Racial and ethnic categories
Immigration in the 19th and 20th centuries transformed Canada and the United States from countries predominantly populated by west Europeans (notably English, French, Scots-Irish, and German) to countries composed of most of the world’s racial and ethnic groups. Between 1950 and 1998, for instance, the minority population of the United States more than tripled, and it was estimated that by the middle of the 21st century, non-Hispanic whites would constitute only about 50 percent of the population. In an attempt to understand and plan for the results of population changes, questions regarding race and ethnicity have been part of the immigration process and census taking in North America over the years, though in a variety of forms according to the needs of the day (see census and immigration). These questions were introduced in Canada in 1765 and in the United States in 1790. Racial and ethnic identification became an essential part of governmental planning from the 1840s onward in the wake of the Irish famine, or Great Potato Famine (1845–51), and the wave of immigration that swept the United States and Canada between 1865 and 1914. There has never been a universally accepted definition of race, however. At various times in history it has stood for contemporary concepts of tribe, nation, or ethnic group. Since the 18th century race was increasingly used to distinguish a group based on skin color and other physical characteristics. The classification most commonly accepted throughout the West recognized three major races: Caucasians (white), Mongolians (yellow), and Africans (black). Other taxonomists incorporated personality and moral traits in identifying race. As the 19th century progressed, romantic thought and Darwinism combined with racial classification to create an intellectual atmosphere in which racism flourished.