Immigration and Immigrants: Race and Ethnicity

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Immigration and Immigrants: Race and Ethnicity

British North American society was defined by race and racial divisions in the eighteenth century. The colonists understood each other as being white and part of a superior race of Europeans. Close contact and intermixing notwithstanding, Africans (called Negroes) and American Indians were consigned to separate racial categories. Racial attributes were considered biological and racial differences placed the members of nonwhite races at a greater or lesser distance to civilization as whites understood it. While the societies of Spanish and French North America were based on the mutual assimilation of Indian and white cultures, the English colonies of North America experienced such mixing only at the edges, on the Upper Midwest frontier and parts of the frontier South.

By the time of the American Revolution (1775–1783), the general Enlightenment view of Indians, which regarded them as people of the earth whose less acquisitive and more primitive way of life was destined to fade or even merge with that of whites, bore little relation to Indians' struggles in the North American colonies for land and resources. The erosion of power of even the larger Indian tribes and federations toward the late eighteenth century further contributed to the whites' belief that Indians lacked civilizing force and were doomed. The expulsion of Indians from their lands beginning in the 1820s only seemed to confirm the view that even "civilized tribes" could not resist the power of the European race.

Africans in the colonies were a diverse group in terms of their cultural and geographic origins. Blacks born in North America, slaves born in the West Indies and sold to North American colonists, and African-born men and women all intermingled, especially in the southeastern part of North America, and formed communities of slaves for whom their different cultural origins diminished in importance. Regardless of their specific origins, blacks were deprived of rights as a result of their racial designation. Over 80 percent were unfree, and their enslavement was associated with their race—though not yet justified by it. Resistance, including some open slave revolts, as well as flight and intermingling with native Indians also characterized the relationship of African-origin immigrants to whites.

Whites in the English colonies were not a very diverse group in terms of their origins. Over 80 percent of colonial settlers were of English origin, an even higher percentage was English speaking (English people, Scots, and Protestant Irish). Germans and remnants of Dutch and Swedish colonists on the Atlantic seaboard were among the more visible non-English-speaking whites, but with the exception of the Germans, their number declined in the pre-Revolutionary era. Though in 1751 Benjamin Franklin expressed misgivings about the "Palatine Boors" among his fellow Pennsylvanians, such hostile comments on distinct immigrant subcultures remained rare in pre-Revolutionary times.

Race was one of the ideas that structured the Revolution and the new Constitution (1787). The Declaration of Independence (1776) offered an inclusive vision of the new nation, declaring that "all men are created equal," but this Enlightenment vision of the innate right to freedom for people of all races remained a theoretical premise not met by the political and constitutional realities that followed. In 1775 the Continental Congress prohibited blacks from joining the Revolutionary forces. Indians were suspected as collaborators with the enemy by both Loyalists and Revolutionary forces.

Indians were largely situated outside the Constitution. Unless they were taxed members of a white community, they were not considered to be citizens of the United States. The Constitution was silent on the issue of black citizenship except in Article I, which counted free blacks as full citizens but slaves as just three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional apportionment. While African immigrants and their descendants were not explicitly denied American citizenship, the Naturalization Act of 1795 specified that U.S. citizenship could only be acquired by whites. This racialization of American citizenship would become one of the cornerstones of ideologies of race and ethnicity in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century.

Increasing immigration from Europe in the early nineteenth century, especially after 1815, heightened the awareness of cultural differences among European immigrants. While older groups (Dutch, Swedes, Huguenots) became subsumed in the English-speaking majority cultures, newer immigrants (Irish, Scots, and Germans) arrived in sufficient numbers to increase ethnic diversity among white Americans in the early nineteenth century. Ethnic awareness in the modern sense, however would not emerge until the large-scale immigration of Irish Catholics throughout the Eastern seaboard that began in the 1830s.

See alsoCitizenship; Racial Theory .


Archdeacon, Thomas J. Becoming American: An Ethnic History. New York: Free Press, 1983.

Galloway, Colin G. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Jordan, Winthrop. White over Black: American Attitudes toward the Negro, 1550–1812. New York: Norton, 1977.

Dorothee Schneider

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Immigration and Immigrants: Race and Ethnicity

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Immigration and Immigrants: Race and Ethnicity