West Indians are of mixed racial and ethnic background. Immigrants to North America from the region are predominantly mulattoes or blacks, the descendants of African slaves brought to work on Caribbean plantations for the English, French, Spanish, and Dutch during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Some, however, are of European descent, a significant number of Asian Indian background—particularly those from Trinidad (see Trinidadian and Tobagonian immigration) and Guyana—and a small number of Chinese descent. Prior to the 1960s, both the United States and Canada treated immigrants from Caribbean Basin dependencies and countries, in various combinations, as a single immigrant unit known as “West Indians.” Due to the shifting political status of territories within the region during the period of decolonization (1958–83) and special international circumstances in some areas, the concept of what it meant to be West Indian shifted across time, thus making it impossible to say with certainty how many immigrants came from each island or region. Before 1965, however, Jamaican immigrants (see Jamaican immigration) clearly predominated, and English-speaking immigrants generally far outstripped others. West Indians in both the United States and Canada tended to be well educated, often filling skilled and professional positions and enjoying greater economic success than other Americans of African descent. Their political influence, particularly in the United States, was proportionally far greater than their numbers would suggest. These factors led to considerable tension between West Indians and African Americans that eased somewhat in the 1990s.
In the narrowest sense, the term West Indies refers to the English-speaking territories of the western Atlantic and Caribbean Basin, including Jamaica, the Bahamas, Bermuda, the Leeward Islands (St. Kitts, Nevis, Antigua, Montserrat, British Virgin Islands), the Windward Islands, (St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Dominica, Grenada), Barbados, Trinidad, Tobago, Belize, and Guyana. While these were all still British dependencies, they could be treated more or less as a single unit. More broadly, West Indies sometimes includes territories settled by the Dutch (Netherlands Antilles, Aruba), French (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Haiti) and Spanish (Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico). Finally, in the broadest use of the term, West Indies was sometimes used to refer to all countries in the Caribbean Basin, including Cuba and the Latin American countries of Central America. Although each West Indian region is culturally distinct, shared use of the English language and Caribbean heritage led immigrants from many different English culture areas to congregate once they arrived in the United States. Frequently immigrants from French and Dutch territories settled in anglophone West Indian neighborhoods. Dominicans (see Dominican immigration), on the other hand, more closely followed the settlement patterns of Cubans (see Cuban immigration) and Puerto Ricans (see Puerto Rican immigration), whose immigrant status was closely tied to cold war considerations.
West Indians did not begin to migrate to North America in significant numbers until the early 20th century. Between 1900 and 1924, about 100,000 West Indians immigrated to the United States, many of them from the middle classes. The restrictive Johnson-Reed Act (1924) and the economic depression of the 1930s virtually halted their immigration, but some 40,000 had already established a cultural base in New York City, particularly in Harlem and Brooklyn. About 41,000 West Indians were recruited for war work after 1941, but most returned to their homes after the war. Isolationist policies of the 1950s and relatively open access to Britain kept immigration to the United States low until passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which shifted the basis of immigration from country of origin to family reunification. The McCarran-Walter Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1952 had established an annual quota of only 800 for all British territories in the West Indies, but as dependencies became independent of colonial ties with European states (Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica in 1962, Barbados and Guyana in 1966, the Bahamas in 1973, Grenada in 1974, Dominica in 1978, Saint Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines in 1979, Antigua and Barbuda and Belize in 1981; and St. Kitts and Nevis in 1983), they generally qualified for increased immigration.
West Indian immigration to Canada remained small throughout the 20th century. Following the restrictive legislation of 1923, it is estimated that only 250 West Indians were admitted during the entire decade of the 1920s. By the mid-1960s, only 25,000 West Indians lived there. Canadian regulations after World War II (1939–45) prohibited most black immigration, and special programs, such as the 1955 domestic workers campaign, allowed only a few hundred well-qualified West Indians into the country each year until 1967, when the points system was introduced for determining immigrant qualifications.