A diverse minority
Arizona Daily Star
June 29, 2003
Knowing that Hispanics have overtaken blacks as the nation's largest minority
is probably most helpful to policymakers, educators and social service agencies.
The numbers reveal clearly that this is a group too large to overlook its
problems. It now comprises fully 13 percent of the country's population.
Yet it would be a huge mistake to believe that the nearly 40 million Hispanics
are a united culture with the same experiences, wants and needs. Indeed, there
are many differences between American Hispanics from North America, South
America and the Caribbean islands. In fact, Hispanics are a diverse group who
can trace origins to many different countries and continents. And Hispanics are
found in all the world's races.
Perhaps the most significant bit of news in the census report is the rate of
growth in the Hispanic population. This population was not supposed to overtake
blacks as the largest minority group for at least another 10 years.
But immigration and a steep birth rate have more than doubled the population
since 1980 to 38.8 million.
Once confined largely to states along the Mexican border, the population has
moved to other parts of the country, including small towns in the Midwest and
the South. The problem with a group growing as quickly as this one is that it
includes significant numbers of low-income and the undereducated. It takes
little effort to imagine that an exploding population can grow even more poor
Another important point is that three of five Hispanics in America were born in
the United States. There is a tendency to think of Hispanics as monolingual,
possibly because the population includes large numbers of high school dropouts
and recent immigrants. But huge numbers of Hispanics come from
multi-generational American families, just like the larger population.
The benefits of knowing as much as we can about this population is obvious.
A burgeoning population that is also likely to be low-income and undereducated
poses significant social problems, now and in the future. Simply addressing the
lack of educational opportunities now would have the added benefit of elevating
income levels, too.
There are some who believe that Hispanics and blacks will butt heads now that
the numbers of Hispanics have surpassed blacks.
One black/Latino activist told the Washington Post that he worried that "Latinos
are going to make a lot of demands, showing these demographic documents to
members of the Afro-American community. And the Afro-American community is going
to say, 'Yeah, but you have not paid your dues.' So only through serious and
strategic dialogue would you be able to take care of this."
That is a convoluted and delusional sentiment, at best. It's a dangerous comment
because it sets up racial antagonisms that do not now exist and are not likely
to ever exist.
A more important reality is that the Hispanic population has not yet shown it
can muster the political strength required to make sure it takes its place, and
pulls its own weight, among the larger American population. The political
strength required to demand better educational and economic opportunities is
But as America grows even more Hispanic, that reality will have to change. The
very strength of the country hinges to a large part on Hispanics taking their
place in the economic and social structures equal to their numbers.