Most people reflexively believe the federal government protects the interests of minorities. After all, the feds gave us the Civil Rights Acts and ended segregation – so the narrative goes. But in truth, the federal government has a pretty abysmal record when it comes to its treatment of minority communities and has often implemented policies extremely detrimental to their interests. In general, centralized authority has historically brutalized minority populations, and this includes the U.S. federal government.
The federal government’s treatment of Native Americans throughout history provides a litany of examples. The forced relocation of various tribes to reservations, the Trail of Tears, the long train of broken treaties, not to mention the outright wars of extermination waged against some native tribes in the 1800s immediately spring to mind. But while that kind of overt oppression has faded into the past, some modern federal policies continued this legacy of the horrible treatment of native populations.
The federal government’s involvement in Native American healthcare provides a chilling example.
Beginning in the late 1800s, treaties and executive orders established federal responsibility for Native American healthcare. The outcomes were nothing short of horrendous. According to an annual report by the Office of Indian Affairs in 1917, approximately three-fifths of Native American infants died before the age of five.
As deplorable health outcomes within Native American populations became too hard to ignore, the feds created Indian Health Services (IHS) within the Department of Health and Human Services in 1955. This agency ultimately helped facilitate the forced sterilization of Native American women.
In 1970, Congress passed the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act. The law was intended to provide funding to low-income and uninsured families for family planning services. As it turns out, this federal funding helped facilitate the sterilization of as many as 25 percent of Native American women of childbearing age. Under the law, the feds subsidized sterilization of women who received healthcare through the IHS as well as some Medicaid patients. Sterilization procedures were performed in both reservation hospitals and off-reservation facilities that the feds contracted with to provide healthcare for tribal members. According to an article published by Time, “Some of these procedures were performed under pressure or duress, or without the women’s knowledge or understanding.”
Marie Sanchez served as chief tribal judge on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. During a U.N. Convention on Indigenous Rights in 1977, she called the sterilization policy “a modern form” of genocide.
African American and Hispanic women were also targeted for sterilization during this time period, according to the Time article.
It took concerted action by activists and nearly a decade for the federal government to adopt regulations protecting women from unwanted sterilization procedures.
These policies were clearly rooted in racism. But racists would have a limited ability to act without the power available to them through centralized government. And this is not an isolated example of racists taking advantage of federal power. In much the same way as racists used the Indian Health Services and federal funding available through the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act to facilitate forced sterilization of Native American women, federal farm programs made it possible to steal land from African-American farmers in the 20th century.
There is no denying that Native Americans and African Americans suffered from racism. But you shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that government actions gave racists their power, from Jim Crow laws at the state and local level to federal farm policy that enabled white people to dispossess black Americans of their land, to federal health programs that intentionally undermined the health of Native American populations.
The widespread notion that centralized national power is good for minorities is a myth. Centralized power has never been friendly toward minorities. From the Jews in Germany, to the Ukrainians in the U.S.S.R, to the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, to Africans in the United States, centralized governments have historically oppressed minorities and sometimes worked to exterminate them.
The Civil Rights Act notwithstanding, history shows that the U.S. federal government has, by and large, followed the historical pattern by facilitating discrimination, both directly and indirectly.