treatment, providing a special reason for concern about the health of racial and ethnic minorities.

An early and enduring racial and ethnic distinction developed between the native American Indian inhabitants of the continent and the European colonists. Although the natives divided themselves into numerous racial and ethnic or tribal groups, for many purposes the colonists and their governments used a dichotomous distinction between themselves and the natives—a lumping together of the American Indian and Alaska Native populations that is still used in government statistics.

The forcible importation into the American colonies of Africans as slaves gave rise to a third enduring racial or ethnic category. The definition of this category has varied over time (as it does in other countries, such as Brazil and South Africa). The United States held for several centuries to a rule of hypodescent, so that any African or African American ancestry defined a person as black. For three centuries, this limited their rights under law and in practice and marked them as members of a subordinate group (Massey and Denton, 1993).

Other waves of immigration have created and continue to create separately identified racial and ethnic groups in the United States. The large European immigrations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, first from Northern and then Southern and Eastern Europe, created major new groups. At the height of this immigration, European ethnic groups were often treated as distinct races in the census and other government statistics and heavily discriminated against. For instance, the Irish were racialized first by the British (Allen, 1994) and later also in American society (Ignatiev, 1995). Racial and ethnic distinctions among Americans of European origin are now generally muted, and individuals manifest considerable variation in how much they identify with their European ancestry. This muting of distinctions is also observed in other racial and ethnic groups, though black Americans have had much less latitude than other groups.

Hispanic and Asian immigration began early, some Hispanic settlement in fact predating the accession of particular territories to the United States. Immigration has greatly accelerated in recent decades, rising to levels that rival those of the earlier massive European immigrations. Somewhat in contrast to the practices of those earlier periods, society and government, including statistical agencies and researchers, have not distinguished among the many different national origins of the Hispanic and Asian populations, which has created a set of issues and dilemmas for research. As in other waves of immigration, many Hispanics and early Asian immigrants have at least initially borne the burden of low-wage work and social inferiority (though often earning more than in their countries of origin).

Immigrant groups have immediately become part of the system of

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement