Hispanics Draw Even With Blacks In New Census (2001)
Latino Population Up 60% Since 1990

By D'Vera Cohn and Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 7, 2001; Page A01

The nation's Hispanic population has grown so rapidly that the 2000 Census shows their numbers are roughly equal to that of African Americans, a demographic shift that has broad implications for politics and culture at the beginning of the millennium.

New census figures also reveal a higher-than-expected number of blacks who included themselves in more than one race. One in 20 residents who identified themselves as black -- 1.76 million people -- also checked at least one other race in the 2000 Census, which allowed that option for the first time.

These are the first demographic details to emerge from the long-awaited and politically contentious 2000 Census. The once-a-decade figures are considered critical because they affect congressional district boundaries, federal funds, policy and marketing decisions.

The number of Americans who described themselves as Hispanic grew by nearly 60 percent in the 2000 Census and now total 35.3 million, about 3 million more than the Census Bureau had predicted. Demographers have said for years that Hispanics, who can be of any race, would become the nation's largest minority group early this century, but that milestone is arriving sooner than forecast.

"It's appropriate perhaps that it's happened at the beginning of the new century," said Harry Pachon, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a Latino think tank in suburban Los Angeles. "It's a present-day reality of what the United States has become. You have to be aware of the richness of ethnic life in this country."

The black population ranged from 34.7 million to 36.4 million, with the larger number including those who checked black and another race.

The unexpected increase in Hispanics is probably due mainly to high levels of immigration and poor counting in the past. John Long, chief of the Census Bureau's population division, said yesterday that earlier government estimates may have missed many immigrants, both documented and undocumented. For the 2000 Census, the government staged an extensive outreach campaign to encourage minority residents to be counted.

While the new racial counts reflect real demographic shifts, they also result from changing census policies, including the new ability to report more than one race. Also, the Census Bureau allows Americans to define their own backgrounds.

Because Hispanics can be of any race, a portion would also be counted as blacks, whites, Asians and Native Americans. The numbers available yesterday did not include racial breakdowns for Hispanics.

Hispanics are generally considered to be people whose ancestors are from Spanish-speaking countries. In the United States, about two-thirds of Hispanics are of Mexican descent.

The demographic milestone reflected in the new Hispanic population totals carries implications not only for political power in this country but for cultural dynamics. The growing Latino population, for example, may sometimes mix uneasily with African Americans, in political life and in neighborhoods.

Around the country, the relationship between the nation's two largest minority groups has at times been tense, sparking a civil disturbance a decade ago in Mount Pleasant and sharp political disputes in Compton, a formerly black Los Angeles suburb that is now mostly Hispanic.

But members of social organizations representing the two groups said those disagreements are growing pains that might soon fade. "So many issues that the Latin American community are concerned about are the same issues that African Americans are concerned about: quality education, election reform and issues like racial profiling and civil rights enforcement," said Hilary Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau.

When police stop drivers of color on the basis of racial profiles, he said, "half the time . . . they don't know whether they are black or Latino."

Marisa Demeo, general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said tension between the groups can't be avoided. "We have to face it and deal with it," she said. "There are enough issues out there and enough commonality that we share."

The increasing Hispanic population has had an impact on everything from political campaigns to business marketing. Major corporations pay millions to advertise on Spanish-language television, where ratings in some cities surpass those of English stations. Salsa is now more likely to sit on America's kitchen tables than ketchup.

Next week, the government plans to release more detail on race from the census, including counts for Asian Americans, Native Americans, whites and others. One of the most closely watched numbers will be how many people checked more than one race box.

The new census figures provided a glimpse into the mixed-race figure. The numbers showed that far more people than expected checked off black and another race in the census. Recent national studies had indicated that 1 percent or 2 percent would, although some experts said the publicity about the new option could drive numbers up.

One in 12 black children younger than 18 also were reported as belonging to more than one race, many of them from the nation's growing number of interracial marriages. Among African Americans 50 and older, 2.3 percent designated themselves as being more than one race.

According to Urban Institute demographer Jeffrey Passell, who found the figures on the Census Bureau's Web site, the multiracial numbers for blacks are "substantially higher" than could have been forecast based on intermarriage and mixed-race birth certificates.

"It looks to me like it's a lot of people acknowledging ancestors who might have been a number of generations ago," Passell said. "It demonstrates a willingness, a desire to report more details about their genealogy."

The multi-race option was added to the census form at the urging of the growing number of people who had married someone of another race or who were children of mixed-race parents. The option was opposed by many civil rights groups, who feared it would diminish their influence and cause confusion in enforcing equal-protection laws.

Roderick Harrison, a former Census Bureau official who is at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said the high multi-race numbers will make it difficult to track whether blacks have made progress in school test scores, health, access to jobs or housing and other important social goals.

But advocates for the multi-race option say it reflects the real United States, where racial categories are not as fixed as many believe.

"We're not surprised at all," said Francis Wardle, director of the Center for the Study of Biracial Children in Denver. "Everyone knows that the world is not made up of single-race people. The reality is moving faster than the census."

Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans yesterday approved a Census Bureau recommendation that unadjusted population figures be released for redistricting purposes.

Democrats and civil rights groups had hoped that bureau officials would recommend releasing numbers adjusted statistically to compensate for 3 million people left out of the count. Evans yesterday did not rule out using adjusted numbers later for another major purpose of the census, distributing billions of dollars in federal funds.

Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company

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