White Americans are a racial or ethnic group of Americans who identify as and are perceived to be white people. The term is usually used to refer to those of European descent, though is at times also used to refer to Americans of North African and Middle Eastern descent (for example, in the US Census definition). White Americans (including White Hispanics) constitute the historical and current majority of the people living in the United States, with 72% of the population identifying as white in the 2010 United States Census. Non-Hispanic whites totaled about 197,181,177 or 61.1% of the U.S. population. European Americans are the largest ethnic group of White Americans and constitute the historical majority population of the United States since the nation’s founding.
The United States Census Bureau defines white people as those “having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.” The Census definition is controversial for its inclusion of Middle Eastern and North African peoples as white, and the Obama-era Census Bureau had planned to change this definition prior to the election of Donald Trump. Like all official U.S. racial categories, “White” has a “not Hispanic or Latino” and a “Hispanic or Latino” component, the latter consisting mostly of White Mexican Americans and White Cuban Americans. The term “Caucasian” is synonymous with “white”, although the latter is sometimes used to denote skin tone instead of race. Some of the non-European ethnic groups classified as white by the U.S. Census, such as Arab Americans, Jewish Americans, and Hispanics or Latinos, may not identify as or may not be perceived to be, white.
The largest ancestries of American whites are: German (17%), Irish (12%), English (9%), Italian (6%), French (4%), Polish (3%), Scottish (3%), Scotch-Irish (2%), Dutch (2%), Norwegian (2%) and Swedish (1%). However, the English and British Americans‘ demography is considered a serious under-count as the stock tend to self-report and identify as simply “Americans” (7%), due to the length of time they have inhabited the United States, particularly if their family arrived prior to the American Revolution. The vast majority of white Americans also have ancestry from multiple countries.
U.S. Census definition
The term “White American” can encompass many different ethnic groups. Although the United States Census purports to reflect a social definition of race, the social dimensions of race are more complex than Census criteria. 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.”
The Census question on race lists the categories White or European American, Black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Asian, plus “Some other race”, with the respondent having the ability to mark more than one racial or ethnic category. The Census Bureau defines White people as follows:
“White” refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa. It includes people who indicated their race(s) as “White” or reported entries such as German, Italian, Lebanese, Arab, Moroccan, or Caucasian.
In U.S. census documents, the designation White overlaps, as do all other official racial categories, with the term Hispanic or Latino, which was introduced in the 1980 census as a category of ethnicity, separate and independent of race. Hispanic and Latino Americans as a whole make up a racially diverse group and as a whole are the largest minority in the country.
The characterization of Middle Eastern and North African Americans as white has been a matter of controversy. In the early 20th century, there were a number of cases where people of Arab descent were denied entry into the United States or deported, because they were characterized as nonwhite. In 1944, the law changed, and Middle Eastern and North African peoples were granted white status. In 2015, the US Census endorsed the idea of creating a separate racial category for Middle Eastern and North African Americans in the 2020 Census, but this plan was discarded when the Trump Administration came to power.
Additionally, people who reported Muslim (or a sect of Islam such as Shi’ite or Sunni), Jewish, Zoroastrian, or Caucasian as their “race” in the “Some other race” section, without noting a country of origin, are automatically tallied as White. The US Census considers the write-in response of “Caucasian” or “Aryan” to be a synonym for White in their ancestry code listing.
In the contemporary United States, essentially anyone of European descent is considered White. However, many of the non-European ethnic groups classified as White by the U.S. Census, such as Arab Americans, Jewish Americans, and Hispanics or Latinos may not identify as, and may not be perceived to be, White.
The definition of White has changed significantly over the course of American history. Among Europeans, those not considered White at some point in American history include Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, Irish, Finns, and Russians. Early on in the United States, membership in the white race was generally limited to those of British, Germanic, or Nordic ancestry.