WASHINGTON — The fast-growing Hispanic population has drawn nearly even with blacks, according to preliminary Census Bureau estimates that analysts say show an America more diverse than ever.
Hispanic population growth outpaced predictions by at least 2.5 million in the 2000 Census, with much of that increase due to higher-than-expected rates of immigration, analysts said Wednesday.
There were about 35.3 million Hispanics in America last year, an increase of 58 percent from 1990, the preliminary Census Bureau estimates show. The black population, meanwhile, ranged between 34.7 million and 36.4 million, with the exact figure uncertain because Americans, for the first time, were allowed to check off more than one race on the 2000 Census form.
"It's a little surprising. But still, we've known the trends for some time," said Hans Johnson, demographer with the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco. "We know eventually Hispanics will become the largest minority group in the United States."
Though the figures are from a Census Bureau committee report, they are not final and may change, cautioned Jorge del Pinal, a senior agency official in charge of race and ethnicity statistics.
The bureau is scheduled to release more detailed statistics on America's racial makeup next week, including figures for other racial categories.
Assuming the numbers remain roughly the same, lawmakers will be dealing with the public policy implications sooner than expected, said Marisa Demeo, general counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
For instance, recent Census Bureau data showed that Hispanics had lower rates of educational achievement, and higher percentages of people living in poverty, than non-Hispanic whites.
"Our hope is perhaps now we will finally receive the needs we should have been receiving all along," she said.
One earlier bureau estimate had placed the Hispanic population at 32.8 million in November 2000. The 2000 Census figure is officially tied to April 1 of last year.
The government may have done a better job than expected in counting undocumented immigrants, including newly arrived Hispanics, the Census Bureau has said. Immigrants were one of the targets of a bureau outreach campaign last year to increase participation in the national headcount.
"It's unfortunate that we have to grow so large before our issues our addressed, but at least maybe now they will be addressed," Demeo said.
"Hispanic" is considered an ethnicity, and Hispanic people can be of any race. Therefore, it is unclear yet whether Hispanics are officially the nation's largest minority group, since data on how many blacks were specifically "non-Hispanic" are not yet available.
A 2.9 percent discrepancy existed between the 2000 census number for Hispanics and a higher, second figure derived from a Census Bureau follow-up survey that estimated the undercount for race groups. A third figure, from a demographic analysis typically performed to measure census accuracy, was lower than the headcount.
That discrepancy was part of the reason the Census Bureau recommended that the actual census count — and not one adjusted using statistical sampling — be used as the official numbers for political redistricting.
Commerce Secretary Don Evans backed that recommendation Tuesday, with the first set of redistricting numbers based on unadjusted data being sent out Wednesday.
Despite the trends, Hispanics may be a long way off still from surpassing blacks in terms of social and political clout, said University of Michigan sociology professor David Harris. For instance, blacks historically have gone to the voting booths more often than Hispanics, and are more likely to be active in civic affairs, especially in certain regions of the country, he said.
Because of that, "the country's historic perception of America as black and white" will still exist even if numerically, the largest groups are Hispanic and white, Harris said.
Numbers on the black population, meanwhile, offered the first glimpse into how many people checked off more than one race on their form last year. While 34.7 million people marked only "black" on their census questionnaires, an additional 1.7 million classified themselves as black and another race.
On the Net: www.census.gov/dmd/