Historical Injustices in the United States

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: UNDERSTANDING THE US GOVERNMENT

By Jennifer Nicoll Victor, Ph.D., George Mason University

The United States has historically witnessed many injustices against various races, from African-Americans to Native Americans. But today’s circumstances are certainly not what they used to be, although there are still some ongoing concerns. What were those injustices and what are the present-day concerns of the Americans?

"Black lives matter" sign on the side of a crowded street.
Over the years, many people in the United States have faced injustices. (Image: Michal Urbanek/Shutterstock)

The Struggle between Settlers and Native Tribes

European settlers who came to North America claimed the land as their own, while Native people responded to the arrival of westerners with a variety of reactions including cooperation and violent self-defense. 

There were numerous violent struggles for a territory that erupted between Native people and western settlers in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s. Ultimately, under the direction of President Andrew Jackson, many Native people were forcibly removed from their lands and relocated onto areas that whites had not yet settled.

Over the years, the United States made hundreds of treaties with Native tribes, with agreements about the division of resources. However, the United States failed to honor any of those treaties.

In 1851, Congress established the Indian Reservation System as a means to contain and segregate native populations from whites. But the whites often violated the agreement in multiple ways. 

It was not until 1924 that the government considered Native Americans born in the US to be citizens, although it took another 40 years for all 50 states to grant them full voting rights.

This is a transcript from the video series Understanding the US Government. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Hard Times of Latinx People

Americans who come from Spanish speaking regions, typically including Mexico, South/Latin America and the Caribbean, make up one of the fastest-growing minority groups in the United States. 

An illustration of a person wearing an eye band, with "Injustice" written on it.
The Supreme Court ruled on many cases to remove injustices from the American society.
(Image: GodIdeas/Shutterstock)

Sometimes referred to as Latinx people—which is a gender-neutral combination of “Latino” the masculine word for a person from Latin America, and “Latina” the feminine—this group of people is incredibly diverse and lives throughout the United States. 

A full eight years before the Supreme Court ruled against legalized racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, in 1947, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Mendez v. Westminster to end segregated schools in California that had separated Spanish speaking students from English speaking ones.

Learn more about the hearts and minds of black children.

The Application of the 14th Amendment

In a landmark 1954 case about the inability of a Latino man to be tried by a jury of his peers because no Latinos were included in the jury pool, the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment applied to all racial minorities, not just African-Americans, as the state of Texas argued in Hernandez v. Texas earlier that year. 

The Supreme Court’s decision was important for the future of the civil rights movements because it helped to ensure that civil rights advances made through the middle of the 20th Century would apply to all racial minorities in the United States, not just some.

Racial Discrimination against Asians

Immigration from Asian countries was strictly limited by quotas during the early part of the 20th century, and Americans of Asian descent were denied the ability to become naturalized citizens. 

After the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii that sparked America’s entrance into World War II, many Americans were fearful of an equally violent attack on the West Coast. 

In response, the United States required that regardless of their citizenship status, people of Japanese descent who lived on the West Coast be forcibly removed from their homes and confined in internment camps. More than 100,000 Americans, most of whom were citizens, were relocated.

The Civil Rights and War

The US engaged in this obvious unconstitutional violation of civil rights because of the fear that spies or traitors would undermine the US war effort. 

Civil rights and civil liberties are often most strongly curtailed during times of war, crisis, or when people are afraid, and elect to give their government leaders unusual powers with the hope that they will be protected from harm. 

It wasn’t until 1988 that the US formally apologized to Japanese Americans for the internment camps and offered some compensation to families who suffered losses during that era.

The Stonewall Riot

The movement for gay civil rights in the United States is often traced to an event in 1969 known as the Stonewall riot in New York City, in which police raided a well-known gay bar and the local neighborhood erupted in protest over the harsh treatment of employees and patrons. 

Female and male hands holding small LGBT flags.
Sexual minorities also suffered from injustices in the United States. (Image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Since that pivotal event, the movement for increased civil rights in the broader gay community has advanced faster than any other civil rights movement in history and has achieved historic gains. 

Despite a backslide in the 1986 case of Bowers v. Hardwick in which the Supreme Court ruled against a right to privacy for homosexual activity in one’s own home, the gay rights movement advanced dramatically through the late-20th and early 21st centuries.

Learn more about the changing state of American democracy.

The Evolution of the Sexual Minority Movement

In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled in Romer v. Evans that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause applied to gay rights. 

In 2003, the Supreme Court overturned the 1986 Bowers decision in Lawrence v. Texas, ruling that sexual conduct between consenting adults in the United States is protected behavior under an understood constitutional right to privacy. 

And, after a long period of controversy and uncertainty regarding marriage among same-sex couples, in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled on the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case, ruling that state bans on gay marriages were unconstitutional.

Common Questions about Historical Injustices in the United States

Q: How did the Supreme Court rule on the 14th amendment?

To curtail some of the historical injustices, the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th amendment must be applied to all racial minorities.

Q: What is Latinx?

Latinx is a combination of Latina (feminine) and Latino (masculine). Latinx, along with blacks, others suffered extreme forms of discrimination in the U.S.

Q: What was the Romer v. Evans case about?

In 1996, the Supreme Court ruled in Romer v. Evans that the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause applied to gay rights. 

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