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Major American Ethnic Groups

Many people assume that people of English descent are the largest ethnic group in the United States. That distinction, however, applies to people of German descent, who made up more than 17% of the population, according to the 2000 census, followed by the Irish, English, African American, Italian, Mexican, French, and Polish, and then by dozens of nationalities from western, northern, central and eastern Europe.

Many Americans, of course, are a mix of ancestries. So-called “white” people are the majority in every state except Hawaii (although the District of Columbia, not a state, has a non-white majority). If you count the so-called “non-Hispanic white” population, the majority decreases to 46 states, excepting Hawaii, New Mexico, California, and Texas (in addition to D.C.). Computations of the Hispanic population tend to throw the statistics off, since this category covers people of several races who have origins in dozens of Spanish-speaking countries.

The category of African-Americans, officially about 12% of the population, presents several classification problems. The category includes the modern-day descendants of African slaves, whose families have been American often for hundreds of years, combined with several million relatively recent immigrants from the islands of the Caribbean, who have their own, quite different, cultural traditions. African-Americans may simultaneously be Hispanic, or partially (or even primarily) European in background.

If any category is more a statistical convenience than a cultural indicator, it is probably the category of Asian-Americans. After all, a family from Pakistan has essentially nothing in common with one from Korea, although in some big cities like New York and Los Angeles, they might find themselves living next door to each other.

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