Definitions of whiteness in the United States

The legal and social strictures defining white Americans, and distinguishing them from persons not considered white by the government and society, have varied throughout U.S. history.

Background

By the 18th century, "white" had become well established as a racial term at a time when slavery of African-Americans was widespread.[1] David R. Roediger has argued that the construction of the "white race" in the United States was an effort to mentally distance slaveowners from slaves.[1] 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.[2]

White American ancestries in 2000 (United States Census)[3]
Ancestry Percentage
German
15.2
Irish
10.8
English
8.7
Italian
5.6
Polish
3.2
French
3.0
Scottish
1.7
Dutch
1.6
Norwegian
1.6
Scots-Irish
1.5
Swedish
1.4

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."[4] It defines "white people" as "people having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.[5] The Federal Bureau of Investigation uses the same definition.[6]

The 1990 US Census Public Use Microdata Sample listed "Caucasian" or "Aryan" ancestry responses as subgroups of "white"[7] but the 2005 PUMS codes do not.[8] 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.[9] In cases where individuals do not self-identify, the U.S. census parameters for race give each national origin a racial value.