominated by the Serbs.  During World War II, ethnic massacres were committed by almost all of Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups against one another.   These actions added to the resentment and the harsh feelings, which persisted into the 1990’s, when every group in Yugoslavia had scores to settle.

From the end of World War Ii to 1980, Yugoslavia was held together by the leadership of Josip Tito, who was a communist.  Tito used the threat of a invasion of the Soviet Union to keep ethnic resentment in check.  Tito died in 1980 and the Soviet Union fell from superpower status in 1990.  Without the leadership of Tito and the fear of the Soviet Union,  Yugoslavia degenerated in the 1990’s into ethnic conflicts.  Slobadan Milosevic rose to power in Serbia.  He fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism, and soon,  the worst case of ethnic genocide in Europe since World War II began.

Serbia began a campaign called Ethnic Cleansing.  Ethnic Cleansing is the forced removal of members of an ethnic group from their communities with the goal of changing the ethnic composition of a region.  Ethnic cleansing involves forced expulsions, the creation of detention centers were military age men are separated from their families, and executions and rape.  After Milosevic sent Serbian troops into Kosovo in 1998, NATO forces began bombing Serbia.  Serbia withdrew its forces, and NATO maintains a peacekeeping force there.  Since the 1990’s, Yugoslavia has ceased to exist.  There are now many independent countries in its place.

Map of Ethnic Groups in the Former Yugoslavia Based on 1991 Census


Former Soviet Union

The problems of the Soviet Union are the same as for Yugoslavia- a consequence of colonialism and domination of the majority Russians over a large number of ethnic groups. Beginning with the rule of the Czars in the sixteenth century and going through the late nineteenth century, Russian control expanded to include such groups as Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, and Chechens.

In 1917 the Czar’s government was overthrown during the Bolshevik Revolution.  Vladimir Lenin, the new leader of the Soviet Union, declared his support for an ethnic nation to break away.  However, shortly after the Ukraine declared its independence, Soviet troops invaded and established Soviet rule.  Soviet control was similarly established over almost all the former Russian territories.  The Soviet Union squashed all dissent, even that of ethnic nationalism. The various ethnic groups were forced under extreme assimilation, to learn to speak Russian and to learn Russian culture and customs.  Throughout the rule of the communists, there were repeated purges of non-Russian, ethnic-orientated individuals in the Communist party and government.  In compelling more than 100 ethnic groups to live under a common government, the Soviet Union sowed the seeds for the ethnic turmoil of the 1990’s and its ultimate destruction.

chechnyaAs the Soviet Union began to unravel in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, all fifteen of its republics established themselves as independent countries.  With their new found freedom, countries pursued old ethnic rivalries.  Two former republics, Armenia and Azerbaijan, immediately plunged into a war that resulted in heavy casualties.  The area of the former Soviet Union with the worst ethnic strife is Chechnya.  Warfare between the Chechen rebels and the Russian army has dragged on for years.  Chechnya is a predominantly Muslim region n Russia that was conquered long ago.  After the breakup of the Soviet Union Chechnya declared its independence.  Boris Yeltzin sent troops to Chechnya in 1994.  By the time Russia removed its troops in 1997, more than 30,000 people had been killed.  Not happy with not having full independence, Chechen rebels began a campaign of terror which included many bombings and attacks within Russia.  In 2002, more than 100 Russian civilians were killed in a Moscow theater by Chechen rebels.

Map of Ethnic Groups in Former Soviet Union 

Middle East


The origins of this conflict are old and complex.  Both the dominant group (Jews) and the subordinate group (Palestinians) in today’s Israel, have historical claims to the land.  The area that comprises Israel and the Palestinian lands has significant religious importance for Christians, Jews, and Moslems.  The impetus for the Jewish state was not from the expansionist desires of a colonial power but rather from the desire of persecuted people for a safe homeland.  Palestinian claims can be traced back to the spread of Islam under Ottoman rule.  Before the Zionist movement (the desire of Jewish people to have a homeland of their own) of the twentieth century, the area was largely populated by Palestinians. Hundreds of thousands of Jews resettled from Europe to what was then British-controlled Palestine, including large numbers forced out of Europe during the Holocaust. In 1947 the United Nations voted to split the land into two countries. The establishment of the Jewish state of Israel was imposed against the will of the local Palestinians population.  Since the formation of Israel in 1948, there has been violence between Israelis and Palestinians. The 1948 war uprooted 700,000 Palestinians from their homes, creating a refugee crisis that is still not resolved. Palestinians call this mass eviction the Nakba — Arabic for “catastrophe” — and its legacy remains one of the most intractable issues in ongoing peace negotiations.  There is also the problem of Jewish settlements in Palestinian territory. Settlements are communities of Jews that have been moving to the West Bank since it came under Israeli occupation in 1967. Settlements are generally considered to be a major impediment to peace and a violation of international law.


During the twentieth century, the story of Iraq was one of prejudice, discrimination, and persecution between the three main groups of Iraq—Sunni,  Shiíte, and the Kurds. Iraqi Shiítes live primarily in central and southern Iraq, from Baghdad south between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to the city of Basra and the Persian Gulf. The Sunni live from Baghdad north along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The entire area of the Tigris and Euphrates River was commonly known as Mesopotamia from ancient times until the end of World War I (1914–18) when the country of Iraq was created. Kurds, who are also Muslims and descended from Indo-European tribes, live in mountainous northeastern Iraq. Kurdish areas in Iraq are bordered on the east by Iran and the north by Turkey. Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, there has been increased ethnic conflict with enormous bloodshed between these three groups.


rwandagenocideRwanda is a landlocked country in the interior of Africa. In 1994, it made international headlines because two of its groups, the Hutus and the Tutsis began fighting each other.  The roots of the ethnic strife can once again traced to colonialism.  The European colonizers (particularly Belgium) attempted to ease the difficulty of administering and controlling Rwanda by taking advantage of a long-standing enmity between Tutsis and HutusIn a classic case of divide and rule, the Belgians placed the Tutsis in a position to govern the Hutus which intensified the hostilities between the tribes.  From its independence in 1962, there were periodic armed clashes between Hutus and Tutsis. In the early 1990’s a rebel force led by exile Tutsis invaded Rwanda with the intention of overthrowing the Hutu dominated government.  In the spring of 1994 the plane carrying the Hutu president was shot down.  This incident led to the massacre known as the Rwandan Genocide.  It is estimated that perhaps 800,000 people were massacred, many by machetes.


franceriotsMany European countries today are increasingly dealing with ethnic strife.  For countries like Great Britain and France, the aftermath of colonialism is contributing to ethnic discord.  Both Britain and France have allowed many people from their former colonies to immigrate into their countries.  In Britain, a series of ethnic conflicts has plagued the nation since the 1980’s, culminating in the rioting between white and Asian youths in several cities in 2001.   France has had similar problems.  Most of its immigrants have come from Northern Africa and tend to be Moslem. On October 27, 2005, two French youths of Malian and Tunisian descent were electrocuted as they fled the police in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois.  Their deaths sparked nearly three weeks of rioting in 274 towns throughout the Paris region, France, and beyond.  The rioters, mostly unemployed teenagers from destitute suburban housing projects (the cités HLM) caused over $200 million in damage as they torched nearly 9000 cars and dozens of buildings, daycare centers, and schools.  The French police arrested close to 2900 rioters; 126 police and firefighters were injured, and there was one fatality – a bystander who died after being struck by a hooded youth.  In Denmark, a Danish newspaper,  Jyllands-Posten printed 12 caricatures of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in September of 2005. Those cartoons sparked an international controversy, ultimately resulting in the scorching of two Danish diplomatic missions, a boycott of Danish goods in several countries, and a large number of protests in the Muslim world.   In 2004 in the Netherlands,  a Dutch filmmaker, Theo van Gogh,  who had received death threats  after releasing a movie criticizing the treatment of women under Islam was slain in Amsterdam  He  had been threatened after the August airing of the movie “Submission,” which he made with a right-wing Dutch politician who had renounced the Islamic faith of her birth.

Ethnic problems in Germany are related to immigration, rather than colonialism.  Since the end of World War II, Germany has worked hard to atone for the atrocities committed by the Nazis.  They have generous immigration laws.  Besides the need for workers, Germany also faces a declining birth rate and needs immigrants to keep from seeing its population decrease.  However, opposition to immigration in recent years has led to a tighter immigration policy and an increase in racial conflict.  In addition, Germany has experienced some economic difficulties arising from the unification of the former communist East Germany.   In such demographic, economic, and cultural experiences, it became easy to view immigrants as a threat.  Neo-Nazis and other groups began beating, bombing, and killing immigrants. Because of the wars in Syria, Iraq and North African countries such as Libya, the number of refugees fleeing for safety in Europe has increased dramatically in recent years.  More than 11 million Syrians have fled or been driven from their homes in that country’s civil war since it started in 2011. Europe is the closest wealthy, safe and accessible region from the Mideast and Africa. Some European countries are known for welcoming asylum seekers and providing benefits to help them get started in their new homes. But those countries are mostly in northern or western Europe. Migrants might arrive in Europe first in Greece, but after living on the streets or in temporary shelter there, they head to more prosperous countries, particularly Germany.  In 2015 1.3 million refugees entered Europe.  These numbers have challenged Europeans to commit to accepting more refugees in the future. This has led to a rise in anti-immigrant political parties across Europe.


quebecThe major majority-minority issue in Canada is cultural and linguistic, not racial.  It involves the Quebec providence.  The conflict is between two white, European, Christian groups (English and French speaking Canadians).  The dominance of the English speaking population (20% of the population) in Quebec over the larger French speaking population began with the defeat of the French to the British in 1759.  From that time forward, English speaking Canadians have had a dominant social economic, and political position.  Conflict escaladed in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  In 1980, a referendum on separation from Canada failed as did a second referendum in 1995.  However, during this time, strict laws mandating that French was to be the official language of Quebec, despite Canada’s national policy of bilingualism.  The ethnic problems of Quebec show that ethnic problems can arise because of colonization and domination, even when both groups are from the same race and share similar cultural values.


There are many countries in Asia facing ethnic conflict.  A short description for a few of them is provided below.


Japan is a multiethnic society largely in denial about its diversity issues. There are six principle minority groups — the Ainu, burakumin, Chinese, Koreans, nikkeijin (Japanese return migrants and their descendants) and Okinawans who suffer the most discrimination within Japan. Although cases of extreme racism exist globally, Japan is notable for its lack of dialogue about racism and the absence of meaningful change to protect people against discrimination. Japan sees itself as a homogenous nation. It has one of the least ethnically diverse populations in the world, and the country’s overwhelming homogeneity means that any Japanese citizens who are not 100 percent ethnically Japanese are seen as foreign in their own homeland.


Estimates vary, but close to 120 million Chinese citizens do not belong to the majority Han ethnic group. The existence of deep and broad hostility and discrimination toward  and other non-Han Chinese citizens will prevent China from avoiding ethnic conflict as China grows more prosperous and powerful. Aside from the Tibetans, the only other Chinese  commanding substantial international media attention is the , another group among which some hold a desire for independence. The Uyghur’s native Xinjiang region has in recent years seen an upswing in violence, which authorities have answered with a heavy-handed crackdown on terrorism.


The Rohingya are a Muslim minority group from the northern Rakhine State in western Burma. Burma is predominately Buddhist. The Burmese government has isolated and demonized the 1.3 million Rohingya in Burma. Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Act denies the Rohingya people citizenship, and forces them to claim to be Bengali migrants, allowing the government to easily deport them. They are limited in their rights to marry, have children, work, obtain healthcare and go to school.  Fleeing violence, over 140,000 Rohingya live in what many describe as “concentration camps” where they face severe restrictions and are denied basic necessities including medical care. Since 2012, an estimated 100,000 Rohingya have fled Burma by boat. Apart from the risk of drowning, many of those who flee fall into the hands of human traffickers, and are forced to work on rubber plantations or in the sex trade.


Australia is similar to the United States in that it has long been a destination for immigrants. It is also similar in that it has a long history of mistreating minority group members. The group that has received unfair treatment the longest has been the Aborigines.  They are native to Australia and have suffered discrimination in similar ways to what Native Americans and African Americans experienced in the United States. Other immigrant groups from China, India, and the Middle East have experienced a surge of discrimination in recent years.

   actionMovies Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of movies that exhibit the sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  Bloody Sunday.  A dramatization of the Irish civil rights protest march and subsequent massacre by British troops on January 30, 1972.

2.  Suicide Killers.  A documentary that examines the psychopathology behind suicide bombers.



books03 Books Relevant to This Unit

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, And War in Rwanda  by Scott Straus

2.  Diasporas and Ethnic Migrants: Germany, Israel and Russia in Comparative Perspective by Rainer Munz




Farley, John E.      2005   Majority-Minority Relations  (5th Edition)  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:   Pearson Education

Healey, Joseph F.      1998   Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Class  (2nd Edition)  Thousand Oaks, California:   Pine Forge Press



Copyright © 2006, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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