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United Press International

Largest Minority! So What?

January 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003
United Press International. All rights reserved. 

When I saw the headline, "Hispanics outnumber blacks for first time," about the Census Bureau report showing people who identify in some way with the Spanish heritage, my initial reaction was, "Yeah, so?"

On an intellectual level, I appreciate the meaning of growing numbers.

At 37 million people -- one of every eight people in the United States -- Hispanics are becoming a presence that business must cater to and politicians ignore at their own peril.

But while my brother, Chris, jokes about pulling out a giant foam finger and running around the streets shouting, "We're numero uno," the notion Hispanics have overtaken blacks in numbers sounds like a phony accomplishment -- like we've suddenly won the Grand Prize Game!

Is the growth of Hispanics intended to mean that somehow, our situation is now more significant than that of African-Americans?

Some people might claim the problems of black America now belong on the social backburner or might use the population shift to try to stir up dissension.

But a slight shift -- especially one that has been foreseen for years -- does not suddenly alleviate the discrimination faced by U.S. blacks.

Besides, what exactly is a Hispanic?

The once-great Spanish Empire set up its colonies throughout the Americas, including in what is now New Mexico, California and Florida. Spaniards imposed their language, customs and Catholicism on all the indigenous peoples they encountered and also brought African slaves to do the actual heavy work of building new colonies.

Hispanic applies to the descendants of all these people, though those who use the term Latino are trying to emphasize the efforts and cultures of native peoples.

Because of the variety of people covered, not all Hispanics are alike. They include people from countries whose history and issues of concern are varied -- similar to the differences among those from France, Italy and Germany, all Europeans who might be surprised at being lumped together.

I am of Mexican descent. I'm aware some Mexican citizens perceive me as just another Yankee brat whose grandparents "sold out." I don't always feel a social or political kinship with people whose ethnic backgrounds trace back to Puerto Rico or Cuba.

Even though some of our customs -- but not our Spanish accents -- are similar, people who trace their roots to Argentina, Venezuela or the "motherland" of Spain might as well be from another world. So it's hard to take seriously an increase in an ethnic definition that, by its very nature, is artificial.

The issue is more complex for extremely dark-skinned people of Hispanic background. Due to the vagaries of the Census Bureau classifications for race, such people can be counted as Hispanic, African-American or both, depending on their preference.

In fact, it's only when you subtract Hispanics of African background from the African-American category and then add them to the number of Hispanics do Hispanics outnumber blacks. However, Hispanic population growth is expected to continue at high enough rates in the future to remove the discrepancy.

Federal officials said last week 196.2 million people in the United States are white. But the 2000 Census previously showed 48 percent of Hispanics identified themselves racially as white -- compared to 8 percent American Indian, 2 percent African-American and 42 percent, myself included, who picked "other" because they thought the racial categories were flawed.

It's not wrong for some Hispanic people to think of themselves as white. The genetics of European Spaniards run strong in many Hispanic families. They're not Anglo-Saxon white, but then again, neither are people of Polish, Italian or Russian descent.

But people of those ethnic descents get lumped into the vast "white" barrel by the Census Bureau, while Hispanic whites get counted separately.

That makes the population shift "documented" by the study even more meaningless.

With my light complexion, I have often been mistaken for Italian, Greek or even Polish. On explaining my ethnic history, I have been told by some it counts as being "white."

So am I just another white boy? I hope not.

Am I a "vato loco" who, had my father not busted his butt to provide a few advantages with regard to education, could just as easily be dreaming about the day I could work on a garbage truck? (I'm not exaggerating. One of my cousins who didn't get any breaks would love that job.) "Vato loco," not to be confused with "gato loco" or crazy cat, is commonly used to refer to wild, street kids, in some cases gangs.

Or am I just me, a slightly sarcastic writer from Chicago who thinks statistics about "the largest minority" are too easily used negatively to emphasize differences by those who want to keep Hispanics from ever fully assimilating into the United States?

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