Who Are Minorities?

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Chapter 1
Who Are Minorities?


The U.S. Census Bureau reports that in July 2004 the U.S. population totaled 293.7 million people. Of that number, 197.8 million people (67.3%) identified themselves as white alone. The other 32.7% were members of one or more minority racial or ethnic groups. Although women are a majority of the nation's population (149.1 million women versus 144.5 million men), women are often considered a "minority" in social issues. (See Table 1.1.) In this publication, however, women are treated only in relation to racial or ethnic minority groups.

The Census Bureau predicts that by 2010, 65.1% of Americans will be white non-Hispanics and 34.9% will belong to a minority group. Projections indicate that the proportion of white, non-Hispanic Americans will shrink to only a bare majority (50.1%) by 2050, while 49.9% will belong to a minority racial or ethnic group. (See Table 1.2.)


For the 1980 and 1990 censuses the Census Bureau divided the U.S. population into the four racial categories identified by the Office of Management and Budget—White, Black, American Indian/Alaska Native, and Asian/Pacific Islander—and added the category "Some Other Race." The U.S. government uses these race/ethnic origin data to make decisions, among other things, about funding and making laws. For example, federal programs use the race information to promote support programs for the elderly and equal employment opportunities, while states use the data to ensure compliance with political redistricting requirements.

As ethnic identity becomes more complex because of immigration and interracial marriages and births, a growing number of people object to categories based on race. It is no longer unusual to find people whose backgrounds include two or more races.

In 1994 the Census Bureau conducted hearings to consider adding new choices to the categories that had been used in the 1990 census. The bureau found that Arab Americans were unhappy with their official designation as "white, non-European." This group included people from the Middle East, Turkey, and North Africa. Many indigenous Hawaiians wanted to be recategorized from Pacific Islander to Native American, reflecting historical accuracy and giving them access to greater minority benefits.

Some Hispanics wanted the Census Bureau to identify them as a race and not as an ethnic origin, and to replace the word "Hispanic" with "Latino." They asserted that "Hispanic" recalled the colonization of Latin America by Spain and Portugal and was as offensive as the term "Negro" is for African-Americans. When Hispanics were surveyed, however, the results showed they preferred to be identified by their families' country of origin, such as Puerto Rican, Colombian, Cuban, or sometimes just American.

A number of African-Americans wanted the Census Bureau to retire the term "Black." Nevertheless, there was some difference of opinion. For example, people from the Caribbean preferred to be labeled by their families' country of origin, such as Jamaican or Haitian American. Africans who were not American also found the term inaccurate. Although "African-American" has become more prominent in spoken English in recent years, lack of agreement and the length of the term have been significant factors in preventing its adoption by the government.

Census 2000

Conforming revised standards issued by the Office of Management and Budget, the 2000 census recategorized the races into White, Black/African-American/Negro, American Indian/Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, and Asian. The Census Bureau also added a sixth category: Some Other Race. In addition, the bureau included two ethnicity categories: Hispanic/Latino and Not Hispanic/Not Latino. To provide an accurate count of multiracial Americans, the 2000 census allowed Americans to select more than one race. Write-in spaces allowed Native Americans to record their tribal affiliation, and individuals of Hispanic origin could write in a national affiliation other than the major groups of Mexican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican. A more in-depth discussion of the major groups follows.

Population by sex, race, and Hispanic origin, 2004
Sex, race and Hispanic or Latino originPopulation estimates
July 1, 2004
Both sexes293,655,404
One race289,216,650
    American Indian and Alaska Native2,824,751
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander505,602
Two or more races4,438,754
Race alone or in combination*
    American Indian and Alaska Native4,409,446
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander976,395
Not Hispanic or Latino252,333,334
One race248,477,856
    American Indian and Alaska Native2,206,748
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander398,161
Two or more races3,855,478
Race alone or in combination*
    American Indian and Alaska Native3,573,949
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander802,794
Hispanic or Latino41,322,070
One race40,738,794
    American Indian and Alaska Native618,003
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander107,441
Two or more races583,276
Race alone or in combination*
    American Indian and Alaska Native835,497
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander173,601
One race142,352,126
    American Indian and Alaska Native1,414,941
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander257,383
Population by sex, race, and Hispanic origin, 2004 [continued]
Sex, race and Hispanic or Latino originPopulation estimates
July 1, 2004
Two or more races2,185,282
Race alone or in combination*
    American Indian and Alaska Native2,182,136
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander491,342
Not Hispanic or Latino123,190,335
One race121,294,578
    American Indian and Alaska Native1,089,209
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander201,029
Two or more races1,895,757
Race alone or in combination*
    American Indian and Alaska Native1,748,458
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander402,292
Hispanic or Latino21,347,073
One race21,057,548
    American Indian and Alaska Native325,732
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander56,354
Two or more races289,525
Race alone or in combination*
    American Indian and Alaska Native433,678
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander89,050
One race146,864,524
    American Indian and Alaska Native1,409,810
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander248,219
Two or more races2,253,472
Race alone or in combination*
    American Indian and Alaska Native2,227,310
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander485,053
Not Hispanic or Latino129,142,999
One race127,183,278
    American Indian and Alaska Native1,117,539
    Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander197,132


"Hispanic" is a broad term used to describe a varied ethnic group of individuals who trace their cultural heritage to Spain or to Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. The term can also refer to people whose Spanish ancestors were residents of the southwestern region of the United States that was formerly under Spanish or Mexican control.

Population by sex, race, and Hispanic origin, 2004 [continued]
Sex, race and Hispanic or Latino originPopulation estimates
July 1, 2004
*"In combination" means in combination with one or more other races. The sum of the five race groups adds to more than the total population because individuals may report more than one race.
source: Adapted from "Table 3. Annual Estimates of the Population by Sex, Race, and Hispanic or Latino Origin for the United States: April 1, 2000 to July 1, 2004," NC-EST2004-03, U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division, June 8, 2005, http://www.census.gov/popest/national/asrh/NC-EST2004-srh.html (accessed December 9, 2005)
Two or more races1,959,721
Race along or in combination*
   American Indian and Alaska Native1,825,491
   Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander400,502
Hispanic or Latino19,974,997
One race19,681,246
   American Indian and Alaska Native292,271
   Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander51,087
Two or more races293,751
Race along or in combination*
   American Indian and Alaska Native401,819
   Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander84,551

According to the Census Bureau, 41.3 million Hispanics lived in the United States in July 2004. Representing 14.1% of the population, they were the largest minority group in the nation. (See Table 1.1.) Their population in the United States grew rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. The Census Bureau reports that in 1950 Hispanics comprised less than 3% of the population. By 1980 they represented 6.4% of the population (14.6 million). In 1990 Hispanics totaled about 22.5 million, representing 9.1% of the total U.S. population. The 2000 census counted 35.6 million His-panics living in the United States. The Census Bureau predicts that by 2050 there will be 102.6 million Hispanics living in the United States. (See Table 1.2.)

Immigration and high birth rates are two major reasons for the large growth of the Hispanic population. As a result of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (PL 99-603), by 1992 about 2.6 million Mexicans were granted legal status in the United States. In Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States: 1990 to 2000 (January 2003, http://uscis.gov/gra-phics/shared/aboutus/statistics/Ill_Report_1211.pdf), the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimates that as of January 2000 approximately seven million illegal aliens also lived in the United States, up from 5.8 million in October 1996. Most of those illegal immigrants (4.8 million) came from Mexico.

In The Hispanic Population in the United States: March 2002 (June 2003, http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/p20-545.pdf), Roberto R. Ramirez and G. Patricia de la Cruz count all people in the United States regardless of legal status, although illegal aliens are likely to be undercounted because they are reluctant to provide personal information to government officials. Many members of the Hispanic community, particularly those who immigrated to the United States in recent years, have yet to become citizens. While 73.3% of Hispanics who entered the country before 1970 became citizens by 2002, only 7.3% of those who entered the country between 1990 and 2002 became citizens by 2002. (See Figure 1.1.)

Hispanic Origins

Hispanic Americans trace their origins to a number of countries. Ramirez and de la Cruz report that in 2002, 66.9% of the Hispanics in the United States were of Mexican heritage. Approximately 14.3% were of Central and South American origin, 8.6% were of Puerto Rican heritage, 3.7% were Cuban, and 6.5% were from other origins. The differences in origin can often mean significant variations in where Hispanics live, their education, income, and living conditions. (See Figure 1.2.)

Geographic Distribution

In 2002, 44.2% of Hispanic Americans lived in the West. Another 34.8% lived in the South, 13.3% lived in the Northeast, and 7.7% lived in the Midwest. (See Figure 1.3.) Despite the uneven distribution of Hispanics in different regions of the country, the likelihood of Hispanics living in a particular place depended primarily on their country of origin. Ramirez and de la Cruz report that Mexican Americans were most likely to live in the West (54.6%) and the South (34.3%), Puerto Ricans were most likely to live in the Northeast (58%), and Cubans were most likely to live in the South (75.1%).

Projected population of the United States, by race and Hispanic origin, 2000–50
[In thousands except as indicated. As of July 1. Residen population]
Population or percent and race or Hispanic origin200020102020203020402050
*Includes American Indian and Alaska Native alone, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander alone, and two or more races.
source: "Table 1a. Projected Population of the United States, by Race and Hispanic Origin: 2000 to 2050," in "U.S. Interim Projections by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin," U.S. Census Bureau, March 18, 2004, http://www.census.gov/ipc/www/usinterimproj/natprojtab01a.pdf (accessed December 9, 2005)
White alone228,548244,995260,629275,731289,690302,626
Black alone35,81840,45445,36550,44255,87661,361
Asian alone10,64814,24117,98822,58027,99233,430
All other races*7,0759,24611,82214,83118,38822,437
Hispanic (of any race)35,62247,75659,75673,05587,585102,560
White alone, not Hispanic195,729201,112205,936209,176210,331210,283
Percent of total population
White alone81.079.377.675.873.972.1
Black alone12.713.113.513.914.314.6
Asian alone3.
All other races*
Hispanic (of any race)12.615.517.820.122.324.4
White alone, not Hispanic69.465.161.357.553.750.1

Mexican Americans

Many Hispanic Americans are descendants of the Spanish and Mexican people who lived in the West and Southwest when those regions were first Spanish (starting in the 1500s) and later Mexican territory (after Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821). Their forebears were absorbed into the United States when Texas revolted, broke away from Mexico, became a republic, and then finally joined the United States during the 1840s. The Mexican-American War (1846–48) added California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and the Rio Grande boundary to the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. As a result, Hispanics living in those areas became Americans.

The Mexican-origin population, which more than doubled in the last two decades of the twentieth century, continues to grow in the twenty-first century. In March 2002 Mexican Americans represented 66.9% of the Hispanic population in the United States (see Figure 1.2), or about twenty-five million people, up from 20.6 million in 2000. Ramirez and de la Cruz report that Mexican Americans remained concentrated for the most part in the West (54.6%) and in the South (34.3%).

Nearly half of all Hispanics (45.6%) lived in central cities in 2002, compared with only 21.1% of non-Hispanic whites. Only 8.7% of Hispanics lived outside non-metropolitan areas, but Mexican Americans were more likely to live in these areas than other Hispanics. In Profiles of General Demographic Characteristics 2000(May 2001, http://censtats.census.gov/data/US/01084.pdf), the Census Bureau reports that Hispanics of Mexican descent make up 3.8% of the total population outside metropolitan areas, compared with Hispanics of Puerto Rican descent (0.2%) and Cuban Americans (0.1%). The explosion of the Hispanic population in the United States, then, has been primarily an urban phenomenon.

Puerto Ricans

The situation of Puerto Ricans is unique in American society. The Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, formerly a Spanish colony, became a U.S. commonwealth after it was ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris in 1898, which ended the Spanish-American War. In 1917 the Revised Organic Act (the Jones Act) granted the island a bill of rights and its own legislature. It also conferred U.S. citizenship to all Puerto Ricans.

Following World War II (1939–45), an industrialization program was launched in Puerto Rico. While the program benefited many, it sharply reduced the number of agricultural jobs, driving many rural residents to the cities. Combined with a high birth rate, this led to unemployment, overcrowding, and poverty. Since 1993, when President Bill Clinton eliminated tax exemptions for manufacturing firms in Puerto Rico, industries have moved away in search of cheaper labor, further compounding the economic problems. According to Ramirez and de la Cruz, in 1940 fewer than seventy thousand Puerto Ricans lived in the contiguous United States; in 2002, 3.2 million called the United States home. Partly because of the relative ease with which Puerto Ricans can travel in the United States, many move freely between the United States and Puerto Rico.

Most of the first Puerto Ricans who arrived in the United States settled in New York City in the Manhattan neighborhood of East Harlem, which came to be known as El Barrio (the Neighborhood). Eventually, Puerto Rican immigrants moved in greater numbers to other boroughs of the city and into New Jersey.

In 2002 Puerto Ricans represented 8.6% of the Hispanic population living in the United States. (See Figure 1.2.) Ramirez and de la Cruz report that Puerto Ricans were more likely to live in the Northeast (58%) than in other areas. Puerto Ricans were even more likely than other Hispanic groups to reside inside central cities in metropolitan areas—57.4% of them live in these areas.

Cuban Americans

Many Cubans fled Cuba during the early 1960s after the Fulgencio Batista regime was overthrown by Fidel Castro; Cuban immigrants tended to settle in Miami, Florida, and in the surrounding Dade County. Most of these political refugees were older, middle class, and educated. Many fled to maintain a capitalist way of life, and many succeeded in achieving economic prosperity in the United States. While language differences caused initial difficulties, most adapted well, and Cubans are the most economically successful of the Hispanic ethnic groups. Unlike Americans of Mexican and Puerto Rican backgrounds, who began migrating throughout the country during the 1990s, the Cuban population has generally remained concentrated in Florida, although large numbers also live in New Jersey, New York, and California.

In Mariel Boatlift (April 2005, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/ops/mariel-boatlift.htm), GlobalSecurity.org reports that in 1980, 125,000 people seeking refuge from Castro's government fled Cuba in what became known as the Mariel Boatlift, named after the town in Cuba from which they sailed. Because most of these new immigrants were from less wealthy and less educated backgrounds than their predecessors, and some were actually criminals or people who were mentally ill, many had difficulty fitting into the existing Cuban communities in the United States. Also, unlike the Cubans who came before them, they had spent twenty years living under a dictatorship that was vastly different from the democratic government they encountered in the United States.

In 1993 and 1994 more than twenty-nine thousand Cubans tried to enter the United States after fleeing a severe economic crisis in their own country. Most attempted the trip by boats and rafts but were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken back to Cuba, where they were detained at the U.S. Air Force base at Guantánamo Bay. By January 1996 most detainees had been allowed to enter the United States, and the detention camps were closed.


In 1619 the first Africans arrived in colonial North America. Subsequently, their numbers increased rapidly to fill the growing demand for slave labor in the new land. The first slaves were brought into this country by way of the West Indies, but as demand increased, they were soon brought directly to the English colonies on the mainland in North America. Most were delivered to the South and worked on plantations, where they supplied cheap labor.

The vast majority of African-Americans in the United States were kept as slaves until the Civil War (1861–65). At the outbreak of hostilities, according to the 1860 census, the states that comprised the Confederacy in the South had a slave population of 3.5 million, compared with a white population of nearly 5.5 million. By contrast, the Union states and territories in the North had a white population of 21.5 million, with slaves numbering 432,650. It is also worth noting that some Native Americans were slaveholders.

In 1863 President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in the Confederate states. In 1865 the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery throughout the United States. In 1868 the Fourteenth Amendment afforded freed slaves equal protection under the law, while in 1870 the Fifteenth Amendment granted them the right to vote. The present population of African-Americans includes not only those descended from former slaves but also those who have since emigrated from Africa, the West Indies, and Central and South America.

According to the Census Bureau, on July 1, 2004, 37.5 million African-Americans lived in the United States. (See Table 1.1.) At that time they represented 12.9% of the population, up from 12.3% in 2000, as reported in Profiles of General Demographic Characteristics 2000 (May 2001, http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2000/dp1/2kh00.pdf).

Geographic Distribution

Few African-Americans voluntarily migrated from the southern farms and plantations in the first decades after the abolition of slavery. As a result, at the beginning of the twentieth century a large majority of African-Americans still lived in the South. However, when World War I (1914–18) interrupted the flow of migrant labor from Europe, large numbers of African-Americans migrated from the rural South to northern industrial cities to take advantage of new work opportunities. Compared with the oppressive system of segregation in the South, economic and social conditions were better in the North for many African-Americans, thereby encouraging a continuous flow of migrants. According to "North by South: The African American Great Migration" (2005, http://northbysouth.kenyon.edu/), between 1900 and 1960, 4.8 million African-Americans fled the South and settled in northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and New York. The African-American migrations following World War I and World War II are among the largest voluntary internal migrations in history.

Most African-Americans moved to the Northeast and Midwest, although after 1940 significant numbers also moved West. The traditional migration from the South to the North dwindled dramatically in the 1970s. In fact, after 1975, largely due to the favorable economic conditions developing in booming Sunbelt cities, African-Americans started migrating in droves to the South. In 2002, 55.3% of African-Americans lived in the South. Another 18.1% lived in the Northeast, 18.1% lived in the Midwest, and only 8.6% lived in the West. (See Figure 1.4.)

White Flight

By 2002 African-Americans were significantly more likely than non-Hispanic whites to live in metropolitan areas, inside of central cities. More than one in two (51.5%) African-Americans lived in these areas, compared with only 21.1% of non-Hispanic whites. In contrast, a higher proportion of whites lived inside metropolitan areas, outside of central cities, than did African-Americans (56.8% and 36%, respectively), as well as in non-metropolitan areas (22.1% and 12.5%, respectively). (See Figure 1.5.)

A primary reason for the high proportion of African-Americans in central cities has been "white flight." Beginning in the 1950s, as African-Americans moved to northeastern and midwestern cities, whites who were economically able to do so moved to suburban areas. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in housing, African-Americans were not given the same opportunities to move away from cities, whether or not they were economically able to do so. As wealthier whites abandoned city neighborhoods, taking their tax dollars with them, city neighborhoods rapidly deteriorated, leaving poor and nonwhite residents to deal with increasing crime and neighborhood deterioration.


The term "Asian-American" is a catchall term that did not gain currency until the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was not until 1980 that the Census Bureau created the "Asian and Pacific Islander" category, a departure from the previous practice of counting several Asian groups separately. Although seemingly a geographic description, "Asian and Pacific Islander" contains racial overtones, given that natives of Australia and New Zealand are not included, nor are whites born in the Asian region of the former Soviet Union. In 2004, 12.3 million Asian-Americans lived in the United States, making up 4.2% of the country's population. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders had a population of 505,602, making up 0.1% of the total U.S. population. (See Table 1.1.)

Chinese Immigration in 1800s

The first major immigration of people from Asia to the United States involved the Chinese. From the time of the California gold rush of 1849 until the early 1880s, it is estimated that as many as 250,000 Chinese immigrated to the United States, with the vast majority coming from the Pearl River delta of Guangdong Province. Many hoped to strike it rich in California, the "Golden Mountain," and then return home. A few fulfilled that dream, but most stayed in the United States, two-thirds in California, where they faced intense discrimination. They became the object of political posturing that portrayed "cheap Chinese labor" as a threat to American workers.

After the Civil War (1861–65), at the same time most African-Americans were able to gain citizenship with the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, an exception was carved out for Asian immigrants. They were designated "aliens ineligible to citizenship." The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (22 Stat. 58) then stopped the entry of Chinese into the country, except for a few merchants and students. As a result, China became the source of the United States's first illegal aliens. Besides jumping ship or illegally crossing borders, many took advantage of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, which destroyed the city's vital statistics records, to gain legal status by forging U.S. birth certificates. By law, any male of Chinese heritage born in the United States had the right to return to China for any children he fathered (although he could not bring back the alien mother). As a result, many of these fraudulent U.S. citizens escorted to the United States a host of "paper sons." Despite this traffic and other means of illegal entry, the Chinese American population actually declined from the 1880s to the 1920s. Laws regulating Chinese immigration to the United States did not change until World War II, when China became an ally and President Franklin D. Roosevelt persuaded Congress to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943.

Other nationalities that comprise the Asian-American category also immigrated to the United States before World War II. The Japanese first came to the United States in significant numbers during the 1890s, although many laborers had previously settled in Hawaii. Like the Chinese, the Japanese mostly lived in the western United States. There was some call for a "Japanese Exclusion Act," but because Japan was an emerging Pacific power, such legislation was never passed. Overall, Japanese immigrants fared better than their Chinese counterparts and soon outpaced them in population. However, when Japan and the United States went to war in 1941, approximately 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent, including many who were native-born U.S. citizens, were removed from their homes and confined in detention camps. It is noteworthy that although the United States was also at war with Germany and Italy, citizens of German and Italian descent or birth were not subject to incarceration because of their heritage.

Before World War II, Filipinos, Asian Indians, and Koreans represented a negligible share of the Asian-American population. In Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for the United States, Regions, Division, and States (September 2002, http://www.census.gov/population/documentation/twps0056/twps0056.pdf), Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung state that in 1940 there were 254,918 Asian-Americans living in the United States; 126,947 were Japanese, 77,504 were Chinese, and 45,563 were Filipino. Asian Indians totaled some 2,405, and Koreans numbered even fewer. As was the case with Puerto Ricans, Filipinos began to immigrate to the United States in the years following the Spanish—American War, when their country was annexed and eventually granted commonwealth status. Designated "American nationals," Filipinos held a unique position: They were not eligible for citizenship, but they also could not be prevented from entering the United States. Many Filipinos immigrated during the 1920s looking for work, but the Great Depression of the 1930s stemmed this flow. Asian Indians had come to the United States in small numbers, generally settling in New York City and other eastern ports, but it was not until the early years of the twentieth century that they began immigrating to the West Coast, generally entering through western Canada. Koreans came to the United States from Hawaii, where several thousand had immigrated between 1903 and 1905. Both Asian Indians and Koreans, however, would lose their eligibility to enter the United States following the Immigration Act of 1917 (39 Stat. 874), accounting for their small populations before World War II. Once the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, however, the door was also open for Filipinos and Asian Indians to gain entry to the United States as well as to earn citizenship during the postwar years. The Korean War (1950–53) led to a long-term U.S. military presence in Korea, resulting in a number of Korean-born wives of military personnel relocating to the United States. In addition, many Korean-born children were adopted and brought to the United States. A larger influx of Koreans, a family immigration, took place in the mid-1960s.

Sharp Rise in Immigration

Asian and Pacific Islander immigration during the 1980s can be divided into two "streams." The first stream came from Asian countries that already had large populations in the United States (such as the People's Republic of China, Korea, and the Philippines). These immigrants, many of whom were highly educated, came primarily for family reunification and through employment provisions of the immigration laws. The second stream consisted primarily of immigrants and refugees from the war-torn countries of Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). They were admitted under U.S. policies that supported political refugees after the Vietnam War (1965–73), as well as those escaping unstable economic and political conditions in neighboring countries. Between 1975 and 1994 more than 1.2 million refugees arrived in the United States from Southeast Asia and China.

According to the 2000 census, China was the top Asian country of origin for Asian-Americans, with 2.3 million residents tracing their roots to China. The Philippines was next with 1.9 million, and India rounded out the top three with 1.7 million reported residents. Approximately 1.1 million Asian-Americans had ancestral origins in Korea, and about the same number had origins in Vietnam. (See Table 1.3.) Among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, Native Hawaiians had the highest population, at 140,652. (See Table 1.4.)

Geographic Distribution

Asians and Pacific Islanders are much more likely than non-Hispanic whites to live in the West (51.1% and 19.2%, respectively). While more than half of Asian-Americans living in the United States live in the West, another 18.9% live in the South, 18.6% live in the Northeast, and only 11.5% live in the Midwest. (See Figure 1.6.)

In The Asian and Pacific Islander Population in the United States: March 2002 (May 2003, http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/p20-540.pdf), Terrance Reeves and Claudette Bennett report that 95% of Asians and Pacific Islanders live in metropolitan areas, while only 78% of non-Hispanic whites live in metropolitan areas. Jessica S. Barnes and Claudette E. Bennett in The Asian Population: 2000 (February 2002, http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/c2kbr01-16.pdf) and Elizabeth M. Grieco in The Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Population: 2000 (December 2001, http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/c2kbr01-14.pdf) state that New York, Los Angeles, and San Jose, California, were the three cities with the largest populations of Asian-Americans, while Honolulu, Los Angeles, and San Diego, California, were the three cities with the largest Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations.


Most experts agree that the people known as Native Americans and Alaska Natives arrived in North America from northeast Asia at least thirty thousand years ago during the last of the Ice Age glaciations (coverings of large areas of Earth with ice). At that time the two continents were connected by a land bridge over what is currently the Bering Strait. However, according to Charles W. Petit in "Rediscovering America: The New World May Be 20,000 Years Older Than Experts Thought" (U.S. News and World Report, October 12, 1998), some archaeologists dispute this theory by citing evidence that indicates that migrants may have actually arrived many thousands of years earlier.

Asian population by detailed group, 2000
Detailed groupAsian aloneAsian in combination with one or more other racesAsian detailed group alone or in any combinationa
One Asian Group reportedTwo or more Asian Groups reportedaOne Asian group reportedTwo or more Asian groups reporteda
—Represents zero.
aThe numbers by detailed Asian group do not add to the total population. This is because the detailed Asian groups are tallies of the number of Asian responses rather than the number of Asian respondents. Respondents reporting several Asian groups are counted several times. For example, a respondent reporting "Korean and Filipino" would be included in the Korean as well as the Filipino numbers.
bIncludes respondents who checked the "Other Asian" response category on the census questionnaire or wrote in a generic term such as "Asian" or "Asiatic."
source: Jessica S. Barnes and Claudette E. Bennett, "Table 4. Asian Population by Detailed Group: 2000," in The Asian Population: 2000, C2KBR/01-16, U.S. Census Bureau, February 2002, http://www.census.gov/prod/2002pubs/c2kbr01-16.pdf (accessed December 9, 2005)
Asian Indian1,678,76540,013165,43715,3841,899,599
Chinese, except Taiwanese2,314,537130,826201,68887,7902,734,841
Indo Chinese11355238199
Iwo Jiman1536078
Sri Lankan20,1451,2192,96625724,587
Other Asian, not specifiedb146,87019,576195,4497,535369,430

Migrants who settled on the northern coast of Alaska and the Yukon River valley, which were free of ice barriers, became known as Eskimos and Aleuts. Those who ventured farther south followed the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains and continued along the mountainous spine of North America into Central and South America. There, they moved east throughout the central plains and eastern highlands of both continents and were later erroneously named Indians by exploring Spaniards. The misnomer is attributed to Christopher Columbus, who, on landing in the Bahamas in 1492, thought he had reached the islands off the eastern region of Asia, called the Indies. He therefore greeted the inhabitants as "Indians." Today, many descendants of the original settlers prefer to be called Native Americans.

Native Americans have always been associated with having a close relationship with the earth. Some have been farmers, while others have specialized in hunting and fishing. The arrival of Europeans eventually changed the way of life of Native American tribes. Devastating wars, disease, the annihilation of the buffalo, and the loss of land fit for cultivation to Europeans led to the elimination of much of their population.

In July 2004, 2.8 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives lived in the United States, making up approximately 1% of the population. An additional 1.6 million people claimed they were Native American or Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races. According to Profiles of General Demographic Characteristics 2000 (May 2001, http://www.census.gov/prod/cen2000/dp1/2kh00.pdf), between 2000 and 2004 the Native American and Alaska Native population Who were one race increased by 348,795, or 14%.(See Table 1.1)

Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander population by detailed group, 2000
Detailed groupNative Hawaiian and OtherNative Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander in combination with one or more other racesNative Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander detailed group alone or in any combinationa
One pacific Islander group reportedTwo or more Pacific Islander groups reportedaOne pacific Islander group reportedTwo or more Pacific Islander groups reporteda
—Represents zero.
aThe numbers by detailed Pacific Islander groups do not add to the total population. This is because the detailed Pacific Islander groups are tallies of the number of Pacific Islander responses rather than the number of Pacific Islander respondents. Respondents reporting several Pacific Islander groups are counted several times. For example, a respondent reporting "Samoan and Tongan" would be included in the Samoan as well as the Tongan numbers.
bIncludes respondents who checked the "Other Pacific Islander" response category on the census questionnaire or wrote in the generic term "Pacific Islander."
source: Elizabeth M. Grieco, "Table 4. Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Population by Detailed Group: 2000," in The Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander Population: 2000, C2KBR/01-14, U.S. Census Bureau, December 2001, http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/c2kbr01-14.pdf (accessed December 9, 2005)
    Native Hawaiian140,6525,157241,51013,843401,162
    Polynesian, not specified3,4971,5473,0057478,796
    Guamanian or Chamorro58,2401,24730,2412,88392,611
    Mariana Islander60116010141
    Micronesian, not specified7,5094111,7682529,940
    Papua New Guinean13531494,007224
    Solomon Islander1215129,038325
    Melanesian, not specified1473834315
Other Pacific Islanderb40,5581104174,912

Geographic Distribution

In 2000, 48% of Native Americans and Alaska Natives lived in the West. Another 29.3% live in the South, 16.1% live in the Midwest, and 6.6% live in the Northeast. (See Figure 1.7.) Individuals who were Native American or Alaska Native in combination with one or more other races were slightly less likely to live in the West and slightly more likely to live in the Northeast, Midwest, or South.

Many Native Americans live on or near reservations and are members of groupings called "tribes." According to the 2000 census, the largest tribal groupings were the Cherokee, with 729,533 members, followed by the Navajo, with 298,197 members, and the Latin Native Americans, with 180,940 members. (See Figure 1.8.) Many Alaska Natives are also members of such groups. The largest tribal groupings of Alaska Natives, according to the 2000 census, were the Eskimos, with 54,761 members, followed by Tlingit-Haida, with 22,365 members, the Alaska Athabascan, with 18,838 members, and the Aleut, with 16,978 members. (See Figure 1.9.)

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