Educators: What You Should Know About Ethnic Minorities in the United States, Part I

The United States is truly a country of immigrants. People from countless ethnic groups have settled in since the nation’s early days.

Because of this, it is not unusual to discuss ethnicity in the US. These discussions often center on race—or characterizations based on physical characteristics. However, although racial classifications may be historically important, it is important to be aware that they can be based on prejudices. They should instead be avoided in favor of ethnic classification. Ethnicity can refer to the common bond within a group of people, based on their race, religion, customs, and cultures, but commonly refers to a mixture of all of these factors.

Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in the United States

Teachers need to be familiar with the various ethnic and cultural minority groups living in the United States today, including:

African Americans. Americans of African descent might be the first racial minority you think of when considering minority groups. African Americans were historically either forcibly brought from Africa between 1500 and 1800 to work as slaves for European American people in the New World or came as free immigrants, seeking a different life. Many African American families have been in the United States longer than many European American families.

African Americans have had a difficult history in the United States. As slaves, they were considered to be property, not people, and were largely kept illiterate. Their owners were afraid that if slaves could read they would begin to demand rights and freedom from slavery. Although some White people in the mid-1700s fought to educate Black Americans in the name of religion, laws were passed making it illegal to teach slaves to read or write in many Southern states. Eventually, support for the education of African Americans grew, and the first school for African Americans, the African Free School, opened in New York City in 1794.

Slavery was finally abolished in 1865. From that date until 1890, African Americans enjoyed equal education in their own schools and received funding to run the schools. Unfortunately, as the European Americans saw African Americans becoming educated and taking jobs they felt were rightfully theirs, this equality took a backward step, and in the early 1900s Black people were once again given fewer educational opportunities than their White counterparts.

Hispanics. Many Hispanic (or Latino) people in the United States, particularly in the Southwest, come from families that have been in California, Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico since the time these states were still a part of the Republic of Mexico. Many Latino families have been in the United States much longer than many families of European descent. Other Hispanics immigrated more recently from countries such as Cuba as well as countries in Central and South America. Historically, there are parallels in the educational experiences of Hispanic children and African American children, as both attended segregated schools.

Hispanic children were able to attend desegregated schools in 1973.

Despite that ruling, today, two of every five Hispanic students still attend intensely racially segregated schools. Almost 90% of Hispanic students attend public schools in urban centers, with almost absolute racial isolation.

The Hispanic population continues to grow in the United States, and their academic achievement will have a huge impact on society for years to come. American schools as a whole are not succeeding in educating Hispanic students. Recent statistics on the educational attainment of Hispanic students paint a bleak future, unless proper measures are taken. In terms of academic attainment, Hispanic students are not achieving a level of success comparable with that of their peers. More than 50% of fourth-grade Hispanic students are not skilled in math and reading, and by the time they are 17 years old, many exhibit math and reading abilities equivalent to those of 13-year-old White students. Only around half of Latino students finish high school, and the graduation outlook is even worse for Latino males. One predictor of academic success is school attendance. For whatever reason, Hispanic students are absent from school at higher rates than their peers.

Several issues contribute to these statistics. According to Fergus, these include the following: school structure, district/school resources, immigrant status/nativity, language barriers, home–school culture compatibility, teacher expectations, location, academic and racial/ethnic identity compatibility, and racial/ethnic identification. To boost the academic achievement of Hispanic students, American schools need to create interventions that can counteract the effects of these issues.

Native Americans. The original inhabitants of the land, Native Americans have been in the United States longer than any other ethnic group, yet their children comprise only about 1% of the student population in American schools. There are a number of reasons for this. One of the most profound reasons is that the Native American people lost a large percentage of their population to European diseases and wars with European settlers. While Native Americans were made slaves during colonial times, they were given the opportunity to become educated in the late 1800s.

Unfortunately, their education was a form of deculturalization, as they were sent to boarding schools with the goal of assimilating them into American culture. They were frequently physically abused when they spoke their traditional language and/or engaged in Native American cultural behaviors. Since the 1960s, Native Americans have been given an increasing amount of control over the education of their children on Native American reservations. They can hire their own teachers and create their own curriculum, and they still receive government funding. This has allowed them to create schools that keep their culture and traditions alive.

Today, Native Americans are often grouped with other indigenous groups to include Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians. Each group is distinct, however, with its own histories, cultures, and languages. Their schooling experiences have differed as well.

As you can see, each of the major ethnic minority groups discussed has had a rough road to educational attainment. In Part II, we’ll look at other ethnic minority groups and their particular struggles.


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