A Shock to the Census

Juan Gonzalez

The biggest shock to emerge so far from preliminary results of the 2000 Census has been the enormous growth in the nation’s Hispanic population. The number of Latinos residing in the 50 states jumped by nearly 60 percent, from 22.4 million in 1990 to 35.3 million last year.

For the first time in U.S. history, the Hispanic-origin population drew virtually even with the black population, which totaled 36.4 million last year. And that’s without counting the 3.8 million residents of Puerto Rico, all of whom are U.S. citizens. Until now most demographers had not expected mainland Hispanics to overtake African-Americans as the country’s biggest minority group until 2005, but that milestone will be passed this year. 

Even without the statistical sampling adjustment that Democrats had sought, the Census Bureaus counters discovered 2.6 million more Hispanics living in the country than its statisticians had projected. This is a huge number of people to have lost count of in the first place. While the bureau concedes its 1990 census was so poorly done that it failed to count some 6 million people, this time around it apparently did a better job. 

As the magnitude of this demographic transformation begins to sink in, every institution of American society will have to rethink its policies and priorities, every political organization will have to refashion its platform and strategies. This is as true for conservative Republicans as it is for radical Marxists. 

Consider some details of this amazing transformation since 1990

In Nevada, where overall the population grew by roughly 60 percent, the number of Hispanics skyrocketed by 300 percent – from 131,000 to 394,000 – and they now comprise almost 20 percent of the state’s population. 

In Texas, the second most populous state, whites increased by 13.4 percent, blacks by 14 percent and Hispanics by 45 percent. There are now 6.7 million Latinos in Texas, nearly one-third of the state’s population. 

In Illinois, Hispanics grew by 69 percent, to 1.5 million, the black population grew 10.9 percent, and the white population showed a negligible increase. Latinos now make up 12 percent of the state’s population and a quarter of the city of Chicago. 

In our biggest cities, population growth is being fed by the increasing number of Hispanic and Asian residents, yet the national debate around race and ethnicity, around education and social policies, remains disproportionately focused on relations between white and black Americans. Too many political leaders, even on the left, are still staring at the rear-view mirror, looking back at what the country was, not at what it is becoming. Look, for example, at the resources and time spent by American radicals on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared to the ongoing popular battles in Mexico. 

The Mexican-American population represents the heart of the Latino migration story. Two-thirds of all Hispanics in the country are of Mexican origin, and Mexicans are the second-largest immigrant group in U.S. history, at least since 1820 when the federal government started keeping immigration records. Whether Mexican immigration continues to surpass all others depends largely on what happens south of the Rio Grande. 

Mexico is the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world. It has 95 million residents, a high birth rate and desperate poverty. A disturbing portion of its national wealth flows into the pockets of Wall Street shareholders. So much has been siphoned off in recent years that the Mexican economy finds it increasingly difficult to feed and clothe its population. 

If these conditions don’t change, Mexico will remain an inexhaustible source of migrants to the United States, and the economic integration unleashed by NAFTA will only accelerate the process. Thus Mexico’s future is far more critical to that of the American people, and to American labor in particular, than is Israel’s or Palestine’s or Ireland’s. But you wouldn’t sense that by looking at regular news coverage of international affairs in either the corporate or alternative press. 

Or consider the growing right-wing assault on bilingual education in our public schools. It has been mounting for several years, despite the reality that our nation is becoming increasingly bilingual. Yet in virtually every state and city where the fight has erupted, Hispanic activists, educators and parents have found themselves almost alone in waging the fight, while radical and progressive whites and blacks have hardly paid attention. 

The benign neglect of the left toward this growing sector of our nation must be confronted. Only organized labor has made any real attempt to change institutional policies and methods in dealing with Hispanics. The trade union movement under John Sweeney was the first to recognize that it was likely to wither away unless it addressed the needs of low-skilled and unorganized Latino workers and welcomed them into its leadership ranks. But other progressive movements and institutions are still resisting substantive change. 

Hopefully, the new census figures will rouse the left from daydreaming about the past, because you can bet the right-wing is already digesting them – and will soon be shifting its rhetoric and strategies to find ways to stay in power in 21st-century America.

Juan Gonzalez is a columnist for New Yorks Daily News and In These Times. The winner of a 1998 George Polk journalism award, he is the author of Roll Down Your Window: Stories of a Forgotten America and Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America.
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