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Hispanics Become Largest US Minority Group

Updated population statistics in the United States show that Hispanic Americans have overtaken Black Americans as the largest minority group.

Demographer Jeffrey Passel, of the Washington-based Urban Institute, says higher birth rates among Hispanic families and the increasing flow of immigrants into the country have altered the portrait of the American minority population. "In the 1990 census, the Black population only represented half of the minority population. In other words, among the minority populations Blacks were just half, and that's continued to change, where now, we see Latinos passing Blacks. But, in addition, you have sizable Asian populations, with Native Americans and Pacific Islander populations, also," he says. "So the Black population is a minority within the minority population, only about 40 percent of all non-white, non-Hispanics."

Updated Census Bureau statistics show the Hispanic population in the United States now totals more than 37 million. The same report, based on 2001 figures, shows the Black population at slightly more than 36 million. Demographers say the statistics are a bit confusing, because some of those responding to the U-S census consider themselves as being both Black and Hispanic.

But for Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, the census information illustrates a change in how America views itself. His center tracks the impact of Latinos on the nation. "It's a very symbolic statistic, because of the role that race has played in American history, given the fact that so much of American social structure and history and culture is based on the interplay between Black and White," he says.

Analysts such as Reynolds Farley, of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, say the political, economic and social impact of the demographic change has far-reaching consequences. Mr. Farley points to the challenges for public services to accommodate the growing Hispanic and other immigrant populations. "The Latino population is a very young population. So, the school age population of the United States has a much higher percentage of Latino population than the older population," he says. "There's certainly a question about our public school systems providing education for immigrants, whose first language is Spanish. This is a challenge."

Hispanic and Black leaders acknowledge they compete for resources, but say they share many of the same goals.

"The social and political issues that both groups tend to focus on have great overlap. Both populations are heavily concerned with equality of educational and job opportunities, social welfare programs," says Roderick Harrison - data bank director at the Joint Center of Political and Economic Studies, which was founded in 1970 by black intellectuals, professionals and elected officials.

He says competition for dwindling public resources should not be viewed as a racial issue. "At the local level, where some resources that are often scarce get divided up, there are tensions," he says. "But, I think, that's just one sort of tension in city and municipal politics that are full of non-racial tensions over scarce resources. It's hard and inappropriate to place too great a racial perspective on a lot of those kinds of tensions."

Still, Dan Stein, Executive Director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform complains that the growth of Latinos and other immigrant populations comes at the expense of other groups. His organization has long advocated curbing the flow of immigrants into the country. "The United States needs time to absorb and assimilate the huge numbers of immigrants we brought in over the last 30 years," he says. "We don't really have the infrastructure, housing, natural resources, and education systems to handle this kind of influx."

Looking at national politics, demographer Jeffrey Passel says American Blacks still wield the most power among U.S. minority groups. "If we look at voters, which is how our political system works, there are more than twice as many Black voters as Hispanic voters, because immigrants are a much larger fraction of the Hispanic population than of the Black population; and only some of the immigrants have become eligible to vote," he says.

But, Mr. Passel says, that will probably change, too, as more Hispanics and other immigrants gain citizenship and the voting rights that come with it.