Introduction to Race and Ethnicity in the United States

What you’ll learn: compare and contrast the experiences of racial and ethnic groups in the United States

The mugshots of fifteen people are shown with an identification plate around each of their necks reading "Police Department Jackson, Mississippi" and an identification number.
Figure 1. The Freedom Riders were a civil rights activist group that rode interstate buses into southern states in the U.S. that refused to enforce anti-segregation laws even after segregation was nationally outlawed. The Freedom Riders were often arrested in these states while challenging the continuing local practice of segregation. (Photo courtesy of Adam Jones/Wikimedia Commons)

When the first European explorers came to the New World in 1492, Native Americans had been on the continent for 15,000 years. The brutal suppression of Native American tribes all over the United States is unfortunately not so different from the treatment of other minority groups in U.S. history. Slavery began with the forced importation of slaves in 1619 and continued until 1865, but mistreatment and abuse persisted well into the post-slavery era.

Like the Native Americans, other groups had their lands stolen, or obtained through forced treaties. Consider the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) in which Mexico signed away 525,000 square miles, including what is today Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. The Treaty guaranteed both land rights and citizenship (retain Mexican citizenship or become U.S. citizens) and official documents were bilingual; the first “English-only” rule was created thirty years later in 1878 [1]. The reality, however, was quite different. Most Mexican landowners lost their land within a few decades and had little or no legal recourse. We hear a lot about immigration today, but much less about the history of these groups, or about how that history helps us to understand the contemporary experiences of minority groups in the U.S.

Waves of immigrants came from various parts of the world for a variety of reasons; see a timeline showing push and pull factors affecting immigration. Most of these groups underwent a period of disenfranchisement in which they were relegated to the bottom of the social hierarchy. In the same period, racist ideologies persisted, and often resulted in discrimination and systemic inequalities that still affect Black and brown peoples in the U.S. today.

Our society is multicultural and filled with diverse groups that are reflected in American culture, but we must use our sociological imaginations to examine history and biography to truly understand race and ethnicity in the United States today. Similar to the example of “Stratified Monopoly” from the social stratification readings, racial and ethnic minority groups do not start at “GO” with the same resources. For Native American, Mexican American and African American peoples, a variety of mechanisms prevented them from owning land, a significant source of wealth and power in the United States that has generational socioeconomic effects.

This section will describe how several groups became part of U.S. society, discuss the history of intergroup relations, and briefly assess each group’s status today.

WAtch It

Watch this video for a review of some of the basics about race and ethnicity we’ve already learned about, but also for an overview about the main minority races in the United States. The U.S. Census currently identifies six races: White, Black or African-American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander. You can see current statistics about the racial composition of the U.S. at the United States Census Bureau.


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  1. Oliver, P. 2017. "What the Treaty of Guadalupe Really Says." University of Wisconsin Madison.


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