The United States has a long history of income inequality, an issue that is substantially influenced by racial and ethnic disparities among its population. The result is that income inequality undermines US power, since the growing divide between rich and poor sabotages American power abroad, by limiting the ability of the nation to compete economically with Asia and other developing and thriving nations (Feffer.) Many historians and scholars have referred to “apartheid America”, describing a wide range of practices that reinforce the tremendous disparity between people of color and white Americans. Prejudice and discrimination against African-Americans, Native Americans, and Asians create substantial barriers to social, economic, and political progress within these populations, a phenomenon that persists through present day.
The incarceration rate in the United States provides tangible evidence of the disempowerment of African-Americans as well as the apartheid system that has been so detrimental to this community. The United States imprisons a greater proportion of African-Americans than apartheid South Africa did. In the United States, in addition, the wealth gap between blacks and whites during modern times is larger than it was in South Africa in 1971 when apartheid was at its peak. Although when people hear the term “apartheid” they invariably think of S. Africa, the fact is that the United States has an informal system of apartheid that is as damaging to people of color as the existence of black and white segregation in South Africa. During the last 50 years, the gap between African-Americans and white people has either stayed the same or has worsened. The unemployment rate, the gap in income in each household, and the number of children attending segregated schools have all remained essentially at the same rates. However, the disparity in rates of incarceration has worsened.

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Scholars in the United States have applied the word “apartheid” when referring to certain specific periods in history, such as the Jim Crow era, the segregation in housing that persisted for decades, the educational segregation that exists today, and a system of criminal justice that is frequently criminal itself in its racially biased application of “justice.” There are specific barriers regarding a variety of paths to progress that are faced by African-Americans. As mentioned, the incarceration rate has been particularly devastating to African-American males, who were incarcerated at a rate of 4848 per 100,000 when George W. Bush was president (Cole.) In addition, there continues to be segregation regarding residential geography, a problem that is at its worst in American urban areas, ranking in the high 70s to low 80s out of 100 in a scale that measures segregation by location. There are also tremendous numbers of homicides that are concentrated in urban areas inhabited by African-Americans, attributed to a variety of factors including the prevalence of gun culture coupled with a long history of racial segregation. Finally, the degree of police violence has long been an obstacle to keeping communities safe in African-American neighborhoods, and this is often been compared to apartheid South Africa when white police engaged in arbitrary violence, including murder, against black people (Cole.)

Economic disempowerment and political apartheid of Asian Americans have also characterized this population throughout the history of the United States. This can be attributed to apartheid-like attitudes and segregation of the Asian population. Large numbers of Chinese immigrants came to the United States in order to build the railroads and work in other unskilled menial jobs, when ordinary Americans were either unwilling or unable to do this grueling work. The disempowerment of the Asians began quickly after they arrived in the US, and they experienced statutory exclusions based on their race. The schools that their children attended were segregated, and there was increasing narrowing of eligibility to become citizens. Anti-Asian sentiment became so pervasive and volatile that they were victimized and attacked randomly in their own communities.

Asians were excluded from being able to own land, and they were also prevented from owning stocks. This population paid exorbitant taxes, and experienced economic segregation on a long-term basis when they were living in their own segregated communities. They were largely isolated from the Caucasian world. California was the first state to begin limiting Chinese immigration, and soon local biases precipitated national restrictions. All of these attitudes and actions resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. According to this statute, immigration from China was significantly limited. Organized labor turned against the Chinese, and much of the opposition to this population was involved with labor competition. People believed that the Chinese were taking jobs from Americans, when in fact there simply were not enough white Americans to fill these positions, even if they were interested in doing that type of backbreaking labor.

The most extreme version of apartheid confronting Asian-Americans occurred in 1942, when more than 120,000 Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps by executive order by the president. At that point, Asians made up 62% of US citizens, and yet were regarded as suspicious and threats to the national security because of their Asian heritage. The internment also represented a form of political and economic disempowerment since land had to be sold quickly. Restrictions regarding Asian-Americans formed the basis of much broader restrictions imposed on all immigrants. The exclusion of Asians was the beginning of four decades of increased exclusionary practices in the United States. The National Origin Quotas passed in 1921 in 1924 dictated that all immigrants except for those who came from the northern and western European countries were subject to being excluded.

The Native American population in the United States has experienced apartheid in addition to economic and political disempowerment ever since Europeans landed on the continent. Residential segregation is the norm, since Native Americans have been relegated to reservations where they are grouped with their tribe members and frequently operate completely separately from the rest of the American population. The poverty that exists on many of the reservations are comparable to some of the smallest third world countries on the other side of the world. There are 2 million Native Americans in the United States, and their poverty rate is higher than any other racial group, almost twice the national average (Riley.)

This financial devastation contributes to tremendous rates of crime as well as exorbitant rates of alcoholism, suicide, membership in gangs, and sexual abuse. The second highest cause of death among Native Americans ages 10 to 34 is suicide. The reason for these bleak statistics is the disempowerment of American Indians, who are being extremely limited because of inadequate funding. The American Indian communities are experiencing economic devastation, which has been a result of both forced assimilation by the majority white community, mass murder, and war, but it is also due to policies of the federal government: Native Americans cannot own land, and so they are unable to build equity (Riley.) As a result, Native Americans are unable to reach the benefits of financially profiting from being landowners. Financial disempowerment certainly plays a tremendous role in the bleak social and economic problems confronting this community.

The American system of apartheid in combination with the political and economic disempowerment of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans presents them with tremendous obstacles that inhibit their success in a range of areas. Ironically, the term “apartheid” is universally regarded as a phenomenon originating in South Africa, so the idea that it has become an integral part of American society since the country was founded runs counter to the ideals of the Founding Fathers. These three minority groups face bigotry and discrimination that have placed significant barriers between them and their ability to succeed on their own merits far too often during the history of the US. Segregation in housing, schools, and other institutions have been the cause of income inequality and other detrimental social conditions that challenge these groups.

  • Cole, Juan. “Top 5 Ways US Treatment of African-Americans Resembles Apartheid South Africa.” 5 December 2014. Informed Web. 24 October 2016.
  • Feffer, John. “Racial Apartheid in America.” 4 December 2014. Web. 24 October 2016.
  • Riley, Naomi. “One Way to Help Native Americans: Property Rights.” 30 July 2016. The Atlantic. Web. 24 October 2016.