- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 13, 2001

Whites remain by far the largest racial group in the United States, but their grip on that majority status is at historically low levels, according to new U.S. Census Bureau data.

Of the 281 million persons in the United States last year, a little more than 194 million, or 69 percent, identified themselves as "white" and non-Hispanic. Including Hispanics who called themselves white, the number is a little more than 211 million, or about 75 percent.

The 1990 census found that 76 percent of Americans called themselves non-Hispanic white.

"The major finding is going to be that the nation is much more diverse in the year 2000 than it was in 1990 and that diversity is much more complex than we've ever measured before," Jorge Del Pinal, assistant division chief for special populations in the bureau's Population Division, said at a briefing yesterday.

Comparisons with previous census counts are not exact, since the methods of counting different races have varied widely over time. But it is clear that whites, as a percentage of the total population, have declined. The first census, in 1790, for example, found that almost 81 percent of the country considered itself white. That number had risen to 89 percent by 1950.

It is not that the number of whites is declining, the bureau said, it is that minority groups are increasing more rapidly than whites due in part to a surge in immigration.

While the white population grew by 6.4 million since 1990, or about 3 percent, all other categories grew by 26.3 million, about 43 percent, during the same period.

The numbers were also skewed by dramatic changes in the way the Census Bureau collects information on race. For the first time in the 210-year history of the census, Americans were allowed to categorize themselves in multiple racial groups.

Only 6.8 million persons, or about 2.4 percent, chose two or more racial categories. The vast majority of those considered themselves a combination of white and some other category. Census officials say that almost all of those combinations were in fact Hispanics.

Considering all Hispanic and mixed-race persons, more than 77 percent of all Americans considered themselves white to some degree.

The percentage of Hispanics, who can come from any racial group, has soared during the past 10 years. Hispanics of all races now total 35.3 million, or 12.5 percent of Americans, up from 9 percent in 1990 and 6.4 percent in 1980.

There are almost 35 million blacks, holding steady as a proportion of the U.S. population at just more than 12 percent. It is the first time in census history that numbers have shown that blacks are not the largest single minority group.

The Census Bureau said the increase in the Hispanic population is surely due in part to immigration, but could not say how much based on this data. The bureau promises more detailed analyses over the next year of the national origin of Americans.

Nor could the bureau determine how much of the increase in Hispanics is due to illegal immigration. Government and private groups estimate that between 4 million and 7 million Mexicans live and work illegally in the United States, along with smaller numbers from many other Latin American nations.

"We make no attempt to ascertain the legal status of anybody," Mr. Del Pinal said, explaining why the Census Bureau does not have its own figure.

The numbers released yesterday are only a small part of a larger picture emerging from the census data. The bureau is slowly releasing state-by-state data, so it is not yet clear how the racial numbers will affect the congressional redistricting that will flow from the new numbers.

The bureau has not yet analyzed the social data, including income and housing, meaning there is no way to make judgments about the connection between race and class in the United States.

The bureau does not, in fact, even know exactly what the mixed-race data means, officials said. The bureau plans to conduct follow-up surveys to determine why, for example, many Hispanics checked the "some other race" box instead of the traditional black, white, American Indian, or Asian categories.

The federal government considers "Hispanic" to be an ethnic distinction, not a distinct racial group, yet some Hispanics checked off "some other race," possibly in an effort to describe themselves as a separate race.

"We really don't know what individuals were trying to tell us about their heritage," said Claudette Bennett, chief of the Racial Statistics Branch.

The follow-up surveys also will help explain some other statistical oddities. The fastest-growing racial groups, for example, were "American Indian and Alaska Native," which grew 110 percent, and "Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander," which grew 140 percent.

Those growth rates, however, probably had more to do with changes in the way the categories were organized and with the new multiracial categories, officials said.

The growth among Indians might also have to do with what reporters have dubbed the "Dances With Wolves" effect, after the Kevin Costner movie about a U.S. soldier who joins an Indian tribe after the Civil War. Census officials say there seems to be a greater interest in American Indian history over the past 10 years, resulting in increasing numbers of people who discover or embrace their Indian heritage.

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