A census dispute over whether to count uncounted minorities has been eclipsed by news that Hispanics nearly equal the number of black Americans. Now at 35.3 million, the Hispanic population rose 57.9 percent over the past decade.
But just as newsworthy was that nearly 7 million people chose to mark more than one racial category to describe themselves. Fourteen percent of Asians, 5 percent of blacks, and 2.5 percent of whites chose this option. (Hispanic or Latino is an ethnic category, not a racial one, according to the Census Bureau, and includes a range of racial backgrounds.)
These statistics will ripple across a country that finds both strength and weakness in its diversity. They will be used to reset spending, from marketing campaigns to government aid. They will influence how legislative districts are redrawn and how civil rights are enforced.
As long as race is counted as a major issue in the United States, the Census Bureau will count the races.
These results reinforce a demographic forecast that whites will be in the minority by mid-century (they already are in California). With more equality in numbers, ethnic and racial groups could either become more competitive for rights and resources, or they could find tensions easing.
None of America's racial minorities are monolithic in their politics. Blacks, who come closest to voting as a bloc for Democrats, span the political spectrum. The Bush administration's ability to recruit well-qualified blacks to its ranks indicates contrasting views among African-Americans.
Hispanics are more diverse in their voting patterns. New York's Puerto Ricans and California's Mexican-Americans may be staunchly Democratic, while Florida's Cuban-Americans are reliably Republican. Voters of Asian background are likewise varied.
As much as these races identify as a group, will they always act collectively for political purposes? Or will they, as seen in racially diverse Los Angeles, evolve toward coalitions between blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and Asians? Race often melts away when much larger concerns, such as education, draw people together.
The American tradition of forming and reforming new communities of like interests within a democratic system is profound. The races may still cluster themselves by housing (see story on page 1), but to focus on that lingering segregation ignores the day-to-day practice of most Americans to work together with shared values.
Social scientist Amitai Etzioni has analyzed poll findings and finds that large majorities of Americans agree on such basics as "fair treatment for all, without prejudice or discrimination." Large majorities agreed on the importance of teaching children about a common American heritage and values. And they agree that "the US is a unique country that stands for something special in the world."
Diversity can help sustain the unity of a nation that's based on shared ideals. Journalist and author Roberto Suro has written: "Ideas, not biology, are what generates oneness and homogeneity in the United States, and so long as faith in those ideas remained strong, the country has shown an extraordinary capacity to absorb people of many nationalities."
The danger comes if any one racial or ethnic community is so cut off from American society that they fail to teach the fundamentals of civic responsibility to the next generation. That's why states play a critical role in setting a school curriculum that teaches individual responsibility in maintaining healthy communities and electing responsible government.
Ultimately, the well-being of all Americans, regardless of race, springs from being free to use God-given abilities and to join in working for the common good.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor