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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 and

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 missing.

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.