(First of two parts)
IT WAS BIG NEWS earlier this year: New census data showed that Hispanics were on the verge of surpassing blacks as the largest minority group in the nation. This occasioned a good deal of comment, some of it worried, some of it celebratory. At around the same time came word that in many parts of the country, whites were dwindling to a minority group themselves -- if, indeed, they hadn't become one already.
"Boston became a majority minority city in the 1990s for the first time," The Boston Globe reported in March, "as Latinos, Asians, and blacks arrived and as tens of thousands of whites left." A continent away, The Los Angeles Times put the story on Page 1: "For the first time ever, no racial or ethnic group forms a majority in California."
But pull up the Census Bureau data yourself and you discover something interesting about these dramatic changes: They didn't happen.
Of the 281 million people enumerated in the 2000 census, 34.7 million gave their race as black. Respondents were allowed to check more than one racial category, and another 1.7 million identified themselves as black-and-something else. Total black (or partly-black) population: 36.4 million. The comparable number for whites was 217 million; for Asians, 11.9 million; for American Indians, 4.1 million; for native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders, 0.9 million; and for those choosing "other," 18.5 million.
But there is no comparable number for Hispanics, because the Census Bureau doesn't treat "Hispanic" as a race. Last year's questionnaire asked respondents whether they identified themselves as "Spanish/Hispanic/Latino," and 35.3 million said yes. On the separate race question, some of those 35.3 million Hispanics said they were white (48 percent), some said black (2 percent), some marked multiple races (6 percent), and some -- presumably those who do identify their race as Hispanic -- marked the box labeled "other" (42 percent).
Hispanics, in other words, come in all colors -- just like Catholics, or veterans, or the elderly. Asking whether Hispanics or blacks constitute the nation's largest minority is as meaningless as asking whether the book industry publishes more paperbacks or more mysteries. They are overlapping categories.
It is clear that some activists are eager for "Hispanic" to acquire the status of a full-fledged racial category. It's hardly a mystery why: Racial minority status confers political clout and a share of the affirmative action pie. But it is also pretty clear that most Hispanics don't buy into that agenda. More than half, after all, consider themselves white or multiracial.
Which is why you can safely tune out those stories about California and Boston and so many other venues no longer having white majorities. "No racial or ethnic group forms a majority in California," the L.A. Times said, but the Census Bureau begs to differ. Of California's 33.9 million residents, 20.1 million -- 59 percent -- identified themselves last year as white. Likewise Boston. In 2000, 589,000 people lived in the city; 321,000 of them -- 54.5 percent -- were white.
The nation as a whole remains overwhelmingly white -- 75.1 percent, the census found. "The suggestion that the white population of America is fast on the way to becoming a minority," writes Orlando Patterson, the noted sociologist, "is a gross distortion."
So where did the stories about The Incredible Shrinking White Majority come from? From manipulating the data so that white Hispanics are not counted as white. But whose opinion should we be relying on? The children and grandchildren of Latin American immigrants who say they are white? Or the Hispanic journalists and pressure groups who tell them they aren't?
For 250 years, the American melting pot has been turning ethnic groups once thought to be racially distinct (and socially indigestible) into undifferentiated -- which has usually meant white -- Americans. In 1896, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge bemoaned the influx of "races with which the English-speaking people have never hitherto assimilated, and who are most alien to the great body of the people of the United States." He was talking about Russians, Poles, and Greeks. Early in the 20th century, Italians, Jews, and the Irish were classified as separate races by federal immigration authorities.
Today, it is strange to think that Irish or Russian immigrants were once deemed "nonwhite." Fifty years from now, it will seem just as odd that Mexicans and Cubans were once regarded the same way.
But let us hope that by then we will have abandoned the fable that racial categories have concrete meaning in the first place. How useful is the term "white," after all, if its definition is so mutable? Isn't race, as the confusion over "Hispanic" suggests, ultimately a matter of personal choice? In a nation where millions of people fall in love and raise children without regard to the color line, isn't it time the government stopped counting by race altogether?
Next: Defeated in the bedroom
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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