White Americans

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the historical context and current experience of white Americans

White Americans

As we have seen, there is no minority group that fits easily in a category or that can be described in simple terms. While sociologists believe that individual experiences can often be understood in light of their social characteristics (such as race, class, or gender), we must balance this perspective with awareness that no two individuals’ experiences are alike. Making generalizations can lead to stereotypes and prejudice. The same is true for whites, who come from diverse backgrounds and have had a great variety of experiences. According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2014), 77.7 percent of U.S. adults currently identify themselves as white alone. Although there has been discussion about including ethnic groups under the racial category of white on the 2020 Census, ethnicity has not previously been measured on the Census and likely will not be part of the 2020 form. In this section, we will focus on German, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants.

Why They Came

White Europeans formed the second and third great waves of immigration, from the early nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. They joined a recently established United States that was primarily made up of Protestants from England, known as WASPS (White Anglo Saxon Protestants). While most immigrants came searching for a better life, their experiences were not all the same.

The first major influx of European immigrants came from Germany and Ireland, starting in the 1820s. Germans came both for economic opportunity and to escape political unrest and military conscription, especially after the 1848 Revolutions. Many German immigrants of this period were political refugees, liberals who wanted to escape from an oppressive government. They were sufficiently well-off to make their way inland, and they formed heavily German enclaves in the Midwest that exist to this day.

The Irish immigrants of the same time period were not always as affluent, especially after the Irish Potato Famine of 1845. Irish immigrants settled mainly in the cities of the East Coast, where they were employed as laborers and where they faced significant discrimination.

German and Irish immigration continued into the late 19th century and early 20th century, at which point the numbers for Southern and Eastern European immigrants started growing as well. Italians, mainly from the southern part of the country, began arriving in large numbers in the 1890s. Eastern European immigrants from Russia, Poland, Bulgaria, and Austria-Hungary started arriving around the same time. Many of these Eastern Europeans were peasants forced into a hardscrabble existence in their native lands; political unrest, land shortages, and crop failures drove them to seek better opportunities in the United States. The Eastern European immigration wave also included Jewish people escaping the pogroms (anti-Jewish uprisings) of Eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement, in what was then Poland and Russia (a “pale” is a border marker, whether literal or figurative). Although Jews are considered “White” on the U.S. Census, being Jewish is considered an ethnicity as well as a religion because of the importance of cultural components of Judaism for both practicing (or religious) and non-practicing American Jews.

History of Intergroup Relations

In a broad sense, German immigrants were not discriminated against to the same degree as many of the other subordinate groups discussed in this section. While they may not have been welcomed with open arms, they were able to settle in enclaves and establish roots. A notable exception to this was during the lead up to World War I and through World War II, when anti-German sentiment was pervasive.

Irish immigrants, many of whom were very poor, were more of an underclass than the Germans. In Ireland, the English had oppressed the Irish for centuries, eradicating their language and culture and discriminating against their religion (Catholicism). Although the Irish had a larger population than the English, they were a subordinate group. This dynamic reached into the new world, where Anglo Americans saw Irish immigrants as a race apart: dirty, lacking ambition, and suitable for only the most menial jobs. In fact, Irish immigrants were subject to criticism identical to that with which the dominant group characterized African Americans. By necessity, Irish immigrants formed tight communities segregated from their Anglo neighbors.

The later wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe was also subject to intense discrimination and prejudice. In particular, the dominant group—which now included second- and third-generation Germans and Irish—saw Italian immigrants as the dregs of Europe and worried about the purity of the American race (Myers 2007). Italian immigrants lived in segregated slums in Northeastern cities, and in some cases were even victims of violence and lynchings. They worked harder and were paid less than other workers, often doing the dangerous work that other laborers were reluctant to take on.

Although groups of whites were treated unfairly, white skin color afforded all members of this group white privilegeor the unquestioned and unearned set of advantages, entitlements, benefits and choices bestowed upon people solely because they are white. In the nineteen-thirties, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about the “psychological wage” that enabled poor whites to feel superior to poor Blacks. Peggy McIntosh cemented this concept with her “invisible knapsack” or the list of privileges whites carry around without realizing them. Explore the concept of white privilege with McIntosh’s checklist to see how much of it holds true for you or others.

White supremacy, or the belief that whites are racially superior and should dominate all races, has made itself visible through the words and actions of groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Brotherhood. Individuals like Dylann Roof, who shot and killed nine people at a church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, highlight the often violent hatred that undergirds white supremacy.

Watch It

Watch this video from anti-racism activist Tim Wise and consider how he describes white privilege as related to the history of race relations.

Current Status

Americans with German, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European heritage often strongly identify with that background, even though many are now several generations removed from the original waves of immigration that occurred up to or more than a century ago. Elements of each region’s culture remain important, and can be seen in festivals like Oktoberfest, holidays like St. Patrick’s Day, or Italian feast days and Columbus Day, which are celebrated with ethnic cuisines and within ethnic enclaves such as Little Italy. Support for national teams may also be on enthusiastic display during the World Cup or the Olympics.

Unlike many other racial and ethnic groups, whites are numerically declining, with more people in the demographic dying than are being born. Fewer babies were born during and after the 2008 recession, and increasing numbers of women are choosing to remain childless, often due to the lingering economic effects of the downturn. Mortality rates among whites aged 30-59, in what are being called “deaths of despair” such as suicide and drug overdoses, have also increased, particularly in economically depressed areas of rural America.

Further Research

Are people interested in reclaiming their ethnic identities? Read this article “The White Ethnic Revival” and decide what you think.

Try It

Think It Over

  • In your opinion, which group had the easiest time coming to this country? Which group had the hardest time? Why?
  • Which group has made the most socioeconomic gains? Why do you think that group has had more success than others?
  • Why do you think it is difficult for whites to recognize white privilege?


[glossary-term]white supremacy:[/glossary-term]
[glossary-definition]the belief that whites are racially superior and should dominate all other races[/glossary-definition]


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