Who Is American?

Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the United States

The United States is a diverse country, racially and ethnically, with over six races officially recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the origins and characteristics of each of the races in the United States

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • A person of color is a term used primarily in the United States to describe any person who is not white. The term is meant to be inclusive among non-white groups, emphasizing common experiences of racism.
  • The majority of the more than 300 million people currently living in the United States consists of White Americans, who trace their ancestry to the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
  • The African American group is the largest racial minority, as opposed to Hispanics and Latinos, who are the largest ethnic minority.
  • Once thought to face extinction in race or culture, there has been a remarkable revival of Native American identity and tribal sovereignty in the 20th century.
  • The Hispanic or Latino population is young and fast-growing, due to immigration and higher birth rates: the Census Bureau projects that by 2050 one-quarter of the population will be Hispanic or Latino.

Key Terms

  • ethnicity: The common characteristics of a group of people.
  • race: A large group of people distinguished from others on the basis of common physical characteristics, such as skin color or hair type.
  • person of color: A person of color is a term used primarily in the United States to describe any person who is not white.

Introduction

The United States is a diverse country, racially and ethnically. Six races are officially recognized: White, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, and people of two or more races; a race called “Some other race” is also used in the census and other surveys, but is not official. The United States Census Bureau also classifies Americans as “Hispanic or Latino” and “Not Hispanic or Latino”, which identifies Hispanic and Latino Americans as a racially diverse ethnicity that composes the largest minority group in the nation. A person of color is a term used primarily in the United States to describe any person who is not white. The term is meant to be inclusive among non-white groups, emphasizing common experiences of racism.

Racial and Ethnic Categories

In the 2000 Census and subsequent United States Census Bureau surveys, Americans self-described as belonging to following racial groups. White are considered those having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa; Black or African American are considered those having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa; Native American are considered those having origins in any of the original peoples of North, Central and South America, and who maintain tribal affiliation or community attachment; Asian are considered those having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent; Pacific Islanders are those having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands; see also Pacific Islander American. Finally, multiracial are those who check off or write in more than one race. There is no actual option labeled “Two or more races” or “Multiracial” on the census and other forms; only the foregoing six races appear, and people who report more than one of them are categorized as people of “Two or more races” in subsequent processing.

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Asian Americans: Connie Chung, First Asian American national news anchor.

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African American boy: An African American boy outside of Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1940s.

The question on Hispanic or Latino origin is separate from the question on race. Hispanic and Latino Americans have origins in the Spanish-speaking countries of Latin America and Spain. Most of the Latin American countries are, like the United States, quite racially diverse. Consequently, no separate racial category exists for Hispanic and Latino Americans, as they do not make up a race of their own; when responding to the race question on the census form, they choose from among the same racial categories as all Americans, and are included in the numbers reported for those races. Self-identifying as Hispanic or Latino and not Hispanic or Latino is neither explicitly allowed nor explicitly prohibited.

Racial Makeup of the U.S. Population

The majority of the more than 300 million people currently living in the United States consists of White Americans, who trace their ancestry to the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. White Americans are the majority in forty-nine of the fifty states, with Hawaii as the exception. The non-Hispanic White percentage (66% in 2008) tends to decrease every year, and this sub-group is expected to become a plurality of the overall U.S. population after the year 2050.

About 12.4% of the American people are Black or African American. Also known more simply as Black Americans, the Black or African American group is the largest racial minority, as opposed to Hispanics and Latinos, who are the largest ethnic minority. Historically, any person with any sub-Saharan African ancestry, even if they were mostly white, were designated and classified as “Black,” according to the “one drop rule. ” The one-drop rule is a historical colloquial term in the United States for the social classification as black of individuals with any African ancestry; this means any person with “one drop of black blood” was considered black.

A third significant minority is the Asian American population, comprising 13.4 million in 2008, or 4.4% of the U.S. population. California is home to 4.5 million Asian Americans, whereas 495,000 live in Hawaii, where they compose the plurality of the islands’ people – this is their largest share of any state. Asians are by no means a monolithic group. The largest sub-groups are immigrants or descendants of immigrants from the Philippines, China, India, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Thailand.

Indigenous peoples of the Americas, such as Native Americans and Inuit, made up 0.8% of the population in 2008, numbering 2.4 million. Once thought to face extinction in race or culture, there has been a remarkable revival of Native American identity and tribal sovereignty in the 20th century.

Hispanic and Latino Americans

“Hispanic or Latino origin” is a self-designation made by 47 million Americans, as of 2008. They have origins in the Spanish-speaking nations of Latin America, chiefly, whereas a small percentage traces their origins to Spain. The Hispanic or Latino population is young and fast-growing, due to immigration and higher birth rates. For decades it has contributed significantly to U.S. population increases, and this is expected to continue for decades. The Census Bureau projects that by 2050 one-quarter of the population will be Hispanic or Latino.

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Assimilation of Native Americans: Portraits of Native Americans from the Cherokee, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Comanche, Iroquois, and Muscogee tribes in American attire. Photos date from 1868 to 1924.

Twenty-First-Century Americans

Immigration has been a pivotal source for change in the social, economic and political makeup of the U.S.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast the different cycles of immigration in U.S. history

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • American immigration history can be viewed in four epochs: the colonial period, the mid-nineteenth century, the turn of the twentieth century, and post-1965.
  • Contemporary immigrants tend to be younger than the native population of the United States, with people between the ages of 15 and 34 substantially over-represented.
  • Public attitudes about immigration in the U.S. were heavily influenced in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
  • Contemporary immigrants settle predominantly in seven states, California, New York, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois, all of which are large and comprise about 44% of the U.S. population as a whole.
  • The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Cellar Act, abolished an earlier system that regulated immigration by national-origin quotas.
  • In 1990, George H. W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990, which increased legal immigration to the United States by 40%.

Key Terms

  • Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965: Immigration legislation that removed yearly, numerical quotas based on the immigrant’s country of origin and implemented a system of ranking potential immigrants based on skills and family relationships.
  • immigration act of 1990: The Immigration Act of 1990 increased the limits on legal immigration to the United States and revised the legal grounds for exclusion and deportation. It also authorized temporary protected status to aliens of designated countries, revised and established new, non-immigrant admission categories, revised and extended the Visa Waiver Pilot Program, and revised naturalization authority and requirements.

Introduction

Immigration to the United States is a complex demographic phenomenon that has been a major source of population and cultural change throughout much of U.S. history. Immigration has political, social and economic impacts that have led to a variety of controversies regarding ethnicity, economic benefits, jobs for non-immigrants, settlement patterns, upward social mobility, crime, and voting behavior. These issues are exacerbated by the scale at which immigration occurs. In 2006, the United States accepted, as permanent residents, more legal immigrants than all other countries in the world combined. Illegal immigration also occurs, most notably across the Mexico-United States border, but this type of migration is difficult, expensive and dangerous for participants. Out of those who have immigrated to the U.S., the largest amount originated in Mexico, India, the Philippines, and China. Between 2000 and 2010, nearly fourteen million immigrants entered the United States.

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2001-2005 Immigration Rate to the United States: Rate of immigration to the United States relative to sending countries’ population size, 2001–2005

History

American immigration history can be viewed in four epochs: the colonial period, the mid-nineteenth century, the turn of the twentieth century, and post-1965.Each period denotes a time when particular national groups, races and ethnicities were migrating to the United States. Historians estimate that fewer than one million immigrants—perhaps as few as 400,000—crossed the Atlantic during the 17th and 18th centuries. The peak year of European immigration was in 1907, when 1,285,349 individuals entered the country. By 1910, 13.5 million immigrants were living in the United States.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished an earlier immigration system that had set quotas on the number of people who could immigrate in a given year from particular countries. By equalizing immigration policies, the act resulted in new immigration from non-European nations, which changed the ethnic make-up of the United States. Immigration doubled between 1965 and 1970, and again between 1970 and 1990. In 1990, George H. W. Bush signed the Immigration Act of 1990. This further increased legal immigration to the United States by 40%.

Contemporary Immigration Patterns

Until the 1930s, most legal immigrants were male. By the 1990s, women accounted for just over half of all legal immigrants. Contemporary immigrants tend to be younger than the native population of the United States, with people between the ages of 15 and 34 substantially over-represented. Immigrants are also more likely to be married and less likely to be divorced than native-born Americans of the same age. In terms of regional patterns, immigrants are likely to move to, and reside in, areas populated by people with similar backgrounds. This phenomenon has held true throughout the history of immigration to the United States.

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Chinatown (Manhattan, New York): Chinatown, Manhattan, New York City 2009 on Pell Street, looking west towards Doyer and Mott.

Public attitudes about immigration in the U.S. were heavily influenced in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.According to a 2009 Gallup poll, after the attacks, only 52% of Americans believed that immigration was a good thing overall for the U.S., down from 62% the year before.

Contemporary immigrants settle predominantly in seven states: California New York, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois. These states are large and comprise about 44% of the U.S. population as a whole. As of 2000, the combined immigrant population residing in these seven states accounted for 70% of the total foreign-born population. If current birth rate and immigration rates were to remain unchanged for another 70 to 80 years, the U.S. population would double to nearly 600 million.

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May Day Immigration Rally: Immigrant rights march for amnesty in downtown Los Angeles, California on May Day, 2006.