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9.1: History and Demographics

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    Euro Americans, or white Americans, emanate from diverse backgrounds and experiences. In this section, we will focus on English, German, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants. Emphasis is also placed on significant immigration legislation impacting Euro Americans, the legal definition of whiteness, and current demographics of white Americans.

    Although many white ethnics, individuals and groups who society deems to be "white" but actually have ethnic ties to their homeland in a country (e.g., Germany, Poland, Netherlands, Ireland, Syria, Cuba, etc.) other than the U.S., have migrated to the U.S. because they perceived it to be a land of economic and political freedom and opportunity, many have been driven from their homelands by border wars, internal ethnic conflict, economic uncertainty or collapse, lack of educational opportunities, less political freedom, and a myriad of other reasons. The primary push factors—those conditions which impel people to emigrate from their native lands and immigrate to a new and unknown country—are political and economic, and, as one might guess, the primary pull factors—those real or perceived conditions in the new country which beckon to those on foreign shores moving people to emigrate from the countries of their birth—are also political and economic. Regardless of the push or pull factors, white ethnics are frequently voluntary migrants to the U.S. choosing to migrate, sometimes at great personal risk, because they choose to migrate.

    Immigrants from England

    In 1607, the English founded their first permanent settlement in present-day America at Jamestown in the Virginia Colony. Individuals from the north of England, Scotland, and northern Ireland (Scotch-Irish) constituted most of the migration to the early U.S. colonies. Most of the early European immigrants during this colonial time period were from England; 60% of the 3 million white Americans in 1790 were English (Schaefer, 2019). The government institutions followed the English mold and adopted the English language, as this group of white Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASP) established themselves as the dominant group in the U.S. Thus, they defined what it meant to be white. Fleeing religious persecution and seeking religious freedom in the U.S., the Puritans and Quakers sought economic opportunities in this new country. Many of these immigrants were indentured servants, performing cheap labor for the colonies for a period of typically four to seven years - only to be replaced with the more lucrative enslaved African population. Immigrants from Scotland, Germany and Ireland soon came to outnumber the English, but the English colonists maintained their dominant position.

    Picture of the British flag known as the Union Jack.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): British flag. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0; ianonline via Flickr)

    Immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Italy

    White ethnic Europeans formed the second and third great waves of immigration, from the early nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. They joined a newly minted United States that was primarily made up of white Protestants from England. While most immigrants came searching for a better life, their experiences were not all the same.

    Though pockets of German, Swedish and Dutch had immigrated prior to the end of the American Revolution, the first major influx of European immigrants came from Germany and Ireland, starting in the 1820s. Germans came both for economic opportunity and to escape political unrest and military conscription, especially after the Revolutions of 1848. Many German immigrants of this period were political refugees: liberals who wanted to escape from an oppressive government. They were well-off enough to make their way inland, and they formed heavily German enclaves in the Midwest that exist to this day. Their migration into middle America displaced many Indigenous populations and contributed to the Dakota War of 1862. German immigration continued into the next century, but Germany's role in the World Wars contributed to many German Americans distancing themselves from their homeland. Nonetheless, the U.S. has experienced steady immigration from Germany, the country with the largest single source of ancestry of people currently residing in the U.S.

    Flags of the World
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Flags of the world. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Penn State via Flickr)

    As the second largest group of immigrants during the colonial period, Irish immigrants reflected a broad economic spectrum. Though, the Irish Potato Famine of 1845 led many to flee their homeland as they struggled with poverty and starvation. Irish immigrants settled mainly in the cities of the East Coast, where they were employed as laborers and where they faced significant discrimination. They performed hard, manual labor in the decades in which they were immigrating, thus contributing greatly to the physical infrastructure of the U.S. Though Ireland as a country condemned slavery and many Irish Americans shared the plight at the bottom of the U.S. social hierarchy with African Americans, the Irish immigrants instead distanced themselves from African Americans. The low position the Irish held in the racial hierarchy in Europe was repeated in the U.S., but in pursuit of whiteness, the Irish immigrants began to also distance themselves from their ethnic background. Yet, Irish Americans have been influential in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.

    Irish immigration continued into the late 19th century and earlier 20th century, at which point the numbers for Southern European immigrants started growing as well. Italians, mainly landless and from the southern part of the country, began arriving in large numbers in the 1880s. Italian immigrants hailed from diverse ethnic backgrounds; thus, they were not a homogenous cultural group. As discussed in Chapter 3.1, the influx of newcomers resulted in fierce anti-immigrant sentiment, nativism, among factions of the U.S. "native" born predominantly White Angle Saxon Protestant (WASP) population. The new arrivals were often viewed as unwanted competitors for jobs. The Catholic European immigrants, including the Irish and Italians, faced discrimination for their religious beliefs; though Italians further found discomfort in the Irish American domination of the Catholic Church. The anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing political party of the 1850s attempted to curb immigration. They also called themselves the "Native Americans" in efforts to prevent non-native born Americans from taking political office. Still, Italian Americans have experienced success at the local political level, though they still experience challenges with the stereotype of being associated with organized crime.

    Immigrants from Eastern Europe

    Eastern European immigrants—people from Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, and Austria-Hungary—started arriving around the turn of the 20th century as well, though Polish immigrants were among the early settlers in Jamestown, Virginia in 1608. Many Eastern Europeans were peasants forced into a difficult existence in their native lands; political unrest, land shortages, and crop failures drove them to seek better opportunities in the United States at the end of the 19th century. Many Polish Americans performed work that others would not do, including laboring in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. While earlier waves of Polish immigrants consisted largely of Catholics, the Eastern European immigration wave also included Jewish people escaping pogroms (anti-Jewish uprisings) of Eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement in what was then Poland and Russia. Over 2 million Jews from Eastern Europe entered the U.S. between 1880 and 1920, fleeing religious persecution. After the Holocaust and the end of World War II, Congress passed special legislation enabling refugees from Europe and the former Soviet Union to enter the United States.

    Immigration Act of 1924

    Throughout most of U.S. history, the flow of immigration from Europe was unfettered. The Immigration Act of 1924 created a quota system that restricted entry to 2 percent of the total number of people of each nationality into the U.S. as of the 1890 national census–a system that favored immigrants from Western Europe–and largely prohibited immigrants from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. This legislation served to ensure that the U.S. would remain a largely white nation for decades. It was not until the Immigration Act of 1965 that the immigration doors opened to the rest of the world, particularly Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa.

    Legally White

    The Naturalization Act of 1790 allowed any free white person of “good character,” who has been living in the United States for two years or longer to apply for citizenship. Without citizenship, nonwhite residents were denied basic constitutional protections, including the right to vote, own property, or testify in court. Free whites were allowed to become citizens. In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese American immigrant, sought his naturalized status; as part of his case, he claimed he was lighter than other whites. The unanimous Supreme Court decision however determined that the status of white was meant to identify only individuals of Caucasian descent. Thus, Ozawa was denied naturalization. A few months later, Bhagat Singh Thind, a high caste-Hindu of full Indian blood, also sought to become a naturalized citizen. He too was denied naturalization on the same grounds as Ozawa.

    Court Gavel
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The courts have legally determined who is white. (CC PDM 1.0; Best Law via Flickr)

    Throughout the Jim Crow system resulting in segregated housing, schools, and other public facilities, white individuals were afforded better opportunities in these social settings and institutions. As many African Americans have both European and African DNA, many African Americans have "passed" for white, thereby getting access to better societal resources and social institutions. But, not all who, by all intents and purposes, passed as white were legally considered white. Though she identified as white and aimed to legally change her racial status to white, because Ms. Phipps' birth certificate read Black, the courts ruled against her desire. Thus, the legacy of the "one drop" rule has extended as recently at the 1980s.

    Currently, the U.S. Census Bureau includes the "original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East" among white people; though members of some of these groups desired more specific ethnic categories in the Census. Further discussion of the Census and the Middle Eastern population is provided in Chapter 10. Also, the majority of those identifying as Latinx in the 2010 Census marked that they were white.

    Thinking sociologically

    As stated at the beginning of this chapter, many white individuals have ethnic ties to their homeland or the homeland of their ancestors. If you identify as white, do you have an understanding of the ethnic background of your ancestors? Do you know their country of origin, the reasons your ancestors migrated to the U.S., and their early experiences in the U.S.?

    Current Demographics

    Most people in the 2010 Census identified as white, comprising 76.3% of the U.S. population according to the U.S. Census. As stated in Chapter 2, the white portion of the U.S. population is declining.

    The U.S. Census from 2008 revealed that 16.5% of respondents reported being of German descent, the largest white ethnic group in the country at the time. For many years, German Americans endeavored to maintain a strong cultural identity, but they are now culturally assimilated into the dominant U.S. culture.

    There are now more Irish Americans in the United States than there are Irish in Ireland. Irish Americans have slowly achieved acceptance and assimilation into the dominant group.

    Myers (2007) states that Italian Americans’ cultural assimilation is “almost complete, but with remnants of ethnicity.” The presence of “Little Italy” neighborhoods—originally segregated slums where Italians congregated in the nineteenth century—exist today. While tourists flock to the saints’ festivals in Little Italies, most Italian Americans have moved to the suburbs at the same rate as other white groups.

    Key Takeaways

    • A variety of push and pull factors have contributed to the migration of white ethnic individuals into the U.S.
    • The experiences of white ethnics in the U.S. has ranged from entering the ranks of the dominant group to experiences of nativism.
    • Historically and in contemporary society, legally identifying as white has sometimes been mired in friction.
    • The population of white Americans in the U.S. is declining.

    Contributors and Attributions