Racial & Ethnic Groups in the U.S. Research Paper Starter

Racial & Ethnic Groups in the U.S.

(Research Starters)

This article provides an overview of the demographic condition of racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Drawing on the racial and ethnic classifications used by the United States Census Bureau, it provides coverage of Whites, Blacks, Latino/as, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, as well as those populations who are multiracial or who select "other" as their race on the Census. Additionally, it considers the role of ethnic groups that are not part of the Census classifications, such as Irish, Jews, and Arabs. The article considers the current population, geographical distribution, and population trends of the various groups, as well as their standing on educational, economic, and other indicators. Collecting such data on race and ethnicity is controversial and the article concludes by summarizing the debate over collecting data on race.

Keywords Census; Demography; Ethnicity; Mulatto; One-Drop Rule; Race; Social Construction; Stratification



Racial and ethnic groups are groups that share a common racial or ethnic identity. While the terms "race" and "ethnicity" are often used interchangeably, they do have slightly different meanings. Racial groups are groups defined by the presence of real or imaginary physical differences between groups, such as skin color. While people may or may not identify with their race, most people have little choice about the racial group to which they are seen to belong. Ethnic groups, on the other hand, are groups defined by the presence of a real or imagined common history or culture. People can generally choose the ethnic group with which they will identify and which they will be seen to belong.

In the United States, the Census Bureau's questions on race and ethnicity provide a common understanding of which groups are the most significant racial and ethnic groups. The census question on race asks people to indicate whether they are White, Black, a specific Asian race (such as Chinese or Asian Indian), Native American, or Other. A second question asks people to indicate whether or not they are of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin. The race and ethnicity questions also provide people with the option of indicating their membership in certain Asian American, Native American, or other ethnic groups; a question on ancestry provides further opportunities to indicate ethnic ancestry.

In the year 2010, 77.9% of Americans were White, 13.1% were Black, 1.2% were Native American, 5.1% were Asian, and 2.4% were two or more races. Hispanics/Latinos accounted for 16.9%. The ancestry question on the census provides the most useful information on ethnic ancestry. While there are dozens of ethnic ancestries reported by at least 100,000 Americans, only five ancestries were reported by more than 13 million people each. In descending order, the most common ancestries claimed are German, "American," Irish, English, and Italian (in the past, African American and Mexican have fit into this group, but are now counted as part of race).


Individuals who are considered White in the United States have ancestry in Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa. While there has been some pressure both from Arab American civil rights groups and anti-Arab groups to classify Arabs separately from Whites, Arabs remain part of the White racial group as of the 2010 Census. In 2010, more than 240 million people, or 77.9% of the U.S. population, indicated on the Census that they were White. While the total number of Whites in the United States is growing, the proportion of the population that is White is declining; this is partially due to changes in the Census itself and partially due to the fact that fewer Whites are immigrating to the United States. The Census Bureau projects that by 2060, the percentage of the population that indicates a White racial identity and no other race or Latino/a origin will be 68%.

Whites are concentrated in the Southern and Midwestern portions of the country. While Whites on average have higher salaries than other racial groups and do better on economic and educational indicators than all other groups except Asians, these figures mask substantial disparities within the White population. About 12% of Whites live in poverty, for instance.


Individuals who are classified as Black are those who have ancestry in Africa. Racially Black individuals include those who are ethnically African American and primarily the descendants of slaves, as well as more recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. In 2010, 42 million Americans indicated Black racial identity, 13.6% of all Americans. While the proportion of the population that is Black is growing, it is not growing as fast as the proportion that is Asian or Latino/a. The Census Bureau projects that by 2060, the percentage of the population that indicates Black racial identity will be 14.7.

Over half of all Blacks live in the Southern portion of the United States. Compared to other racial groups, Blacks are much more likely to live in poverty and have significantly lower incomes and less wealth. They are less likely to marry, partially because a higher percentage of Black men are in prison. While Blacks are almost as likely as Whites to graduate from high school, they are less likely to earn college degrees. Blacks are more likely to work in service occupations and less likely to work in managerial or professional jobs than are Whites.

Asian Americans

Individuals who are classified as Asian American are those who have ancestry on the Asian continent, including South Asians, Southeast Asians, East Asians, and Filipinos. In 2010, 14.7 million Americans, or 4.8% of the total population, indicated Asian alone racial identity; an additional 2.6 million people indicated Asian racial identity in combination with some other race. The Census Bureau projects that by 2060 the percentage of the population that indicates Asian American racial identity will be 8.2%; this increase is due both to continuing immigration as well as to the fact that the Asian population is younger than the population as a whole. Almost half of all Asian Americans live in the Western portion of the United States. People with Chinese ethnic ancestry are the largest proportion of Asian Americans; Filipinos and Asian Indians are the next largest groups of Asians.

Asians, particularly Asian Indians, are overrepresented in professional and managerial occupations. Asians have higher household incomes and more education on average than do other racial groups, but these figures mask substantial differences among different Asian groups. For instance, Vietnamese workers are concentrated in service and production jobs, and almost a third of Vietnamese Americans have not earned a high school degree. Other Asian American groups such as Hmong and Laotians are even less likely to have achieved educational or financial success, but these groups remain too small for collecting usable data.

Until the 2000 Census, many Pacific Islanders, such as Native Hawaiians and Guamanians, would have chosen the Asian racial option; beginning in 2000, though, a separate category was provided for Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and, in 2010, 674,625 people, or 0.2% of the U.S. population, chose this category alone or in combination with some other...

(The entire section is 3250 words.)