The term “white people” as used in the United States today can have a number of varying meanings. In its most general sense, the term refers to people who are of European origin. In the early days of European exploration of North America, settlers from Spain founded the two oldest cities in the United States: Saint Augustine Florida and Santa Fe New Mexico. French speaking people settled along the Mississippi River. Both St. Louis and New Orleans have French names. Despite this, the English-speaking peoples who founded the American republic became culturally dominant. At the time of American independence in 1776, most citizens of the new country were of Protestant religion and came from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Immigrants from Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia arrived from the earliest days as well and were, for the large part, assimilated into the English-speaking culture.
During the mid 19th century, large numbers of immigrants arrived from Germany, so many in fact that the Germans are now the country’s most populous ethnic group (although few today retain any sense of German language or culture). Over the generations, these Germans assimilated fairly well into American society. Today’s second most populous group, the Irish, had quite a different history. For most of the 19th century, and the beginning of the 20th, the largely Catholic Irish faced extreme discrimination for jobs and social status. The Irish eventually fought their way into mainstream American society, culminating in the election of an Irish-American, John F. Kennedy, as the American president in 1960.
Between about 1890 and 1920, waves of immigrants from central, southern and eastern Europe arrived in the United States by the millions. Each of these groups had its own set of difficulties in acclimating to American life and using the English language. In many cases, these groups settled with each other in their own communities, slowly being absorbed into American life. Jewish immigrants suffered discrimination, stereotyping, and social exclusion for generations, as did the Italians, the Greeks, the Hungarians, the various Slavic peoples, the Portuguese, and in fact nearly every immigrant group.
All these groups came to make up today’s “white” America. In some ways all these people, despite different religions and different histories, function as a unified ethnic group today, having their own neighborhoods and lifestyles distinct from those of Native American, African-American, Hispanic, or Asian people.
The term WASP at one time had significant social and cultural meaning in the United States. The term stands for “White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.” It generally referred to people who considered themselves more authentically American because they could trace their ancestors back to colonial times, often to the original founders of the republic. Today this distinction is not as important as it once was, although the term is still used.
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