Until the mid-twentieth century, however, these provisions were consciously misinterpreted to allow for disenfranchisement of women and minority groups, dispossession of indigenous peoples, official segregation, discrimination in education, employment and housing, and unequal access to public services. The US Supreme Court repeatedly endorsed these practices as legal and acceptable.
After the Second World War, the Supreme Court shifted its stance radically. The Brown case (1954) ended official school segregation, and is widely seen as a huge step forward for general social integration. This landmark case was broadened by later rulings extending desegregation into other areas and requiring governments to take a proactive stance in integrating ‘racial' groups and providing equal opportunity.
These decisions were both the product of and the engine for an extraordinary period of minority activism for civil and political rights. Eventually, minority demands were recognized in new legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, colour and creed in voting, employment, federal programmes and public facilities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 included a series of measures intended to short-circuit racist attempts to exclude minorities from political life. At the same time, the Johnson administration launched the Great Society anti-poverty campaign, including expanded social welfare programmes and equal employment opportunity laws. Over the next decade, governments and courts entrenched these new laws in policy, and the USA recognized (limited) indigenous sovereignty rights for the first time since the colonial period.
However, the USA has been reluctant to make international commitments to internal minority rights. It has often delayed ratifying UN accords for decades after signing them. Only in the early 1990s did the USA finally ratify the Torture Convention, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The USA is also party to the American Declaration on the Rights of Man, which contains a general statement against discrimination.
Largely, although not entirely, a nation of immigrants, the USA's concepts of civil rights, integration, universal equality and independence have influenced human rights around the globe. Dominance by the ‘white' Christian majority has been a constant since North America was colonized in the sixteenth century. Since US independence in 1776, government policy has evolved from a basis in slavery and conquest, through segregation and exploitation, into an official stance favouring minority integration and even self-determination.
New methods of registering voters have been promoted as a way to bolster minority electoral participation in the USA. The 1965 Voting Rights Act mandated the redrawing of voting districts to benefit minorities. The Act is a cornerstone of the civil rights era and was adopted in 1965 to stop the systematic disenfranchisement of black voters, particularly in the South, through barriers such as poll taxes and literacy tests. The National Voter Registration Act was passed in 1994, after long resistance from the Republican Party. By allowing voters to register when they obtain drivers' licences or at social service offices, this ‘Motor Voter Act' more than tripled the pace of registrations in 1995.
Affirmative action became a pivotal issue in the…