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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

New York's Declining Ethnics

New York City's population may be made up more and more of the foreign-born, but, according to the latest U.S. Census, there are fewer ethnic New Yorkers, and "white ethnics" have declined by almost half over the past two decades. This phenomenon, though, may have less to do with demographic shifts and more to do with changing attitudes both by New Yorkers and by the United States Census Bureau.

Part of the uncertainty is that the census bureau has changed the way it has defined and counted ethnicity over the years, just as it has done with race. Starting in 1850, the census asked Americans where their parents were born, and then fit them into one of three categories:

1. "Native Born of Native Stock" -- born in the United States and parents born in the United States

2. "Native Born of Foreign Stock" -- born in the United States, but parents (at least one) born abroad, or

3. "Foreign Born of Foreign Stock."

Thus, if a New Yorker's grandparents had immigrated from Mesopotamia, that New Yorker was put in the same category (native born of native stock) as a descendant of a voyager on the Mayflower. A third-generation American was officially considered to be American, period.

Of course what's official and what's for real are not always (seldom?) the same thing, especially in New York, the ethnic capital of the nation, if not the world.

After lobbying by various ethnic organizations, the census bureau changed its classifications. Starting with the 1980 census, it asked for "ancestry or ethnic origin." This question, not as precise as "where were your parents born?", really requires a kind of subjective self-identification. By the time of the 1990 census, the change in the official demographics of the United States based on this question was summed up in the wry title of an article in the American Sociological Review: "How 4.5 Million Irish Immigrants Became 40 Million Irish Americans."

But ten years later, things seem vastly different. In New York City, the percentage of those claiming Irish ancestry has dropped from 9.2 percent in 1980 to 7.3 percent in 1990 to 5.3 percent in 2000. For the other "white ethnic" groups one finds similar declines:

  • Italian -- 14.2 percent in 1980, 11.5 percent in 1990, 8.7 percent in 2000;
  • German -- 6.4 percent in 1980, 5.4 percent in 1990, and 3.2 percent in 2000;
  • Polish -- 4.8 percent in 1980, 4.1 percent in 1990, and 2.7 percent in 2000.
  • English -- 4.3 percent in 1980, 2.4 percent in 1990, 1.6 percent in 2000.


The census allows for up to two ancestries, so a sizable fraction (roughly about 1/6th) of these individuals reported another ancestry as well. All together, the proportion of people reporting themselves as a member of one of these white ethnic groups in New York City declined from about 39 percent in 1980 to slightly over 20 percent by 2000.

There is no question that the population has changed in the city. But how much of the decline in, say, Italian-Americans in New York is simply because fewer New Yorkers are now calling themselves Italian-American? In 1990, 157,000 New Yorkers (about 2.1 percent of the population) identified their ancestry or ethnic origin simply as "American" or "United States." In 2000, that number had grown to 238,000 (or about 3 percent.) Were these extra "Americans" newly arrived New Yorkers, or were some of them long-time New Yorkers who used to call themselves Irish-American or Polish-American?

These self-identified "un-hyphenated" Americans are clearly a growing trend. At the same time, though, other "ethnic" groups are on the rise in New York, even officially. Those New Yorkers claiming Arab ancestry now number about 71,000 (in 1990, there were 52,000.) The number of New Yorkers with African ancestry has more than doubled, from 54,000 in 1990 to 122,000 in 2000. (The largest group of Africans are the 18,000 Nigerian-Americans.) About 550,000 New Yorkers claim non-Hispanic West Indian ancestry, which is up from 392,000 in 1990. Of these about 213,000 are Jamaican-American.

But, the question: In the censuses of the future, will their children keep the hyphen? Will their grandchildren?

Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and provides expert testimony on a range of cases, including housing discrimination. The opinions expressed are his alone.


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