The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the US Population: Emerging American Identities

The Changing Racial and Ethnic Composition of the US Population: Emerging American Identities

Population and Development Review
Volume 35, Issue 1 (March 2009)
pages 1-51
DOI: 10.1111/j.1728-4457.2009.00260.x

Anthony Daniel Perez, Assistant Professor of Sociology
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Charles Hirschman, Boeing International Professor of Sociology
Department of Sociology and Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology
University of Washington, Seattle

Images and interpretations of the past, present, and future of the American racial and ethnic landscape are contradictory. Many accounts focus on the increasing diversity that results from immigration and differential natural increase as well as the proliferation of racial and ethnic categories in census data. Less attention has been paid to the formation and erosion of racial and ethnic identities produced by intermarriage and ethnic blending. The framers and custodians of census racial classifications assume a “geographic origins” definition of race and ethnicity, but the de facto measures in censuses and social surveys rely on folk categories that vary over time and are influenced by administrative practices and sociopolitical movements. We illustrate these issues through an in-depth examination of the racial and ethnic reporting by whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics in the 2000 census. The emerging pattern, labeled here as the “Americanization” of racial and ethnic identities, and most evident for whites and blacks, is of simplified racial identities with little acknowledgment of complex ancestries. National origin is the predominant mode of reporting racial and ethnic identities among Asians and Hispanics, especially first-generation immigrants. The future of racial and ethnic identities is unknowable, but continued high levels of immigration, intermarriage, and social mobility are likely to blur contemporary divisions and boundaries.

America was a multiethnic and multicultural society from the outset. The original American colonies were formed during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as frontier societies composed of multiple founding populations (Klein 2004: Ch. 2). First among these were the indigenous peoples of North America, who were gradually displaced or absorbed by the more numerous European settlers and indentured servants from various parts of the world. Africans were imported primarily as slave labor from the Caribbean and West Africa, although some arrived as indentured servants on terms similar to whites. In the middle decades of the seventeenth century, some blacks became free settlers, but by the close of the seventeenth century, slavery and African heritage became nearly synonymous (Fredrickson 1981). With unbalanced sex ratios in frontier settings, large populations of mixed ancestry soon emerged, particularly in Southern colonies (Davis 1991). While some unions were the result of intermarriage or consensual liaisons, there was also widespread sexual exploitation of black women by white slave owners (Fredrickson 1981: Ch. 3).

The ethnic and racial landscape became even more complex during the nineteenth century. Continental expansion added lands that had been home to Native Americans and peoples of mixed indigenous and Spanish origin, and successive waves of immigration from Europe and Asia fueled the rapid growth of an increasingly diverse population. Tracking the mixed and un-mixed descendants from these many threads is a theoretical possibility, but not one that can be easily accomplished with historical or contemporary data. The problem is that the differential rates of settlement, natural increase, and intermarriage (or sexual unions) that produced progeny of mixed ancestry are largely unknown. Small differences in assumptions about the relative magnitudes of these processes can lead to greatly different estimates of the ancestral origins of the contemporary American population.

An even greater obstacle to describing the ethnic makeup of the American people is the assumption that most people are able and willing to accurately report the origins of their parents, grandparents, and more distant ancestors. In many cases, knowledge of ancestral origins is passed along in families or communities, but in some cases these narratives are suppressed or simply lost to history. As a result, the racial and ethnic composition recorded in censuses, surveys, and administrative records reflects a large degree of subjectivity and even speculation, in addition to actual patterns of genealogical descent. Methodological studies of census questions about race and ethnicity, for instance, show that responses are affected, often remarkably so, by the format of questions, the listed choices, and the examples included in questionnaire instructions (Farley 1991; Hirschman, Alba, and Farley 2000)…

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