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White Americans are an ethnic group of Americans who identify as and are perceived to be white people. The term is usually used to refer to those of European descent, though is at times also used to refer to Americans of North African and Middle Eastern descent (for example, in the US Census definition). White Americans (including White Hispanics) constitute the historical and current majority of the people living in the United States, with 72% of the population in the 2010 United States Census. Non-Hispanic whites totaled about 197,285,202 or 60.7% of the U.S. population. European Americans are the largest ethnic group of White Americans and constitute the historical majority population of the United States since the nation's founding.
The United States Census Bureau defines white people as those "having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa." The Census definition is controversial for its inclusion of Middle Eastern and North African peoples as white, and the Obama-era Census Bureau had planned to change this definition prior to the election of Donald Trump. Like all official U.S. racial categories, "White" has a "not Hispanic or Latino" and a "Hispanic or Latino" component, the latter consisting mostly of White Mexican Americans and White Cuban Americans. The term "Caucasian" is synonymous with "white", although the latter is sometimes used to denote skin tone instead of race. Some of the non-European ethnic groups classified as white by the U.S. Census, such as Arab Americans, Jewish Americans, and Hispanics or Latinos, may not identify as or may not be perceived to be, white.
The largest ancestries of American whites are: German (17%), Irish (12%), English (9%), Italian (6%), French (4%), Polish (3%), Scottish (3%), Scotch-Irish (2%), Dutch (2%), Norwegian (2%) and Swedish (1%). However, the English and British Americans' demography is considered a serious under-count as the stock tend to self-report and identify as simply "Americans" (7%), due to the length of time they have inhabited the United States, particularly if their family arrived prior to the American Revolution. The vast majority of white Americans also have ancestry from multiple countries.
Historical and present definitions
Definitions of who is "White" have changed throughout the history of the United States.
U.S. Census definition
The term "White American" can encompass many different ethnic groups. Although the United States Census purports to reflect a social definition of race, the social dimensions of race are more complex than Census criteria. The 2000 U.S. census states that racial categories "generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country. They do not conform to any biological, anthropological or genetic criteria."
The Census question on race lists the categories White or European American, Black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Asian, plus "Some other race", with the respondent having the ability to mark more than one racial or ethnic category. The Census Bureau defines White people as follows:
"White" refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa. It includes people who indicated their race(s) as "White" or reported entries such as German, Italian, Lebanese, Arab, Moroccan, or Caucasian.
In U.S. census documents, the designation White overlaps, as do all other official racial categories, with the term Hispanic or Latino, which was introduced in the 1980 census as a category of ethnicity, separate and independent of race. Hispanic and Latino Americans as a whole make up a racially diverse group and as a whole are the largest minority in the country.
The characterization of Middle Eastern and North African Americans as white has been a matter of controversy. In the early 20th century, there were a number of cases where people of Arab descent were denied entry into the United States or deported, because they were characterized as nonwhite. In 1944, the law changed, and Middle Eastern and North African peoples were granted white status. In 2015, the US Census endorsed the idea of creating a separate racial category for Middle Eastern and North African Americans in the 2020 Census, but this plan was discarded when the Trump Administration came to power.
In cases where individuals do not self-identify, the U.S. census parameters for race give each national origin a racial value.
Additionally, people who reported Muslim (or a sect of Islam such as Shi'ite or Sunni), Jewish, Zoroastrian, or Caucasian as their "race" in the "Some other race" section, without noting a country of origin, are automatically tallied as White. The US Census considers the write-in response of "Caucasian" or "Aryan" to be a synonym for White in their ancestry code listing.
In the contemporary United States, essentially anyone of European descent is considered White. However, many of the non-European ethnic groups classified as White by the U.S. Census, such as Arab Americans, Jewish Americans, and Hispanics or Latinos may not identify as, and may not be perceived to be, White.
The definition of White has changed significantly over the course of American history. Among Europeans, those not considered White at some point in American history include Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Irish, Finns, and Russians. Early on in the United States, membership in the white race was generally limited to those of British, Germanic, or Nordic ancestry.
David R. Roediger argues that the construction of the white race in the United States was an effort to mentally distance slave owners from slaves. The process of officially being defined as white by law often came about in court disputes over pursuit of citizenship.
Critical race theory definition
Critical race theory developed in the 1970s and 1980s, influenced by the language of critical legal studies, which challenged concepts such as objective truth, rationality and judicial neutrality, and by critical theory. Academics and activists disillusioned with the outcomes of the Civil Rights Movement pointed out that though African Americans supposedly enjoyed legal equality, white Americans continued to hold disproportionate power and still had superior living standards. Liberal ideas such as meritocracy and equal opportunity, they argued, hid and reinforced deep structural inequalities and thus serves the interests of a white elite. Critical race theorists see racism as embedded in public attitudes and institutions, and highlight institutional racism and unconscious biases. Legal scholar Derrick Bell advanced the interest convergence principle, which suggests that whites support minority rights only when doing so is also in their self-interest.
As Whites, especially White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, or WASPs, are the dominant racial and cultural group, according to sociologist Steven Seidman, writing from a critical theory perspective, "White culture constitutes the general cultural mainstream, causing non-White culture to be seen as deviant, in either a positive or negative manner. Moreover, Whites tend to be disproportionately represented in powerful positions, controlling almost all political, economic, and cultural institutions."
Yet, according to Seidman, Whites are most commonly unaware of their privilege and the manner in which their culture has always been dominant in the US, as they do not identify as members of a specific racial group but rather incorrectly perceive their views and culture as "raceless", when in fact it is ethno-national (ethnic/cultural) specific, with a racial base component.
|Self-identified as White 1790–2010|
|Source: United States census bureau.|
The largest ethnic groups (by ancestry) among White Americans were Germans, followed by Irish and English. In the 1980 census 49,598,035 Americans cited that they were of English ancestry, making them 26% of the country and the largest group at the time, and in fact larger than the population of England itself. Slightly more than half of these people would cite that they were of "American" ancestry on subsequent censuses and virtually everywhere that "American" ancestry predominates on the 2000 census corresponds to places where "English" predominated on the 1980 census.
White Americans are projected to remain the majority, though with their percentage decreasing to 72% of the total population by 2050. However, projections state that non-Hispanic Whites of that group will become less than 50% of the population by 2042 because Non-Hispanic Whites have the lowest fertility rate of any major racial group in the United States, mass-immigration of other ethnic groups with higher birth rates, and because of intermarriage with non-whites.
While over ten million White people can trace part of their ancestry back to the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620 (this common statistic overlooks the Jamestown, Virginia foundations of America and roots of even earlier colonist-descended Americans, such as Spanish Americans in St. Augustine, Florida), over 35 million whites have at least one ancestor who passed through the Ellis Island immigration station, which processed arriving immigrants from 1892 until 1954.
According to the Census definition, White Americans are the majority racial group in almost all of the United States. They are not the majority in Hawaii, many American Indian reservations, parts of the South known as the Black Belt, the District of Columbia, all US territories, and in many urban areas throughout the country. Non-Hispanic whites are also not the majority in several southwestern states.
Overall the highest concentration of those referred to as "Non-Hispanic Whites" by the Census Bureau are found in the Midwest, New England, the northern Rocky Mountain states, Kentucky, West Virginia, and East Tennessee. The lowest concentration of whites was found in southern and mid-Atlantic states.
Although all large geographical areas are dominated by White Americans, much larger differences can be seen between specific parts of large cities.
States with the highest percentages of White Americans, as of 2007:
- Vermont 96.2%
- Maine 95.5%
- New Hampshire 95.0%
- West Virginia 94.3%
- Iowa 92.9%
- Idaho 92.1%
- Wyoming 91.6%
- Minnesota 90.94%
- North Dakota 90.9%
States with the highest percentages of non-Hispanic Whites, as of 2007:
- Vermont 95.4%
- Maine 94.8%
- West Virginia 93.7%
- New Hampshire 93.4%
- Iowa 90.9%
- North Dakota 90.2%
- Montana 88.3%
- Kentucky 88.1%
- Wyoming 87.7%
- South Dakota 86.5%
Income and educational attainment
White Americans have the second highest median household income and personal income levels in the nation, by cultural background. The median income per household member was also the highest, since White Americans had the smallest households of any racial demographic in the nation. In 2006, the median individual income of a White American age 25 or older was $33,030, with those who were full-time employed, and of age 25 to 64, earning $34,432. Since 42% of all households had two income earners, the median household income was considerably higher than the median personal income, which was $48,554 in 2005. Jewish Americans rank first in household income, personal income, and educational attainment among White Americans. In 2005, White households had a median household income of $48,977, which is 10% above the national median of $44,389. Among Cuban Americans, with 86% classified as White, those born in the US have a higher median income and educational attainment level than most other Whites.
The poverty rates for White Americans are the second-lowest of any racial group, with 11% of white individuals living below the poverty line, 3% lower than the national average. However, due to Whites' majority status, 48% of Americans living in poverty are white.
White Americans' educational attainment is the second-highest in the country, after Asian Americans'. Overall, nearly one-third of White Americans had a Bachelor's degree, with the educational attainment for Whites being higher for those born outside the United States: 38% of foreign born, and 30% of native born Whites had a college degree. Both figures are above the national average of 27%.
Gender income inequality was the greatest among Whites, with White men outearning White women by 48%. Census Bureau data for 2005 reveals that the median income of White females was lower than that of males of all races. In 2005, the median income for White American females was only slightly higher than that of African American females.
Population by state
|State||Pop. 2000||% 2000||Pop. 2010||% 2010||% growth|
|District of Columbia||176,101||30.8%||231,471||38.5%||+31.4%|
|United States of America||211,460,626||75.1%||223,553,265||72.4%||+5.7%|
|State||Pop. 2016||% 2016||Pop. 2017||% 2017||percentage
|District of Columbia||305,232||44.60%||313,234||45.14%||+0.54%||+8,002|
|State||Pop. 2016||% 2016||Pop. 2017||% 2017||percentage
|District of Columbia||249,141||36.40%||255,387||36.80%||+0.40%||+6,246|
From their earliest presence in North America, White Americans have contributed literature, art, cinema, religion, agricultural skills, foods, science and technology, fashion and clothing styles, music, language, legal system, political system, and social and technological innovation to American culture. White American culture derived its earliest influences from English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish settlers and is quantitatively the largest proportion of American culture. The overall American culture reflects White American culture. The culture has been developing since long before the United States formed a separate country. Much of American culture shows influences from English culture. Colonial ties to Great Britain spread the English language, legal system and other cultural attributes.
Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America
In his 1989 book Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America, David Hackett Fischer explores the details of the folkways of four groups of settlers from the British Isles that moved to the American colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries from distinct regions of Britain and Ireland. His thesis is that the culture of each group persisted (albeit in modified form), providing the basis for the modern United States.
According to Fischer, the foundation of America's four regional cultures was formed from four mass migrations from four regions of the British Isles by four distinct ethno-cultural groups. New England's formative period occurred between 1629 and 1640 when Puritans, mostly from East Anglia, settled there, thus forming the basis for the New England regional culture. The next mass migration was of southern English Cavaliers and their working class English servants to the Chesapeake Bay region between 1640 and 1675. This spawned the creation of the American Southern culture.
Then, between 1675 and 1725, thousands of Irish, Cornish, English and Welsh Quakers plus many Germans sympathetic to Quaker ideas, led by William Penn, settled the Delaware Valley. This resulted in the formation of the General American culture, although, according to Fischer, this is really a "regional culture", even if it does today encompass most of the U.S. from the mid-Atlantic states to the Pacific Coast. Finally, a huge number of settlers from the borderlands between England and Scotland, and from northern Ireland, migrated to Appalachia between 1717 and 1775. This resulted in the formation of the Upland South regional culture, which has since expanded to the west to West Texas and parts of the American Southwest.
In his book, Fischer brings up several points. He states that the U.S. is not a country with one "general" culture and several "regional" culture, as is commonly thought. Rather, there are only four regional cultures as described above, and understanding this helps one to more clearly understand American history as well as contemporary American life. Fischer asserts that it is not only important to understand where different groups came from, but when. All population groups have, at different times, their own unique set of beliefs, fears, hopes and prejudices. When different groups moved to America and brought certain beliefs and values with them, these ideas became, according to Fischer, more or less frozen in time, even if they eventually changed in their original place of origin.
Admixture in Non-Hispanic Whites
Some White Americans have varying amounts of American Indian and Sub-Saharan African ancestry. In a recent study, Gonçalves et al. 2007 reported Sub-Saharan and Amerindian mtDNA lineages at a frequency of 3.1% (respectively 0.9% and 2.2%) in American Caucasians (in the USA, "Caucasian" includes people from North Africa and Western Asia as well as Europeans). Recent research on Y-chromosomes and mtDNA detected no African admixture in European-Americans. The sample included 628 European-American Y-chromosomes and mtDNA from 922 European-Americans
DNA analysis on White Americans by geneticist Mark D. Shriver showed an average of 0.7% Sub-Saharan African admixture and 3.2% Native American admixture. The same author, in another study, claimed that about 30% of all White Americans, approximately 66 million people, have a median of 2.3% of Black African admixture. Shriver discovered his ancestry is 10 percent African, and Shriver's partner in DNA Print Genomics, J.T. Frudacas, contradicted him two years later stating "Five percent of European Americans exhibit some detectable level of African ancestry."
White Americans (European Americans) on average are: 98.6 percent European, 0.19 percent African and 0.18 percent Native American. Inferred British/Irish ancestry is found in European Americans from all states at mean proportions of above 20%, and represents a majority of ancestry, above 50% mean proportion, in states such as Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee. Scandinavian ancestry in European Americans is highly localized; most states show only trace mean proportions of Scandinavian ancestry, while it comprises a significant proportion, upwards of 10%, of ancestry in European Americans from Minnesota and the Dakotas.
Admixture in Hispanic Whites
Although most Hispanic Americans self-identify in the white racial category of the US Census or other official government data collecting, an overwhelming majority of them would in their personal lives consider themselves as ethnically mestizo (of mixed European and Native American/American Indian background) or mulatto (of mixed European and sub-Saharan African background).[failed verification]
Thus, only a minority of those Hispanic Americans who self-identified in their personal lives as mestizo or mulatto actually selected "multiracial" as their race on the U.S. census, with 9 out of every 10 of them preferring to pick white, one of the five single race categories available on the U.S. census.[failed verification]
In contrast to non-Hispanic European Americans, whose average European ancestry ranges about 98.6%, genetic research has found that the average European admixture among self-identified Hispanic White Americans is 73% European, while the average European admixture for Hispanic Americans overall (regardless of their self-identified race) is 65.1% European admixture.
- American ancestry
- Emigration from Europe
- European Americans
- Hyphenated American
- Middle Eastern Americans
- Non-Hispanic Whites
- Race and ethnicity in the United States
- Stereotypes of White Americans
- White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
- White ethnic
- White Hispanic and Latino Americans
- White Southerners
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