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Race and Ethnicity in Rural America

Data about race and ethnicity illustrate the homogeneity, heterogeneity, and extent of isolation experienced by various racial and ethnic groups in a community.

What Is Race?

Race is a socially defined difference across people that "reflects and perpetuates the prevailing distribution of power and privilege in a society" based on skin color and other physical characteristics (Rothenburg, 1998, p. 8). We, as a society, attach particular meanings and ideas to different skin colors and physical characteristics, which make up the bulk of our definition of race. Psychologist, Beverly Daniel Tatum, borrowing from Van de Berghe, defines race as "'a group that is socially defined but on the basis of physical criteria,' including skin color and facial features" (Tatum, 1997, p. 16).

Because race is socially defined, the particular racial categories and boundaries change over time. In the year 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau recognized the following five racial categories: White, Black or African American, Asian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaska Native, and some other race. Also in 2000, for the first time in the history of the U.S. decennial census, the Census Bureau recognized the flexibility of racial boundaries by allowing people to choose multiple races. 

What does it mean to say race is socially constructed or defined?

To say that race is socially constructed means that a person's racial identity is determined not by differences in genetics or biology, but by other people (society). Unlike a person's sex, it is impossible to determine a person's race simply by examining the organization of his or her cells (Omi and Winant, 1994; Rothenburg, 1998; Tatum, 1997). Race is shaped by broad societal forces; namely by the nature of social relations and the historical context. Across time and across societies the definition of race and the classification of people into racial groups have varied, proving that race is inherently social (Omi and Winant, 1994, p. 15). A person's racial identity is shaped by the interactions that person has with other people in her or his society, but ultimately the individual makes his or her own determination about her racial affiliation.

Portland's Chinatown, Multnomah County:Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

Portland's Chinatown, Multnomah County:
Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives

What Is Ethnicity?

An ethnic group is a "socially defined group based on cultural criteria, such as language, customs, and shared history" (Tatum, 1997, p. 16). Some examples of ethnic groups are Irish, Latino, Jewish, Korean, Nigerian, and European. For the 2000 decennial census, the U.S. Census Bureau asked respondents to indicate their ethnicity with two questions: one asking if the respondent was of Latino, Hispanic, or Spanish origin and the other asking respondents to name their own ancestry or ethnic origin.

Ethnicity is distinct from race; people have a racial and an ethnic identity. Some people identify more strongly with their racial identity (as Black, for example) than their ethnic identity (as Cape Verdean, for example), while some people identify equally as strong with their racial identity (as White, for example) as with their ethnicity (as, for example, Latino).

Why Do We Care about Race and Ethnicity?

Even though race and ethnicity are categorizations that have been created by people, and really have no biological basis, they do have very important social significance. Racial and ethnic identities have historically precipitated conflicts "over natural and legal rights, over the distribution of resources, and indeed, over who shall live or die" (Omi and Winant, 1994, p.54).

Race and Ethnicity in Rural America and the Rural West

The rural U.S., as a whole, has never been ethnically or racially homogenous, though parts of the country have experienced different levels of diversity. Before the time of the European settlers to the U.S. the land was populated by tribes of Native Americans. Even after the genocide of the Native Americans, the remaining population of Native Americans was concentrated in particular rural areas of the U.S. on reservations, particularly in the West. In southern states, African Americans were concentrated in rural parts of the country, as they worked as slaves on plantations. The U.S. West, early in the nation's history, attracted sizeable populations of Asians and Latinos who worked in the gold mines, on ranches, and on the early transportation infrastructure. Early in U.S. history rural land was owned and worked by diverse ethnic groups of Whites.

The legacy of these trends is visible today. Rural America continues to be diverse, with particular racial and ethnic groups concentrated in different parts of the country. In 1990 about 85% of the rural population was non-Latino White and in 2000 it declined to 82% (Kirschner, Berry, and Glasgow, 2006, p. 65). Between 1990 and 2000, in the U.S. West, the predominant racial group continued to be non-Latino Whites (74% in 2000), followed by Latinos (13% in 2000), American Indians (6% in 2000), and Asians/ Pacific Islanders (2% in 2000) (Kirschner, Berry, and Glasgow, 2006, p. 65).

Despite the diversity apparent in the rural West at large and in the U.S., Oregon has historically been less diverse (from 1850 to the year 2000) (U.S. Census Bureau). Within Oregon the population of whites, African Americans, American Indians, Asians/ Pacific Islanders, and Latinos also varies by location. For various reasons, some of which are personal and some of which are caused by larger legal, economic, and social systems, the distribution of racial and ethnic groups is uneven across the state.

Explore on Your Own!

Are there differences in the representation of racial and ethnic groups in urban and rural communities in Oregon? Between 1990 and 2000, did the percentage of racial or ethnic groups change in some communities? Why do you think they changed? In places with relatively lower percentages of non-Latino Whites are there high proportions of people who are linguistically isolated? What does this mean for the community?

Launch the Oregon Communities Reporter Tool

Race and Ethnicity-Related Terms

Using the tools of the Oregon Communities Reporter you can examine trends in race and ethnicity across the state among the following variables:

  • Race/Ethnicity: The percentage of the total population who self-identify as one of seven racial categories - mono-racially (only) white, mono-racially black, mono-racially American Indian or Alaska Native, mono-racially Asian, mono-racially Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander, mono-racially some other race, bi- or multi-racial, or as ethnically Latino. In 1990, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are counted as Asian and bi- and multi-racial individuals are not counted separately from mono-racial individuals.
    Formula example: ([# mono-racially white, non-latino people]/[total population])*100
    Source: US Census Bureau

  • Linguistic Isolation: The percentage of the total population and the population age 5-17, 18-64, and 65 and older in households where all members 14 years and older have at least some difficulty with English.
    Formula example: ([# of people in linguistically isolated households]/[total population])*100
    Source: US Census Bureau

Authored by Lena Etuk, Social Demographer, Oregon State University Extension Service (2008)


Kirschner, Annabel, E. Helen Berry, and Nina Glasgow. 2006. The Changing Faces of Rural America. In W.A. Kandel and D.L. Brown (eds.), Population Change and Rural Society (53-74). Netherlands: Springer.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 1994. Racial Formation in the United States (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Rothenberg, Paula S. (ed.). 1998. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study (4th ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. 1997. "Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" And Other Conversations about Race. New York: Basic Books.