Dominant minority

Dominant minority

A dominant minority, also known as alien elites if they are recent immigrants, is a group that has overwhelming political, economic or cultural dominance in a country or region despite representing a small fraction of the overall population (a demographic minority). The term is most commonly used to refer to an ethnic group which is defined along racial, national, religious or cultural lines and that holds a disproportionate amount of power.

The rule of dominant minorities often contradicts the mandate of the country's majority; such situations are widely criticized as undemocratic (as during the global movement against apartheid in South Africa). However, there are also some cases of powerful dominant minorities in countries that are at least nominally democratic (such as Colombia or Jamaica). The persistence of dominant elites in a democratic context may entail undemocratic means of sustaining power (such as political violence against third-party candidates in Colombia, or death squad violence against the legal left in El Salvador during the 1980s). Political exclusion of the majority often leads to widespread popular resentment towards the dominant elite. Absent the ability to effect change by democratic means, this resentment can be a primary factor in causing rebellion and civil war (by driving the disenfranchised to guerrilla activity).

The tension between a dominant minority and the larger majority, in democratic cases, often becomes central to national politics. For instance, Nelson Mandela gained his immense popularity after years of resistance against the apartheid government of South Africa; some militant members of the dominant minority (Afrikaners) reacted to his democratic ascent with anti-civilian terrorism, by setting off car bombs at polling stations during the election that brought him to power. Also, in the course of Haiti's first free and fair election, Jean-Bertrand Aristide rose to power by rallying the poor majority behind his organization while openly criticizing the elites of the country (mostly white and mulatto); elites of the minority were very sensitive to his populist stance and viewed him as hostile, and the leaders of the elite (such as the Group of 184 and Convergence Démocratique organizations) openly accused Aristide of fomenting class war and even claimed he was permitting popular violence against the elite. Both of Aristide's elected terms were interrupted (and in the second case, terminated altogether) by violent coups orchestrated by the dominant elite.

Similar tensions have marked the entire republican history of Bolivia, where the population demographics strongly demonstrate the unrepresentative quality of the criollo politicians who dominated Bolivian politics until 2006. The population is mostly indigenous (55%), with a significant mestizo (mixed) population (about 30%), and a small criollo population (15%) who have functioned as the dominant elite. For years, the criollo minority maintained power very consistently through a series of governments, both elected and unelected (installed by coup), and sometimes included mestizos in their ranks. Despite the fact that the indigenous have always constituted a majority in Bolivia, the electorate never chose an indigenous president for the first 180 years of the nation's history; this trend ended in 2006 with the election of Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous President. The persistence of criollo rulers until 2006 had been sustained by several factors: in the unelected cases, minority rule was enabled due to a multitude of anti-democratic coups (such as the Cocaine Coup of 1980); in the elected cases, rule was sustained by hierarchical networks of clientelism and patronage, the populist co-opting of unions and other organizations, and voter exclusion.

In some cases of rule by dominant elite minorities, ostensibly democratic systems have not enabled the resentful majority to unseat elite rulers. Voter exclusion is primary tactic of maintaining elite minority rule in the context of elections; a leading tactic, which was utilized for years in Ecuador, is the institution of literacy requirements (especially in developing countries, where there are low literacy rates). Another common tactic of disenfranchisement is fomenting apathy towards elections. In Colombia, for instance, the violent exclusion of third-party candidates (coupled with a high degree of mistrust towards the candidates of the two traditional parties, mostly from the dominant elite minority) has led to a situation of widespread voter apathy among the poor (who constitute 60% of the population), with well under 50% of eligible voters participating in the country's elections.

During the early post-colonial era in Africa, the cases of Rhodesia and South Africa were clear cases of rule by dominant minorities; the dominant minority phenomenon in Africa was not limited to Whites, however. The most famous example of an inter-African dominant minority is the Tutsi in Rwanda and Burundi.

More examples of dominant minorities

Other examples of dominant minorities that have been said to exist, or to have existed in the past include:

Market-dominant minority are cases of situations where a minority group has had disproportionate representation in economically powerful positions and has achieved higher incomes than the majority community.

The most commonly cited examples of minorities that may have had economic power and influence in a society but lacked political dominance and often suffered as a result are the South Asians in East Africa, and Han Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia.

See also


  • Barzilai, Gad. Communities and Law: Politics and Cultures of Legal Identities (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003). ISBN 978-0-472-03079-8
  • Gibson, Richard. African Liberation Movements: Contemporary Struggles against White Minority Rule (Institute of Race Relations: Oxford University Press, London, 1972). ISBN 0-19-218402-4
  • Russell, Margo and Martin. Afrikaners of the Kalahari: White Minority in a Black State ( Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979). ISBN 0-521-21897-7
  • Johnson, Howard and Watson, Karl (eds.). The white minority in the Caribbean (Wiener Publishing, Princeton, NJ, 1998). ISBN 976-8123-10-9, 1558761616
  • Chua, Amy. World on Fire: How Exporting Free Market Democracy Breeds Ethnic Hatred and Global Instability (Doubleday, New York, 2003). ISBN 0-385-50302-4
  • Haviland, William. Cultural Anthropology. (Vermont: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993). p. 250-252. ISBN 0-15-508550-6.

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