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Analysis:  Impact of Historic Surge in US Hispanic Population - 2003-06-29

Recent figures provided by the U.S. Census Bureau reveal a historic shift in the country's population: Hispanics now rank as the nation's largest minority group, having eclipsed African-Americans in the organization's latest estimate.

The last time the United States conducted a complete census was in the year 2000. That reading showed the U.S. Hispanic community growing at a brisk pace, but still trailing blacks who, at that time, remained the nation's largest minority group. Census Bureau demographer Signe Wetrogan says that is no longer the case, based on new population estimates compiled from data collected last year.

"The Hispanic population was estimated at 38.8 million people," he said. The race group of blacks alone or in combination (multi-race including black) numbered 38.3 million. So between 2001 and 2002 we did have a shift."

Ms. Wetrogan notes that Hispanics constitute an ethnic group, while African-Americans constitute a racial group. She says some Hispanics are black, and that blacks who identify as Hispanic are counted in both groups.

For several decades, Hispanics have been the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, increasing at nearly five percent a year compared to less than two percent for the nation as a whole. At the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based Hispanic advocacy group, Eric Rodriguez says no one should be surprised that the number of people with Latin American ethnicity is growing in the United States. He says the trend is evident in countless communities from coast to coast.

"You can see Latino workers all across the country working very hard to make ends meet, provide for their families and make serious contributions to their communities and the nation as a whole," he said. "And that, indeed, is a source of pride."

Mr. Rodriguez says there is strength in numbers, and that the growth of the Hispanic population has been accompanied by an increase in the group's economic and political clout. He says, from Florida to California, corporations and politicians are discovering that it is in their interest to take into account the tastes, desires, and opinions of Hispanics.

But does the rise of Hispanics as the nation's largest minority group have real significance? Census Bureau demographer Signa Wetrogan says yes.

"Many federal programs make use of the population data. Many federal program agencies that deliver services to the population make use of these data, as well as the media, mass-marketing, advertising, many of the private sectors that develop products and services to meet the needs of the population," said Ms. Wetrogan.

In short, census statistics have an impact in dollars and cents, both in government and the private sector.

How do African-Americans view the rise in the Hispanic population, a significant portion of whom come to the United States illegally and often compete for low-wage jobs? Washington director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Hilary Shelton, says blacks and Hipanics have much in common.

"A little competition is a good thing. And within any growing community, there are always growing pains that have to be addressed," he said. "But I believe our common values, the common desire for our children to get good education, health care, to own their own homes and live out the American dream, our desire to both live out the promise of America far outweighs any problems that we have experienced together. Indeed, within a democratic system, when you find someone you have a lot in common with, it is a good idea to find ways to work together to achieve common goals."

Hispanic community advocate Eric Rodriguez agrees. He says the Hispanic community's gains are not the African-American community's losses.

"We are seeing a lot of areas where both communities are coming together, where there is significant agreement on issues like civil rights and there is a lot of collaboration. It absolutely is not a zero-sum game," he said.

Even so, Mr. Rodriguez sees a potential pitfall. He says the new census statistics could give ammunition to those who see the United States as being overrun by immigrants. "Is there a potential for a backlash?" asked Mr. Rodriguez. "Sure. I think that tends to come from a very small minority of folks who have very strong feelings about immigrants in general, and they are on the fringe. I think the truth is that immigrants come to this country for work, and they have employers that want to provide them with work. The fact is that these workers are taking jobs to provide for their families."

Mr. Rodriguez points out that only about half of the Hispanic community's growth is due to immigration, with the other half stemming from the children of U.S. residents of Latin American descent. He says, above all, Americans of all races and ethnicities can take pride in the fact that the United States remains a country that draws hard-working people from all over the world.