The United States is a very diverse, multi-racial and multi-ethnic country; people from around the world have been immigrating to the United States for several hundred years. While the first wave of immigrants came from Western Europe, the bulk of people entering North America were from Northern Europe, then Eastern Europe, followed by Latin America and Asia. There was also the forced immigration of African slaves. Native Americans, who did not immigrate but rather inhabited the land prior to immigration, experienced displacement as a result. Most of these groups also suffered a period of disenfranchisement and prejudice as they went through the process of assimilation.
Since its early history, Native Americans, African Americans, and European Americans were considered as different races in the United States. The differences attributed to each group, however, especially the differences used to designate European Americans as the superior race, had little to do with biology. Instead, these racial designations were a means to concentrate power, wealth, land, and privilege in the hands of the European Americans. Moreover, the emphasis on racial distinctions often led to the lack of acknowledgement or over-simplification of the great ethnic diversity of the country's population. For example, the racial category of "white" or European American fails to reflect that members of this group hail from very different countries. Similarly, the racial category of "black" does not distinguish people from the Caribbean from those who were brought to North America from various parts of Africa.
Today, the U.S. continues to see a significant influx of immigrants from all over the world. Race relations in the U.S. remain problematic, marked by discrimination, persecution, violence, and an ongoing struggle for power and equality.
The brutal confrontation between the European colonists and the Native Americans, which resulted in the decimation of the latter’s population, is well known as an historical tragedy. Even after the establishment of the United States government, discrimination against Native Americans was codified and formalized in a series of laws intended to subjugate them and keep them from gaining any power. The eradication of Native American culture continued until the 1960s, when Native Americans were able to participate in, and benefit from, the civil rights movement. Native Americans still suffer the effects of centuries of degradation. Long-term poverty, inadequate education, cultural dislocation, and high rates of unemployment contribute to Native American populations falling to the bottom of the economic spectrum.
African Americans arrived in North America under duress as slaves, and there is no starker illustration of the dominant-subordinate group relationship than that of slavery. Slaves were stripped of all their rights and privileges, and were at the absolute mercy of their owners. For African Americans, the civil rights movement was an indication that a subordinate group would no longer willingly submit to domination. The major blow to America’s formally institutionalized racism was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This Act, which is still followed today, banned discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Some sociologists, however, would argue that institutionalized racism persists, especially since African Americans still fair poorly in terms of employment, insurance coverage, and incarceration, as well as in the areas of economics, health, and education.
Asian Americans come from a diversity of cultures, including Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese. They, too, have been subjected to racial prejudice. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, for example, which was motivated by white workers blaming Chinese migrants for taking their jobs, resulted in the abrupt end of Chinese immigration and the segregation of Chinese already in America; this segregation resulted in the Chinatowns found in large cities. Nevertheless, despite a difficult history, Asian Americans have earned the positive stereotype of the model minority. The model minority stereotype is applied to a minority group that is seen as reaching significant educational, professional, and socioeconomic levels without challenging the existing establishment.
Hispanic Americans come from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities. Mexican Americans form the largest Hispanic subgroup, and also the oldest. Mexican Americans, especially those who are here illegally, are at the center of a national debate about immigration. Mexican immigrants experience relatively low rates of economic and civil assimilation, which is most likely compounded by the fact that many of them are illegally in the country. By contrast, Cuban Americans are often seen as a model minority group within the larger Hispanic group. As with Asian Americans, however, being a model minority can mask the issue of powerlessness that these minority groups face in U.S. society.