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Posted June 24, 2003

Hispanics Declared Largest Minority

Blacks Overtaken In Census Update

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 19, 2003

Hispanics are now officially the nation's largest minority group, the Census Bureau announced yesterday, revealing that a demographic milestone has been reached years sooner than expected.

New census figures indicate that Hispanics accounted for half the country's population growth in the two years after the 2000 Census was taken, accelerating a change once predicted for 2014. Fed by immigration and high birth rates, the U.S. Hispanic community has more than doubled since 1980, according to census data.

There were 38.8 million Hispanics in July 2002, or 13 percent of the national total, according to new figures based on birth and death records, visa documents and other data. The black population, long the nation's largest minority group, numbered 38.3 million.

"If you consider that the black-white divide has been the basic social construct in American history for 300 years, this marks a change," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. "This is the official reminder that we are moving into new territory."

The status as the nation's largest minority is also a cultural event, one with both broad implications and subtle distinctions. The term minority has long been associated with blacks, for example, but now the "largest minority" includes a sizable number of whites because nearly half of Hispanics identify themselves that way.

Until now, the largest minority was a racial group. Hispanics, as an ethnic group composed of many ancestries, are harder to classify and often resist customary U.S. racial categories. And 1.7 million Hispanics also are black, a community heavily concentrated in New York and Florida.

Despite the strong effect of immigration, which in many ways has defined the Hispanic population since 1970, three in five Hispanics were born in the United States, according to census data. Many families have lived in the Southwest for generations, and Hispanics have been a majority in communities along the U.S.-Mexican border for decades. In 23 states, Hispanics were the largest minority in the 2000 Census.

Most Hispanics live in the suburbs, census data show. Nearly half live in 10 large metropolitan areas, though their numbers also are growing in small towns in the South and Midwest. A third are younger than 18. Hispanics or Latinos -- the census bureau now uses both terms -- are less likely than non-Hispanic whites to have a high school education and to be employed; they are more likely to live in poverty. Two-thirds are of Mexican origin.

The change announced yesterday has been anticipated and debated for some time. Most of the focus has been on whether it will lead to more intense competition with African Americans or whether it will present opportunities for powerful political alliances. And because Latinos are so numerous, their tastes and circumstances increasingly will shape the nation's.

The largest Hispanic and African American advocacy groups share an agenda that includes support for affirmative action, laws against racial profiling and increased education funding. In a recent exception, some Hispanic groups, including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), endorsed President Bush's nomination of Miguel Estrada to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, breaking with other Hispanic organizations and the Congressional Black Caucus.

But there is tension at the local level throughout the country -- complaints about day laborers gathering in certain places, concerns about influxes of Spanish-speaking students in schools and protests that government services are not being delivered fairly.

In Maryland and Virginia, there were recent clashes over granting driver's licenses and in-state tuition benefits to illegal immigrants. In the District, Latinos have accused the D.C. government of failing to provide adequate services or adequate information in Spanish about what they do offer.

Hispanics' new status raises the potential for more conflict, on the local level, between African Americans and Latinos, said Roland Roebuck, an Afro-Latino community activist with a foot in each camp. His worry is this: "Latinos are going to make a lot of demands, showing these demographic documents to members of the Afro-American community. And the Afro-American community is going to say, 'Yeah, but you have not paid your dues.' So only through serious and strategic dialogue would you be able to take care of this."

So far, with so many Hispanic young people and noncitizens, population numbers have not translated into Hispanic voting power. "I'm not sure how long it is going to take us," said Gabriela Lemus, LULAC policy director. "We Latino leaders are very much aware that we've got to find the keys to unlock our passion as an interest group."

Locally, there have been gains for Latino politicians, but their numbers are not in line with the population totals. Voters last year elected the first two Hispanic delegates to the Maryland General Assembly and a Latino council member in Montgomery County.

That new council member, Tom Perez (D-Silver Spring), said the lack of Latino leadership in the county was one reason he ran. Among his strongest supporters, he said, was former County Council member Isiah Leggett, an African American, who heads the state Democratic Party.

"I am hopeful people will see the commonality of our struggle rather than individual differences that may pop up here and there," Leggett said yesterday. "I am very hopeful. I congratulate those incredible numbers. As they succeed, so should African Americans."

But others are less optimistic. "There's going to be a lot of rivalry and jealousy because the African Americans were there first," said Toni-Michelle Travis, who teaches government and politics at George Mason University. "People don't want to share power."

The numbers already are fueling debate over immigration. Fairfax County School Board Chairman Isis Castro (Mount Vernon) said some undocumented Hispanic students are afraid to apply to Virginia state colleges because they are worried their families will be deported. But Steven Camarota, research director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limits on immigration, said the numbers raise a troubling question: "Is the level of immigration so high that it's overwhelming the assimilation process?"

Some warned against seeing the ascension of Hispanics as a triumph over other minority groups. "What I am wary of [is] you can see this portrayed as a contest," said Suro, of the Pew Hispanic Center. "Who is the biggest minority? What is the prize here? To me it's much more important as an official benchmark of where the country is."

The new figures did not include data on the local level, where Hispanics have outnumbered blacks only in Arlington and Fairfax counties. But the Washington area was designated a region of Hispanic hyper-growth in a recent study by the Brookings Institution and Pew Hispanic Center. Locally, the 2000 Census counted nearly 447,000 Hispanics, or 8 percent of the population. Latino advocates say the number is higher.