By: Rubén Martinez, Ph.D.


In 1948, J. S. Furnivall argued that colonial societies were plural societies. In studying societies in the Far East he recognized that different peoples live side by side but separately within the same nation state, with persons from different groups coming into contact mainly in the marketplace. People are integrated within their own institutions, with institutional diversity occurring across society. They differ on the basis of values, beliefs, and forms of organization. Yet, the society holds together. How does this occur? It was initially thought that these societies were held together by consensus, but M. G. Smith and L. Kuper later argued that they were held together by force. That is, there exists a dominant cultural group that regulates intersectional relations through the control of government. Rights and privileges are granted by the dominant group.
Since Furnivall, the concept of pluralism has been extended to racial dynamics in which separation by force, whether by law or informal practices, occurs. Structural pluralism and cultural pluralism are deemed important for understanding racial and ethnic dynamics in this country. Milton Gordon developed two models of racial and ethnic pluralistic societies that can be distinguished along the following dimensions: 1) differential treatment by law, 2) individual versus group rewards, 3) structural separation, 4) cultural differences, 5) area exclusivism, and 6) institutional monolingualism versus multilingualism.
In these models are differences in power and authority along racial and ethnic axes. While a degree of consensus exists regarding such values as liberty, equality, privacy, and due process of law, there also exist structurally induced inequalities by race and ethnic differences between groups that are maintained by the dominant group. Historically, government has been the principal instrument used to maintain hierarchical structures that perpetuate the status of the dominant group, whether by outright violence, abuse of the law, or imposition of regulations or policies.
The different subordinate groups have each struggled to make America live up to its values of liberty and equality. As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. stated in his last public speech, “All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper.” The struggles of subordinate groups have a long history in America, and there can be no question that government agencies from police to the military were used to establish and maintain their subordinate status.
Native Americans were the first to suffer the violence perpetrated by European colonists. The earliest wars in what is the U.S. occurred between the Pequot and Dutch colonists (1634) and the Pequot and British colonists (1636-37). The skirmish with the Dutch occurred as a result of smugglers and slavers attempting to kidnap Native women and in retaliation for having killed the Pequot chief. The war with the British colonists followed a series of skirmishes with different tribes in the Connecticut River Valley. The war lasted 11 months and with the defeat of the Pequot the colonists expanded their reach into the area.
The war was formally concluded with the Treaty of Hartford in 1638, which divided up the lands of the Pequot among the colonists and allied tribes. This process of conquest and displacement would be repeated again and again across the centuries. Further, displacement would lead to reservations, with the first one, the Brotherton Reservation, established on August 29, 1758 in Shamong, New Jersey. Today, more than a million Native Americans live on 310 reservations across the U.S.
While slavery existed in the Spanish colonies for more than a century, it wasn’t until 1619 that a pirate ship with “twenty and odd” Africans sailed into Point Comfort on what is today the Virginia peninsula. The Africans were among the 147 survivors of the 350 or so stolen by the Portuguese from what is today present-day Angola. Fifty were stolen from the Portuguese off the coast of Mexico by English pirates, boarded on two ships, one of which docked at Point Comfort, where the 20 or so Africans were traded for food. The Africans became indentured servants. In 1640, an indentured servant, John Punch, was sentenced to a life of slavery in Virginia for having attempted to escape to Maryland. This event set in motion the institution of formal slavery in the British colonies. History has recorded numerous resistance efforts by slaves, and many were able to run away to maroon communities in the South, on small islands in the Caribbean, and in Mexico. Today, there are several million African American descendants of slaves.
As the U.S. sought to fulfill its “Manifest Destiny” after Texans revolted against Mexico, it provoked a war with Mexico in 1846 which ended with the “purchase” of the region known today as the Southwest. With it came new citizens, descendants of Spanish colonists, whose rights were to be preserved and protected per the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. After a few years of martial law, Californians and New Mexicans quickly began to feel organized processes of land dispossession and proletarianization with self-sustaining communities transformed into wage-earning communities. Integration into an already existing labor system defined by racial divisions meant “doing the dirty work” for low wages. Resistance efforts were quashed with open violence.
As the slave trade declined, the Chinese replaced African slaves as forced laborers in many parts of the Western Hemisphere, including the United States. In San Francisco, California, during the Gold Rush, Chinese women were sold into slavery or indentured servitude, and forced into prostitution. Years later, Chinese workers, many of them indentured servants (basically debt slaves), helped build the first Transcontinental Railroad in the United States. Following the completion of these projects, Americans wanted them to leave the country. In California, anti-Chinese laws were passed, and in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the immigration of Chinese workers.
Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos have largely remained at the bottom of the socio-economic structure of American society. Institutional forms of group domination and oppression varied across the groups, but all were and remain within the orbit of the same general system that limits their life chances. Efforts to make America live up to its promise as a democratic republic brought about incremental changes, especially through the courts. Achievements by one group benefitted others both directly and indirectly. For example, the decision in the Mendez v. Westminster (1947) case contributed to the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). In the former, Mexican Americans challenged the constitutionality of school segregation and won a favorable decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which set the legal precedent for the Brown decision.
The internal logic of court decisions emphasizes precedence and contributes to the positive influences of cases beyond the specific groups that initiate them. Historically, the different subordinate groups have seldom collaborated or worked together to bring about progressive change in society. Barriers to collaboration include the “divide and conquer” tactics used by the dominant group, group-centered interests, and zero-sum perspectives.
These groups, often called “historically disadvantaged groups,” entered American society at different points in time and under different conditions. All were brought into the orbit of colonial dynamics by force and violence, and those factors have had long-term consequences. To understand their subordinate statuses through the framework of voluntary immigration and assimilation that is used to understand the experiences of European immigrants is to misinterpret the dynamics set in motion by forced entry. The ideologies that legitimated their domination stemmed from and became embedded in the nation’s core institutions and perpetuated their subordinate statuses.
Social movements that have sought to eradicate racial structures have been tempered by the interests and views of the dominant group, and subordinate groups have not generated the level of influence to achieve structural changes. They have struggled alone rather than collectively. The primacy of group interests has tended to blind them to the need for intergroup collaboration, and zero-sum perspectives have perpetuated siloed struggles. Members of the groups, including the dominant group, tend to believe that gains by another group entail losses by their own. As such, they seek to protect their interests and maximize their gains. This perspective hinders progressive movements. Only by working together can the different subordinate groups muster the level of influence to bring about institutional changes that lead to a more just society for all.