White ethnic

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John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States and the first white ethnic President

White ethnic is a term used to refer to white Americans who are not Old Stock or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.[1] They consist of a number of distinct groups and make up approximately 69.4% of the white population in the United States.[2] The term usually refers to the descendants of immigrants from Southern, Central and Eastern Europe, Ireland, the Caucasus and France/Francophone Canada.[3][4][5]


In the 19th century, American industrial development caused millions of immigrants to emigrate from Europe to the United States. Many came to provide labor for the industrial growth of the Northeast and Midwest, and multitudes of immigrants from non British or non-Germanic Protestant backgrounds settled in the nation's growing cities.[6] This immigration wave continued until 1924 when Congress enacted the Johnson–Reed Act, which restricted immigration as a whole and from southern and eastern European countries in particular. Additionally, the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s acted as a deterrent to further immigration to the United States from Europe.

Separated from the ruling class by blood, religion and economic circumstances, white ethnics retained a strong and distinct sense of identity from the majority culture. During the early 20th century, many white ethnics were relegated to menial or unskilled labor. They were often subject to ethnic discrimination and xenophobia and were lampooned with stereotypes. Historian and reformer Andrew Dickson White lamented that, in American cities, "a crowd of illiterate peasants, freshly raked from Irish bogs, or Bohemian mines, or Italian robber nests, may exercise virtual control."[7] Religion was another big factor in this alienation from broader American society. In contrast to the mostly Protestant and Anglo-Saxon majority, white ethnics tended to practice Catholicism,[8] Eastern Orthodox Christianity, or Judaism. These ethnic, cultural and religious differences helped them retain a strong and separate identity from the rest of America until the post war era.[9][10]

In the 1950s and 1960s, suburbanization caused many young ethnics, many of whom were veterans, to leave the city and settle in the nation's burgeoning suburbs with the hope of rising into a higher economic class. In the 1960s and 1970s, several ethnic organizations became vocal in promoting white ethnic culture and interests.[11] At the same time, white ethnics became more involved in American political life at a national level and began to challenge the majority Protestant ruling class for greater political power.[12]

The election of John F. Kennedy, in 1960, was the first time that a white ethnic (Irish Catholic) was elected President of the United States. However, it was not the first time that a white ethnic was nominated for the presidency: Al Smith, also Irish Catholic, was the first to be nominated for president on a major party ticket, in 1928. Spiro Agnew, a Greek-American, was the first white ethnic elected vice president, in 1968.[citation needed]

Since Kennedy, white ethnics have become more common on major party tickets. Eight Catholics have been vice presidential candidates: William Miller (1964), Ed Muskie (1968), Thomas Eagleton (1972, briefly), Sargent Shriver (1972), Geraldine Ferraro (1984), Joe Biden (2008 and 2012) Paul Ryan (2012) and Tim Kaine (2016); only Biden was elected, becoming the first Roman Catholic and non-Protestant vice president.[13] Biden would later be elected president in 2020.[14] In 1964, Barry Goldwater became the first major party presidential candidate of Jewish heritage. Had he been elected in 1988, Michael Dukakis would have been the first Greek-American and first Eastern Orthodox Christian president. Joe Lieberman was the first Jewish person to be nominated for vice-president on a major party ticket, in 2000.

Urban politics[edit]

White ethnic ward heelers dominated the Democratic political machines of America's major cities throughout the first half of the 20th century. The ward heelers were often Irish Catholics in close alliance with those of other ethnicities, such as Ashkenazi Jews and Italians in New York City and Polish-Americans and other Eastern Europeans in Chicago.[15][16] In New York City, Tammany Hall was the dominant political machine that controlled political patronage positions and nominations, and figures like Carmine DeSapio were powerful kingmakers on a national level.[17] However, many left the Democratic Party as it has moved leftward since the late 1960s, and they became a key component of the socially conservative Reagan Democrats during the 1980s.[18]

With increased suburbanization and the continued assimilation of white ethnics and their subsequent replacement by newer immigrant groups, many of the remaining white ethnics have lost much of their political power in urban politics in the early 21st century.[19][20][21][22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Marger, Martin N. (2008). Race and Ethnic Relations: American and Global Perspectives (8 ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 282. ISBN 978-0-495-50436-8. "Religion is the most critical factor in separating white ethnics in American society. As Catholics and secondarily Jews ... they were immediately set apart from the Protestant majority at the time of their entrance and given a strongly negative reception."
  2. ^ Marger, Martin N. (2008). Race and Ethnic Relations: American and Global Perspectives (8 ed.). Cengage Learning. p. 281. ISBN 978-0-495-50436-8.
  3. ^ "Overview of Race and Hispanic Origin: 2010 Census Briefs" (PDF). Census.gov. Retrieved 19 August 2017.
  4. ^ Pacyga, Dominic A. (May 1997). "Catholics, Race, and the American City". H-Net Reviews. Retrieved 16 December 2009.
  5. ^ Chan, Sewell (25 October 2007). "White Ethnic Politics: Irish and Italian Catholics and Jews, Oh, My!". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 June 2016.
  6. ^ Byrne, Julie. "Roman Catholics and Immigration in Nineteenth-Century America". National Humanities Center. Retrieved 13 July 2016.
  7. ^ Masket, Seth (16 December 2014). "When party machines turned immigrants into citizens and voters". The Washington Post. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  8. ^ "AN ANTI-CATHOLIC LAW'S TROUBLING LEGACY". Catholic League. 29 November 2007. Retrieved 13 July 2016.
  9. ^ Greeley, Andrew (1 July 1971). "Why Can't They Be Like Us: America's White Ethnic Groups". Commentary. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  10. ^ Novak, Michael (1972). The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. New York: Macmillan. ISBN 0-025-90780-8.
  11. ^ Waggoner, Walter (27 July 1975). "A Newark Campus for 'White Ethnics'". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  12. ^ Greenblatt, Alan. "The End of WASP-Dominated Politics". NPR. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  13. ^ "The First Catholic Vice President?". NPR. Retrieved 15 January 2020.
  14. ^ "Joe Biden: The President". The White House. Retrieved 12 February 2024.
  15. ^ Masket, Seth (16 December 2014). "When party machines turned immigrants into citizens and voters". The Washington Post. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  16. ^ McClelland, Edward (6 January 2020). "Where Have all the Polish Pols Gone; They were once a vital cog in the Chicago Machine. Now, the last of them is being run out of the Democratic Party". Chicago. Retrieved 18 May 2020.
  17. ^ Kandell, Jonathan (28 July 2004). "Carmine DeSapio, Political Kingmaker and Last Tammany Hall Boss, dies at 95". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  18. ^ West, Paul (15 May 1992). "Chicago's white ethnics view Clinton, and primary, warily". The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  19. ^ Rubinstein, Dana (2 November 2017). "De Blasio woos outer borough ethnics, but they're just not that into him". Politico. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  20. ^ Short, Aaron (14 March 2019). "An Irish lament: the fading of Hibernian political power; 2018 swept away the last bastions of Irish-American influence in NYC politics". City & State New York. Archived from the original on 2 March 2021.
  21. ^ Scheiber, Noam (8 February 2008). "How'd Obama do among White Ethnics?". The New Republic. Retrieved 17 May 2020.
  22. ^ Deignan, Tom (28 February 2020). "Biden done? Who killed the White Ethnics". IrishCentral. Retrieved 17 May 2020.