Publication Date

March 2016


The claim that some non-Anglo-Saxon European immigrant groups such as the Irish, Italians, and Jews became white in historical America has largely been taken for granted these days, but we see a need for a qualified rectification of this thesis. Did these non-Anglo-Saxon European immigrant groups really become white? We argue that the answer to this question depends on how “becoming white” is defined. We have found no evidence to support the “becoming white thesis” in terms of change in the official racial classification of these groups in the record of social institutions such as U.S. censuses, naturalization laws, and court cases. Changes in the meaning of race in U.S. racial and ethnic lexicon explain why there is a discourse on how these non-Anglo-Saxon European groups changed their “races” to white. If “becoming white” did happen to these groups, its real meaning was a change in their social status from a minority group to part of the majority group rather than in racial classification. Evidence lends credence to this argument. Our findings help settle a debate about if some non-Anglo-Saxon European immigrant groups became white and have implications for race relations today and its pedagogy.