American Diversity Patterns

Most numerical data on ethnicity and "race" in the U.S. derive from national census data gathered every 10 years.  Unfortunately, even the latest census is flawed due to inconsistent and incomplete data collection.  It is likely that some urban minorities and migrant farm workers are undercounted.  In addition, people have been counted in terms of ethnicity and "race" mostly as a result of their own self-disclosure as to which categories they fit, and they had to choose from the limited list specified by the national government.  The failure to allow people to identify with categories that they themselves subjectively volunteer makes the data less reliable.

The U.S. Census Bureau considers some group differences to be racial and others to be purely ethnic.  Specifically, they make an ethnic distinction between Hispanic and non-Hispanic.  In contrast, categories such as Chinese and Vietnamese are considered racial.

  photo of a Chinese or Vietnamese woman?   photo of a Chinese or Vietnamese man?  

What do you suppose these two
people consider themselves to be?

                     clickable button icon
         Click the button to see
            if you are correct. 

People of European ancestry are lumped together in the U.S. Census as "white", while everyone with African ancestry is considered to be "black."  It is likely that the vast majority of people who are a mixture of the two, define themselves as being "black."  This is a result of the now deeply ingrained historical pattern of considering someone who has even a minute percentage of African ancestry to be "black."  This "drop of blood", or hypodescent click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced, criterion for identity was once insisted upon by European Americans and is now strongly advocated by most African Americans.  For example, the golfing pro Tiger Woods is usually claimed by African American organizations as being "black" despite the fact that he is only 1/8 African in ancestry.  He is also 1/2 Thai, 1/4 European, and 1/8 Native American.

  photo of four Cuban American women friends

  Cuban American women

The census categories for Native Americans, Latin Americans, Asians, and Pacific Islanders have been subdivided into smaller categories.  Members of these groups are counted separately in terms of their specific national or ethnic origins.  For instance, Pacific Islanders are counted as Filipinos, Hawaiians, Samoans, Guamanians, etc.  Latin Americans are counted as Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, etc.

Recent "black" immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean are not similarly distinguished in terms of national origin on the census--they are lumped into the black, or African American, category without regard for their linguistic, religious, and other cultural differences.  Many recent African and black Caribbean immigrants have been troubled by the fact that they are usually lumped into this category despite the fact that they think of themselves as Africans, Nigerians, Somalis, Jamaicans, etc.  Likewise, many blacks whose ancestry included slavery in the U.S. do not feel kinship with these new immigrants because of their radically different historical and cultural backgrounds.  Adding to this social division between native born and immigrant blacks has been the fact that the foreign born blacks more often have university degrees and subsequently are able to obtain higher paying jobs.  Similar to the lumping of diverse peoples into the black category for the census, all European, Middle Eastern, and North African immigrants are defined as "white" without concern for their significant cultural differences.  To learn how races were officially defined for the year 2000 Census click here.

photo of people from Denmark and Spain in traditional folk clothing    photo of people from Spain in traditional folk clothing

Members of different European national groups (Danes
and Spaniards) wearing traditional clothes that identify
their ethnicity

Despite these limitations and peculiarities of the U.S. Census, it is instructive to examine its data and the trends that they indicate concerning race and ethnicity.  The data from the year 2000 Census are summarized below:


  Total U.S. population


  Race:   (see note 1)
  --- One race   274,595,678    97.6%
  --- White   211,460,626    75.1%
  --- Black or African American     34,658,190    12.3%
  --- American Indian and Alaska Native     2,475,956  0.9%
  --- Asian


  --- Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander         398,835   0.1%
  --- Some other race   (see note 2)  15,359,073    5.5%
  --- Two or more races   (see note 3)    6,826,228    2.4%
  Ethnicity:   (see note 4)
  --- Hispanic or Latino (of any race)  35,305,818 12.5%
  --- Not Hispanic or Latino 246,116,088   87.5%


There was no "decline to state" option allowed for "race" designation for
the year 2000 Census.
2. 97% of the people who reported that they were "some other race" said
that they were also "Hispanic or Latino" in terms of ethnicity. 
3. There are 57 possible combinations of 2, 3, 4, 5, or 6 races that were
.  93% of  the people who reported more than one race,  reported
only two.  The most common combination was "white" with some other
4. 48% of Hispanics reported that they were "white" and 42% said they
were "some other race."

The vast majority of Americans (97.6%) reported that they are only one "race."  It is very likely that a significant percentage of this group actually could claim ancestry from more than one "race" but chose not to.  Nearly a quarter of all Americans (24.9%) claimed to be either members of "non-white" racial groups or two or more "races."  A comparison of the 1980-2000 censuses shows that the "non-white" groups have been increasing in numbers more rapidly than "whites."

(see note 1) 
1980 AND 1990
1990 AND 2000
  Total U.S. population   9.8% 13.2%
  --- White    6.0%  5.9%
  --- Black   13.2% 15.6%
  --- American Indian and Alaska Native     37.9% 26.4%
  --- Asian and Pacific Islander 107.8% 46.3%

of major changes in the way "race" information was collected for the year
2000 Census, these data are not entirely comparable with data from earlier censuses.
People who claim more than one race are not reflected in these data.

A similar trend of rapidly increasing numbers has occurred for Hispanics in comparison to non-Hispanics.


1980 AND 1990
1990 AND 2000
  Total U.S. population  9.8% 13.2%
  --- Hispanic or Latino 53.0% 57.9%
  --- Not Hispanic or Latino    6.8%  8.7%

NOTE:  these data indicating dramatic increases in the size of minority groups relative to the majority European American or "white" population are deceptive.  In small groups, a large percentage increase results from the addition of relatively few people.  For instance, the increase in the Vietnamese population of 82.7% between 1990 and 2000 actually resulted from the addition of only 507,981 people.  During the same period, the 5.9% increase among the "white" population resulted from 11,774,556 new people.

Over the long run, however, the trend of more rapidly increasing minority populations will have a cumulative effect in changing the broad demographic patterns in the United States.  Projecting to the year 2015, the U.S. Census Bureau suggests that America will still remain predominantly "white" but that other groups will continue to increase disproportionately.  Perhaps the most dramatic result of these changing population trends during the last few years has been that African Americans were replaced by Hispanics as the largest minority group.  This change is a result of large numbers of immigrants entering the country from Latin America and high birth rates among Hispanics.

Between 1990 and 2000, nearly 33 million people were added to our national population.  This was the largest 10 year increase in U.S. history.  The fastest growing regions were the "sunbelt areas" of the West and the Southeast.

The patterns of diversity are not the same throughout America.  Most ethnic and "racial" minorities are concentrated in major urban centers and in particular states.  For instance, Hispanics of Mexican ancestry have their highest frequency in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.  While they make up only 12.5% of the U.S. population, Hispanics now are 32.4% of California's population and 77.1% of them have a Mexican heritage.  Greater Los Angeles is, in effect, the 2nd largest Mexican city--only Mexico City has a larger Mexican population.  Half of all U.S. Hispanics live in California and Texas.  However, the presence of people with Hispanic ancestry is now growing rapidly outside of the Southwest as well.  This is particularly true in New York City, Chicago, and major farming regions such as the Yakima Valley in Washington.

Cities with Large
Numbers of Hispanics
   Number of  

(see note 1)
 Percent of  
  that is Hispanic  
  New York 2,160,554 27.0%
  Los Angeles  (see note 2)   1,719,073 46.5%
  Chicago   753,644 26.0%
  Houston   730,865 37.4%
  San Antonio   671,394 58.7%
  Phoenix   449,972 34.1%
  El Paso   431,875 76.6%
  Dallas   422,587 35.8%
  San Diego   310,752 25.4%


It is likely that these numbers are undercounts because many
undocumented aliens from Latin America apparently did not
participate in the year 2000 Census.
2 In East and South Los Angeles, Hispanics comprise 96.8%
of the population.  At least 4.2 million Hispanics live in Los
Angeles County.  This is 3.2 times more Hispanics than in
any other county in the U.S.

Among the people who identified themselves as Hispanic in the year 2000 Census, the largest group by far consisted of those of Mexican ancestry.   Well over half of all American Hispanics claimed to be Mexican.

Hispanic Categories

 of People  
Percent of Total
  Hispanic  Population  
  All Hispanic or Latino   35,305,818   100.0% 
  --- Mexican 20,640,711    58.5
  --- Puerto Rican 3,406,178     9.6
  --- Cuban 1,241,685     3.5%
  --- Dominican 764,945     2.2%
  --- Central American (excludes Mexican)    1,686,937     4.8%
  --- South American 1,353,562    3.8%
  --- Spaniard 100,135     0.3%
  --- All other Hispanic or Latino 6,111,665    17.3

Among Americans of Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry, the largest groups in the year 2000 Census were Chinese, Filipinos, and Asian Indians.  However, Koreans and Vietnamese are catching up.

Asian and Pacific Islander Categories

  Population   Percent of Total Asian and
  Pacific Islander Population  
  All Asian 10,242,998  96.3%
  --- Asian Indian  1,678,765  15.8%
  --- Chinese  2,432,585  22.9%
  --- Filipino  1,850,314  17.4%
  --- Japanese    796,700   7.5%
  --- Korean  1,076,872  10.1%
  --- Vietnamese  1,122,528  10.6%
  --- Other Asian  1,285,234  12.1%
  All Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander       398,835   3.8%
  --- Native Hawaiian     140,652   1.3%
  --- Guamanian or Chamorro      58,240   0.6%
  --- Samoan      91,029   0.9%
  --- Other Pacific Islander      108,914   1.0%

Implications of the Changing Population Patterns

Beyond the numerical data for ethnicity and "race" in America, it is important to grasp the human personal dimension of this diversity.  It has had profound effects on the attitudes and actions of both minority and majority groups.  Perceptions of racial identity are especially important among African Americans today.  Their history of slavery and severe institutionalized discrimination are not easily put behind them.  To the contrary, they have become important ethnic symbols in the "racial" boundary maintenance separating African Americans from other groups.

The rate of loss of a minority group's distinct identity and the assimilation of its members into the majority population has depended on a number of historical and social factors.  It has been relatively easy for most European immigrants to assimilate within 1-2 generations due to their similarity in physical appearance to the majority population.  However, people with darker skin color have not been able to assimilate as readily or at all in some cases.  This has been particularly true of African Americans and some Hispanics.  As a result, assimilation now is often rejected as a goal by "minorities of color" in favor of gaining respect and acceptance as economically and politically equal but separate ethnic groups.

Another major factor affecting the likelihood of assimilation has been the size and concentration of ethnic groups.  Those that make up the predominate population in a large community greatly insulate their members from the dominant cultural patterns of the national society.  Their members can live surrounded by people sharing the same ethnicity and speaking the same familiar language or dialect.  In this situation, pressures to assimilate can be greatly ignored.  This has been the case with many Mexicans and Central Americans in East and South Los Angeles.  In part, this has also been due to the continued high rates of immigration of Spanish speakers into these communities.

When immigrants are isolated from others of their ethnic group, it is much more difficult for them to resist the pressure to assimilate.  This was the case with some of the Vietnamese boat people who arrived in the 1970's.  The children of those who were relocated in smaller towns in the Midwest, rather than major cities in California, usually acquired non-Vietnamese friends and learned relatively quickly to speak English without a Vietnamese accent.  These are important first steps in assimilation.  However, whether or not it occurs also depends on the acceptance of the newcomers by the majority population.

What Will the Future Be Like

Those Americans who favor a society which acknowledges the permanent existence of unassimilated or only partially assimilated ethnic/racial minorities generally advocate multiculturalism click this icon to hear the preceding term pronounced (or pluralism).  This is essentially an encouragement of continued diversity.  The concept of multiculturalism came to the United States from Canada in the 1970's.  Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister, first used the term publicly in 1972 to describe the acceptance of a permanently unassimilated French speaking society in Quebec Province.  Today, multiculturalism in Canada is a deep-rooted policy at every level of government and  has been expanded to cover all ethnic groups.

Multiculturalism has not been as widely accepted in the United States despite its support by national and state governments.  Those Americans who wish to facilitate and speed up assimilation in order to reinforce national cultural unity generally advocate a cultural melting pot instead.  This latter approach is one in which ethnic/racial distinctness is perceived of as getting in the way of developing a culturally homogenous American society.  In the past, most of those who held this view apparently visualized the new American society as one in which everyone spoke English and had European American values, perceptions, and goals.  "Americanization" of new immigrants essentially meant educating everyone in the public schools to be like the existing majority European American population.

Americans have been forced by circumstances to focus on this debate over what the country should be like in the future.  Generally, those advocating the continuance of the older melting pot model are European Americans.  Ethnic/racial minorities and younger, more politically liberal European Americans more often advocate the multiculturalism model.  However, it is a mistake to assume how any American would vote on this issue based on their age, ethnicity, "race", and political leaning.  It is a complex issue that also has become intertwined with questions of affirmative action, gender equity, sexual preference, rights of the disabled, and public costs of the massive immigration that has occurred over the last two decades.


photo of a group of eight ethnically diverse Americans

 Is America a physically and
 culturally "browning" society?

Richard Rodriguez, a leading American essayist and social commentator, believes that the debate between the multiculturalism and melting pot models is largely irrelevant because constant close contact between people of different ethnic/racial groups in the U.S. is progressively resulting in a blurring of the differences between them.  Rodriguez suggests that "we are melting into each other" genetically and culturally.  More and more children are being born with two or more different ethnic/racial backgrounds.  He refers to this as the "browning of America."  However, he is not only referring to skin color.  He points out that we have developed a distinct national culture by borrowing from each other and creating a new cultural synthesis.  Rodriguez believes that government policies supporting multiculturalism only put off the inevitable.  However, he also thinks that the old melting pot model was incorrect in assuming that future generations will essentially be like European Americans today.  What is emerging is a new fusion of peoples and cultures.  Actually this process of genetic and ethnic intermixing has been going on since the beginning of the European colonies in North America more than four centuries ago.  In recent generations, the homogenizing of people and their cultures has been most intense in Hawaii and the southwestern states but is rapidly moving east and north.  If asked the question of what the future will be like for Americans, Rodriguez would very likely say that we only need to open our eyes and really see what it is like today.


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This page was last updated on Monday, July 14, 2008.
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