Definitions of whiteness in the United States
The cultural boundaries separating White Americans from other racial or ethnic categories are contested and always changing. David R. Roediger argues that the construction of the white race in the United States was an effort to mentally distance slaveowners from slaves. By the 18th century, white had become well established as a racial term.
The process of officially being defined as white by law often came about in court disputes over pursuit of citizenship. The Naturalization Act of 1790 offered naturalization only to "any alien, being a free white person". In at least 52 cases, people denied the status of white by immigration officials sued in court for status as white people. By 1923, courts had vindicated a "common-knowledge" standard, concluding that "scientific evidence" was incoherent. Legal scholar John Tehranian argues that in reality this was a "performance-based" standard, relating to religious practices, culture, education, intermarriage and a community's role in the United States.
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." It defines "white people" as "people having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. The 1990 US Census Public Use Microdata Sample lists "Caucasian" or "Aryan" ancestry responses as subgroups of "White" but the 2005 PUMS codes do not. In U.S. census documents, the designation white or Caucasian may overlap with the term Hispanic, which was introduced in the 1980 census as a category of ethnicity, separate and independent of race. In cases where individuals do not self-identify, the U.S. census parameters for race give each national origin a racial value.
The U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Investigation also categorizes "white people" as "people having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa, through racial categories used in the UCR Program adopted from the Statistical Policy Handbook (1978) and published by the Office of Federal Statistical Policy and Standards, U.S. Department of Commerce.
- 1 European Americans
- 2 Hispanic Americans
- 3 Native Americans
- 4 Asian Americans
- 5 North Africans in the United States
- 6 African Americans
- 7 See also
- 8 References
Various ethnic groups native to Europe were not considered white at some point in U.S. history. Among those not considered white were the Slavs, Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples. This reference defines White as a part of the majority or equal under the law, and uses the word in quotations indicating that it is not intended as an official term.
Large numbers of Germans migrated to North America between the 1680s and 1760s. Many settled in the English colony of Pennsylvania. In the 18th century, many persons of English descent harbored resentment towards the increasing number of German settlers. Benjamin Franklin in "Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, etc.", complained about the increasing influx of German Americans, stating that they had a negative influence on the early United States. The only exception were Germans of Saxon descent "who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased".
Unlike most European immigrant groups, whose acceptance as white came gradually over the course of the late 19th century (that is, in U.S. colloquial definitions, since all Europeans were white by legal U.S. definition), German immigrants quickly became accepted as white.
In the 18th century Irish immigrants had the same rights and privileges as all other European settlers. Irish Americans were not always considered white. 
The earliest Finnish immigrants, colonialists who were Swedes in the legal sense and perhaps spoke Swedish, and settled in the Swedish colony, were supposed to have assimilated into the British culture quickly. More recent Finns were on several occasions "racially" discriminated and not seen as white, but "Asian". The reasons for this were the arguments and theories about the Finns originally being of Mongolian instead of "native" European origin due to the Finnish language belonging to the Uralic and not the Indo-European language family.
On January 4, 1908, a trial was held in Minnesota about whether John Svan and several other Finnish immigrants would become naturalized United States citizens or not, as the process only was for "whites" and "blacks" in general, and district prosecutor John Sweet was of the opinion that Finnish immigrants were Mongols. The judge, William A. Cant, later concluded that the Finnish people may have been Mongolian from the beginning, but that the climate they lived in for a long time, and historical Finnish immigration and assimilation of Germanic tribes (Teutons)—which he considered modern "pure Finns" indistinguishable from—had made the Finnish population one of the whitest (fairest) people in Europe. If the Finns had Mongol ancestry, it was distant and diluted. John Svan and the others were made naturalized US citizens, and from that day on, the law forbade treating Finnish immigrants and Americans of Finnish descent as not white.
In the beginning of the 20th century, there was a lot resentment from the local American population towards the Finnish settlers because they were seen as having very different customs, and were slow in learning English. Another reason was that many of them had come from the "red" side of Finland, and thus held socialist political views.
Hispanic Americans are Americans who have a significant number of Spanish-speaking Latin American ancestors. While Latin Americans have a broad array of ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds, they all tend to be indiscriminately labeled 'Hispanic', giving that term a "racial" value.
Recently, many Americans[who?] have opposed separating Hispanic from non-Hispanic, especially White Hispanic from non-Hispanic White, seeing it as a form of ethnic discrimination. This may be true, given that all Hispanics, regardless of race, are included in Affirmative Action programs.
It was not until the 1980s after years of protest from the Chicano movement the United States government created the term Hispanic to classify all peoples who come from Spanish-speaking countries. The term Hispanic has in recent years in America been given racial value with the perception of a racial Hispanic look being that of the Mixed races usually Mestizo or Mulatto as the majority of the people who immigrate from Spanish-speaking countries to the United States are of that racial origin. Due to this racial perception of Hispanics even among Hispanic Americans themselves White U.S. Hispanics and Latinos, Black U.S. Hispanics and Latinos and Asian U.S. Hispanics and Latinos are often overlooked in the U.S. mass media and in general American social perceptions.
On the 2000 Census form, race and ethnicity are distinct questions. A respondent who checks the "Hispanic or Latino" ethnicity box must also check one or more of the five official race categories. Of the over 35 million Hispanics or Latinos in the 2000 Census, a plurality of 48.6% identified as "White," 48.2% identified as "Other" (most of whom are presumed of mixed races such as mestizo or mulatto), and the remaining 3.2% identified as "Black" and other races.
By 2010, the number of Hispanics identifying as White has increased by a wide margin since the year 2000 on the 2010 Census form, of the over 50 million people who identified as Hispanic and Latino Americans a majority 53% identified as "White", 36.7% identified as "Other" (most of whom are presumed of mixed races such as mestizo or mulatto), 6% identified as "Two or more races", 2.5% identified as "Black", 1.4% identified as "American Indian and Alaska Native", and the remaining 0.5% identified as other races.
The media and some Hispanic community leaders in the United States refer to Hispanics as a separate group from all others, as well as "whites" and the "white majority". This may be because "white" is often used as shorthand for "non-Hispanic white". Thus, the non-Hispanic population and some Hispanic community leaders refer to white Hispanics as non-Hispanic whites and white Hispanic actors/actresses in media are mostly given non-Hispanic roles while, in turn, are given the most roles in the U.S. Hispanic mass media that the white Hispanics are overrepresented and admired in the U.S. Hispanic mass media and social perceptions. 
The official racial status of Mexican Americans has varied throughout American history. From 1850 to 1920, the U.S. Census form did not distinguish between whites and Mexican Americans. In 1930, the U.S. Census form asked for "color or race," and census enumerators were instructed to write W for White and Mex for Mexican. In 1940 and 1950, the census reverted its decision and made Mexicans be classified as White again and thus the instructions were to "Report white (W) for Mexicans unless they were definitely of full Indigenous Indian or other non-white races (such as Black or Asian)."
During periods in U.S. history when racial intermarriage wasn't legally acknowledged, and when Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were uniformly allotted white status, they were legally allowed to intermarry with what today are termed non-Hispanic whites, unlike Blacks and Asians. They were allowed to acquire U.S. citizenship upon arrival; served in all-white units during World War II; could vote and hold elected office in places such as Texas, especially San Antonio; ran the state politics and constituted most of the elite of New Mexico since colonial times; and went to integrated schools in Central Texas and Los Angeles. Additionally, Asians were barred from marrying Mexican Americans because Mexicans were legally white.
U.S. nativists in the late 1920s and 1930s (mostly due to the socially xenophobic and economic climate of the Great Depression) tried to put a halt to Mexican immigration by having Mexicans (and Mexican Americans) declared non-white, by virtue of their Indian heritage. After 70 years of being in America and having been bestowed White status by the U.S. government this was the first time the United States began to show true racist attitudes towards Mexicans in America something that usually came quickly to people of other races. They based their strategy on a 1924 law that barred entry to immigrants who were ineligible for citizenship, and at that point, only blacks and whites, and not Asians or Native Americans, could naturalize and become U.S. citizens. The test case came in December 1935, when a Buffalo, N.Y., judge rejected Jalisco native Timoteo Andrade's application for citizenship on the grounds that he was a "Mexican Indian." Had it not been for the intervention of the Mexican and American governments, who forced a second hearing, this precedent could very well have made many Mexicans, the majority of whom are mestizo, ineligible for citizenship. When mixed race Mexicans were allowed to retain their White status in American society they were unperturbed with the fact that the United States still continued its discriminatory practices towards Mexicans of full Indigenous heritage.
During the Great Depression, Mexicans were largely considered non-white. As many as 400,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were deported in a decade-long effort by the government called the Mexican Repatriation.
In the 2000 U.S census, around half of all persons of Mexican or Mexican American origin in the U.S. checked white to register their race (in addition to stating their Mexican national origin). Mexican Americans are the largest White Hispanic group in the United States.
Caribbean countries such as Cuba, Puerto Rico and especially the Dominican Republic have a complex ethnic heritage since they include indigenous and African legacies. Africans were imported to the islands throughout the colonial period (and indeed Blacks accompanied the first Spanish explorers, with more arriving to harvest sugar in the 20th century prior to the Revolution).
Cuban Americans and Puerto Rican Americans exemplify this complex ethnic status. The Cuban exiles and the Puerto Rican who migrated, entered the United States before 1959 tended to be of European ancestry (most particularly Spanish ancestry) and therefore widely considered white. Their appearance let them be more accepted by an American culture that openly discriminated against Afro-Cubans and Afro-Puerto Ricans, and other races. In some cases, this white racial status "allowed them to feel superior over other racial and ethnic groups and to make claims to rights and privileges..."
In the late 19th and 20th century, many saw American Indians as people without a future, who should be assimilated into a larger American culture. Tribal membership was frequently defined according to so-called blood quantum standards, so that "mixed race" children were eventually excluded. This led to the classification of increasing numbers of people with indigenous ancestry as white, a trend that reversed in census figures of recent decades, which show increasing self-identification as American Indian. However, according to the 2000 census, you must know the tribe and maintain contact with that tribal community: "American Indian and Alaska Native. A person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintain tribal affiliation or community attachment."
Central and West Asian Americans
Under the U.S. Census definition and U.S. federal agency, individuals with ancestry from the Middle East are considered white. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations also explicitly define white as "original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East." Historically, Middle Eastern peoples and their descendants were legally white in general, but there were a lot of discussions in the early 20th century about labeling them as Asian, and thus ineligible for citizenship. Some Syrians, Afghans and Arabs have occasionally been denied naturalization due to not being white. Armenians, were classified by the courts as white with help from the testimony of anthropologist Franz Boas.
Jews in America have maintained a complex relationship to 'whiteness'. Although Jews are currently perceived as a white group in most of the mainstream, some Jews nevertheless do not feel that they are white, and sometimes identify themselves, and are identified by others, as a separate minority. According to one source—though not supported by census records of the period, which recorded all Jews as white—Jews in America did not become accepted as "white" until the 1940s. As early as 1911, anthropologist Franz Boas (1858–1952) purported in The Mind of Primitive Man, that "no real biological chasm separated recent immigrants from Mayflower descendants." Therefore claims of difference were based on prejudice, whether religious or ethno-cultural, and had no biological basis. However, more recent genetic studies on Jews have found a closer relationship between Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi Jews, and other native populations of the Fertile Crescent, than between Jews and their former host populations in Europe and North Africa. Some scholars believe their transition to 'whiteness' took place in the 1960s and 1970s, partly as a reaction against an increasingly apparent 'blackness', although others contend that Jews are still generally excluded from white privilege. Activist Michael Lerner argues, in a 1993 Village Voice article, that "In America, to be 'white' means to be the beneficiary of the past 500 years of European exploration and exploitation of the rest of the world," and that, "Jews can only be deemed white if there is massive amnesia on the part of non-Jews about the monumental history of anti-Semitism." African-American activist Cornel West, in an interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, has explained:
|“||Even if some Jews do believe that they're white, I think that they've been duped. I think that antisemitism has proven itself to be a powerful force in nearly every post of Western civilization where Christianity has a presence. And so even as a Christian, I say continually to my Jewish brothers and sisters: don't believe the hype about your full scale assimilation and integration into the mainstream. It only takes an event or two for a certain kind of anti-Jewish, antisemitic sensibility to surface in places that you would be surprised. But I'm just thoroughly convinced that America is not the promised land for Jewish brothers and sisters. A lot of Jewish brothers say, "No, that’s not true. We finally—yeah—they said that in Alexandria. You said that in Weimar Germany."||”|
In addition, white nationalist and white supremacist groups typically reserve membership exclusively for individuals of European ancestry. The U.S. National Socialist Movement thus stipulates that "Party Membership is open to non-Semitic heterosexuals of European descent."
East Asian Americans
Beginning in the mid-19th century, the United States experienced significant immigration from East Asia and the Indian Subcontinent, followed by reactions, such as the Workingman's Party, against Chinese and later other East Asian immigrants as competitors with white labor, and fears (Yellow Peril) that Asians could outnumber the white population in some areas and become dominant.
The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalized American citizenship to whites. However, United States v. Wong Kim Ark in 1898 confirmed citizenship by birth in the US regardless of race. As a result, in the early 20th, century many new arrivals with origins in the Far East petitioned the courts to be legally classified as white, resulting in the existence of many United States Supreme Court rulings on their "whiteness". In 1922, the court case Takao Ozawa v. United States deemed that Japanese are part of the Mongoloid race, and thus non-white.
In Jim Crow era Mississippi, however, Chinese American children were allowed to attend white-only schools and universities, rather than attend black-only schools, and some of their parents became members of the infamous Mississippi "White Citizens' Council" who enforced policies of racial segregation.  
Although in an opposite turn in other parts of the United States, in 1927, The Supreme Court finds that states possess the right to define a Chinese student as non-white for the purpose of segregating public schools in the case of Lum v. Rice. As the Jim crow era lasted between 1876 and 1965 this effectively placed Lum v. Rice within that same time period.
In a precursor to Brown v. Board the 1947, federal legal case Mendez v. Westminster fought to take down segregated schools for Mexican American and White students, in doing so this prompted Governor Earl Warren to repeal a state law calling for segregation of Native American and Asian American students in California. Further proof that East Asians were segregated in the American education system during the Jim Crow era of the United States. After that, it left Blacks as the only race that was still segregated in the education system of California.
South Asian Americans
The classification of Indian Americans has varied over the years and across institutions. Originally, neither the U.S. courts nor the census bureau categorized Indians as a race because there were only negligible numbers of Indian immigrants in the United States. Various court judgements instead deemed Indians to be "White" or "not White" for the purposes of law.
In 1923, the Supreme Court decided in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind that people of Indian descent were not white men, and thus not eligible to citizenship. The court conceded that, while Thind was a high caste Hindu born in the northern Punjab region and classified by certain scientific authorities as of the Aryan race, he was not white since the word Aryan "has to do with linguistic and not at all with physical characteristics" and since "the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences" between Indians and white Americans. Associate Justice George Sutherland wrote in his summary:
|“||The eligibility of this applicant for citizenship is based on the sole fact that he is of high caste Hindu stock, born in Punjab, one of the extreme northwestern districts of India, and classified by certain scientific authorities as of the Caucasian or Aryan race...In the Punjab and Rajputana, while the invaders seem to have met with more success in the effort to preserve their racial purity, intermarriages did occur producing an intermingling of the two and destroying to a greater or less degree the purity of the “Aryan” blood. The rules of caste, while calculated to prevent this intermixture, seem not to have been entirely successful... the given group [Asian Indian] cannot be properly assigned to any of the enumerated grand racial divisions. The type may have been so changed by intermixture of blood as to justify an intermediate classification. Something very like this has actually taken place in India. Thus, in Hindustan [India] and Berar [town in India] there was such an intermixture of the “Aryan” invader with the dark-skinned Dravidian.||”|
The U.S. Census Bureau has over the years changed its own classification of Indians. In 1930 and 1940, Indian Americans were classified as "Hindu" by "Race", and in 1950 and 1960, they were categorized as Other Race, and in 1970, they were deemed White. Since 1980, Indians and other South Asians have been classified according to self-reporting, with many selecting "Asian Indian" to differentiate themselves from peoples of "American Indian" or Native American background.
North Africans in the United States
Under the U.S. Census definition and U.S. federal agency, individuals with ancestry from North Africa are considered white. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regulations also explicitly define white as "original peoples of Europe, North Africa, or the Middle East."
Most North Africans in the U.S. are of native North African origin, including Berbers and Copts. Some also have secondary ancestry from Arab colonists. They are among the more numerous Arab American groups.
Laws dating from 17th-century colonial America that excluded children of at least one black parent from the status of being white. Early legal standards did so by defining the race of a child based on a mother's race while banning interracial marriage, while later laws defined all people of some African ancestry as black, under the principle of hypodescent. These laws ensured that the children of slaves were available as labor to their parent's master and furthered racist standards of white women's "purity" under threat from black sexual "contamination." Some 19th-century categorization schemes defined people with one black parent (the other white) as mulatto, with one black grandparent as quadroon and with one black great grandparent as octoroon. The latter categories remained within an overall black or African-American category. Some members of these categories passed temporarily or permanently as white. Until the Civil War, racial identity depended on the combination of appearance, African blood fraction, and social circle.
However, since several thousand blacks have been crossing the color line each year, the phenomenon known as "passing for white", millions of White Americans have recent African ancestors. A statistical analysis done in 1958 estimated that 21 percent of the white population had African ancestors. The study concluded that the majority of Americans of African descent were actually White and not Black.
- Historical racial and ethnic demographics of the United States
- Race and ethnicity in the United States
- Race and ethnicity in the United States Census
- The History of White People
- Roediger, Wages of Whiteness, 186; Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York, 1998).
- John Tehranian, "Performing Whiteness: Naturalization Litigation and the Construction of Racial Identity in America," The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 109, No. 4. (Jan., 2000), pp. 817-848.
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- Uniform Crime Reporting Handbook, U.S. Department of Justice. Federal Bureau of Investigation. P. 97 (2004)
- John Tehranian, "Performing Whiteness: Naturalization Litigation and the Construction of Racial Identity in America," The Yale Law Journal, Vol. 109, No. 4. (Jan., 2000), pp. 825-827.
- See David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (London: Verso, 1991) p. 32 for their earlier status. See op. cit. p. 142 for Stephen O. Douglas's acceptance, in his debates against Abraham Lincoln, that Germans are a "branch of the Caucasian race." See op. cit. p. 155 for anti-abolitionist tracts of 1864 accusing abolitionist German-Americans of having "broken their ties with the white race" by opposing slavery. Finally, see Frank W. Sweet, Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise and Triumph of the One-Drop Rule (Palm Coast FL: Backintyme, 2005) p. 332 and Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery: the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1961) p. 75 for the legislated disfranchisement of Pennsylvanians of African ancestry by the first state legislature controlled by German-Americans.
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- Armas Kustaa Ensio Holmio, "History of the Finns in Michigan", p. 17 | She had barely reached the front porch when the friend's mother realized that her daughter's playmate was a Finn. Helmi was turned away immediately, and the daughter of the house was forbidden to associate with "that Mongolian". John Wargelin, a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and a former president of Suomi College, also tells how, when he was a child in Crystal Falls some years earlier, he and his friends were ridiculed and stoned on their way to school. "Because of our strange language," he says, "we were considered an alien race who had no right to settle in this country."
- Eric Dregni, "Vikings in the attic: In search of Nordic America", p. 176
- Armas Kustaa Ensio Holmio, "History of the Finns in Michigan", p. 23
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- See "Chapter 9. How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White: The Early 1800s" in Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise and Triumph of the One-Drop Rule by Frank W. Sweet, ISBN 0-939479-23-0. A summary of this chapter, with endnotes, is available online at How the Law Decided if You Were Black or White: The Early 1800s.
- AFRICAN ANCESTRY OF THE WHITE AMERICAN POPULATION