U.S. Latinos outnumber blacks, census estimates

Figures inexact, based on personal definition of race, but trend clear


PHILADELPHIA - For the first time in U.S. history, people calling themselves Latino now outnumber those identified solely as black, according to new Census Bureau figures.

While hinging on a contestable definition of race and based on inexact estimates, the national figures released yesterday signal the beginning of an eclipse that demographers have long predicted: Latinos, not blacks, now are or soon will make up the biggest U.S. minority group.

"We knew it was true a long time ago," said Jose Riveria, deputy director of El Concilio, the Council of Spanish-Speaking Organizations in Philadelphia.

With birth and immigration rates higher than those of the population as a whole, Latinos have been building up to this moment for decades.

"What this means, more than voting rights and some of the broader civil-rights issues, is there is a greater impact on American culture and makeup," said Victor Vasquez, a Temple University historian and Latino activist in Philadelphia.

"We've been seeing this trend for a while, but it's starting to sink in."

In demographic terms, the national estimates hint at a slow eclipse rather than a final breakthrough.

The Census Bureau said yesterday that its estimate of the total number of people of any race claiming Latino ethnicity in mid-2001 had hit 37 million.

That was up almost 5 percent from the census headcount of 35.3 million in 2000. That group accounts for 13 percent of the estimated U.S. population of 284.8 million.

At the same time, the number of people identified solely as black or African-American, without another race, was 36.2 million. That was up 2 percent from 35.7 million about a year earlier, or 12.7 percent of the latest U.S. population total.

No state- or city-level estimates were given.

The new balance hinges on counting solely as Latino about 1.5 million people who identified themselves both as black and Latino.

Some demographers suggest that Latino, not black, tends to be the primary identification of such people, particularly black immigrants from Latin America.

But when swinging that group exclusively to the black total, rather than to the Latino total, the balance reverts to blacks.

The black total also rises when counting an additional 200,000 people who identify other races along with black in their background, the so-called multi-race group.

"We're saying there's no yes-or-no answer to that question of which is the bigger group," said Amy Smith, a Census Bureau statistician-demographer who worked on the report. "The gap is too narrow to be conclusive."

"What these figures do show is that the Hispanic population did grow by 4.7 percent, whereas the total [U.S.] population grew only by 1.2 percent," she said. "That's a significant difference."

Jeffrey Passel, a demographer at the nonprofit Urban Institute, noted that the estimates are based on data from mid-2001 and that many Latinos mostly likely were missed in the census.

By today, he said, the margin might have grown enough to state truly that Latinos are the biggest minority group.

"Given the growth rate, Latino will be larger, no matter what definition you use in a few years," Passel said. "It's not just bragging rights.

"It does carry some weight in political circles, although there the actual important factor is votes, not people."

More than blacks, U.S. Latinos today have a higher share of children, unregistered voters and immigrants ineligible to vote among their population, according to Vasquez, the Philadelphia political activist.

While united by language, Latinos also are still not as cohesive politically or culturally across the country as some leaders would like.

Latinos from Puerto Rico and the Caribbean basin predominate on the East Coast, while Mexicans and Central Americans are still concentrated in the South and West Coast.

"There is a lot of diversity in what we call the Latino population, and there's going to be a spectrum of interests," said Sonia Perez, deputy director of the National Council of La Raza, a Washington-based advocacy group.

But she added that demographics can be a fortune-teller: "This is not just a current force, but a force for the future. More than a third of Latinos are under 18. These are our future taxpayers, so we need to make sure we're making investments in this population."

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