Posted by on Jul 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

Immigrants and Involuntary Minorities

By: Dr. Erich Longie

Native Americans are not the only minority group in the United States. The largest minority groups– Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics– as well as a host of other smaller groups, all face similar barriers to personal growth as Native Americans do. Following a symposium, Gibson and Ogbu (1991) compiled a volume of papers on the subject and titled it Minority Status and Schooling: A Comparative Study of Immigrant andInvoluntary Minorities.

“This volume addresses the central question of why some minority groups do relatively well in school, in spite of facing substantial barriers related to such factors as their different cultures and languages, the prejudiced attitudes of the dominant group toward minorities and unequal access to jobs, while other minorities confronting similar barriers dofar less well in school.” (Gibson & Ogbu, 1991, p. ix)

In a nutshell, Gibson and Ogbu (1991) asserted that there were two types of minorities in the United States, immigrant minorities and involuntary minorities. Immigrant minorities are those who came to this country voluntarily,looking for a better life. They accepted hardships, barriers, and prejudice because they wanted to become part of the mainstream. They came to this country because they believed that the move would lead to economic well-being, better overall opportunities, and/or greater political freedom. These immigrants appeared to interpret the economic, political, and social barriers against them as temporary problems that they would or could overcome with the passage of time, hard work, and/or more education. Such immigrants accepted marginal jobs because they felt that they were still better off than they would have been in their own country. Therefore, they tended to “explore economic resources and niches not wanted by members of the dominant group or other members of their host society” (Ogbu, 1991, p. 12).

“The immigrants appear to rationalize and to acquiesce to the prejudice and discrimination against them by saying, for example, that they are strangers in a foreign land and have no choice but to tolerate prejudice and discrimination as a price worth paying in order to achieve the goals of their emigration.” (Ogbu, 1991, p. 13)

Involuntary minorities are those who were forced to become part of the American society through slavery, conquest, or colonization. They usually resented the loss of their former freedom, and they perceived the social, political, and economic barriers against them as part of their undeserved oppression (Ogbu, 1991). This undeserved oppression led involuntary minorities to differ from the immigrant minorities in their perceptions of chances for success in mainstream society. They interpreted the economic, social, and political barriers against them differently than immigrant minorities. The biggest difference was they did not see their situation as temporary. On the contrary, they interpreted the discrimination against them as permanent and institutionalized, which led them to develop oppositional identity (Ogbu, 1991). Indians who developed oppositional identity believed that regardless of their ability, training, or education, whether they lived off the reservation or on the reservation, whether they dressed and acted like white men, they would not be treated as equals (Green & Wallat, 1981). Furthermore, Indians, as involuntary minorities had no place to go to seek relief from a society that treated them like second-class citizens; they were strangers in their own homeland (Ogbu, 1984).

Finally, involuntary minorities distrusted members of the dominant group and the societal institutions controlled by the latter. This was especially true of Native Americans. Native Americans did not trust schools to provide their children with a good education. Unlike the immigrants, Native Americans find no justification for the prejudice or discrimination that they experience against them in school and society other than the fact that they are Indian. Furthermore, Native Americans, unlike the immigrants, see the prejudice and discrimination against them as institutionalized and enduring. Beginning with the earliest attempts to educate them, Native Americans believed discrimination against them was institutionalized, and that it was not going to be eliminated entirely by getting an education (Ogbu, 1982). Unlike the immigrants, Native American students did not interpret the cultural and language differences they encountered in school as barriers they had to overcome and did not, apparently, make concerted efforts to overcome them.

“Rather, they interpret the cultural and language differences as markers of identity to be maintained. Moreover, they do not appear to make a clear distinction, as the immigrants do, between what they have to learn or do in order to succeed in school (such as learning the standard language and the standard behavior practices of the school) and the dominant-group’s cultural frame of reference (which may be seen as the cultural frame of reference of their ‘oppressors’).” (Ogbu, 1991, p. 26)

Involuntary minorities have a deep distrust for members of the dominant group in society and a distrust for the schools that this dominant group controls more than immigrant minorities do because the former “lack the advantage of the dual frame of reference that allows the immigrants to compare the schools they now attend with the schools they knew ‘back home’” (Ogbu, 1991, p. 28). Instead, involuntary minorities compare their schools with those of the dominant group and conclude that theirs are inferior because they are minorities (Ogbu, 1991).

“Having concluded that their schools and education are inferior, they divert their emotion and efforts in a continual quest for “better schools and better education.” The message is also communicated to children quite early that the schools they attend and the education they are receiving are inferior, a message that contributes to the development of distrust for the system.” (Ogbu, 1991, p. 28)

According to Kramer (1991), American Indian tribes cannot be compared to other ethnic minorities because American Indians stand to lose their culture by integration into the larger society. Christensen and Demmert (1978) “urged tribes to take legal and moral responsibility for their children’s education by exercising control over school boards, approval of curricula, and, if necessary, by establishing separate schools” (p. 140). The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1981) reinforces Christensen and Demmert’s advice:

“Politically, other minorities started with nothing and attempted to obtain a voice in the existing economic and political structure. Indians started with everything and have gradually lost much of what they had to advancing alien civilization. . . . Indian tribes have always been separate political entities interested in maintaining their own institutions and beliefs. . . . So while other minorities have sought integration into the larger society, much of Indian society is motivated to retain its political and cultural separateness.” (pp. 32-33)


Christensen, R., & Demmert, W. (1978). The education of Indians and the mandate of Indians. In T. Thompson (Ed.), The schooling of native America (pp. 139-152). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Gibson, M. A., & Ogbu, J. U. (Eds.). (1991). Minority Status and schooling: A comparative study of immigrant and involuntary minorities. New York: Garland Publishing.

Green, J., & Wallat, C. (1981). Ethnography and language in the educational setting. Norwood, NJ: ABLEX.

Kramer, B. J. (1991). Education and American Indians: The experience of the Ute Indian tribe. In M. A. Gibson & J. U. Ogbu (Eds.), Minority status and schooling: A comparative study of immigrant and involuntary minorities (pp. 287-308). New York: Garland Publishing.

U. S. Commission on Civil Rights. (1981). Indian tribes: A continuing quest for survival. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.