Any study of the American people must take into account how complicated that subject is. The United States is a large country encompassing more than 300 million people. Indigenous people (today called Native Americans) make up at most 2% of the American population today. The other 98% are either immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Many people came to the United States to seek economic opportunity or religious freedom. Others came as slaves. Some groups, including many from the British Isles, became well established by the time of American independence from Great Britain in 1776. Others, like the Irish and many Germans, came in waves during the 19th century. Asians came in their own waves, especially over the past half century. So-called Hispanic people (actually a very varied group) could be descendants of 17th century settlers from Spain, or they could have arrived in the United States last week (or any time span in between).
Unlike many other countries, the United States has an identity that does not depend on ethnic continuity, but rather on the ideas that inspired the formation of the nation. The sections that follow give some general guidance on the major ethnic groups in the United States, with the understanding that generalizations always have exceptions. Next comes a short section on social classes that, once again, can only make broad generalizations. Finally, we cover some lifestyle distinctions that have meaning in America today.
The best way to look at the United States is to realize that ethnicity, social class, and lifestyle do matter in some aspects of life, and, in some sense, they do not matter. All these people share the quality of being American, even if that quality is almost impossible to define.
Next Section:Major American Ethnic Groups
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