The New Census Data: Welcome To The Club

By Hugh B. Price


National Urban League


New figures from the U.S. Census show that what has long been expected has come to pass sooner than expected: America's black population.

Although federal officials said a much more specific plumbing of the data has yet to be done, it does show that the number of people in America who have Spanish-speaking ancestry has exploded to 35.3 million, from the 22.4 million counted in 1990. The number of blacks showed a much more modest rise, to 34.7 million, from 30 million counted a decade ago.

It's been evident for years that America's Hispanic population, fueled by a steady stream of immigration, would pull even with and then surpass in numbers America's black population. It's happened about five years sooner than expected.

One thing this shows is the continuing pull of the material and the ideal: the pull of the American economy and the nation's sometimes over-the-top display of its vast material affluence; and the pull of the ideal of America—its promise of freedom and a society ruled by democratic processes of government.

Another is that the mutli-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural character of the American nation is going to become more and more and more evident. This, too, has come sooner than was predicted even a decade ago.

Still a third is that African Americans are no longer the nation's second largest ethnic group, and we can expect that Hispanic-Americans growing numbers will soon bring them the increased clout in the political mainstream those numbers deserve.

Some have said this demographic shift will automatically mean a diminishing of black Americans' political clout and influence.

On that score, I do detect in some of these comments ostensibly celebrating the rise to numerical and cultural significance of one American ethnic group a deeper undertone of glee that the influence of another—black Americans—will be lessened.

That's an old tradition in American society, of course—trying to pit one ethnic group against another.

But it's no less dirty now than when it was used in the early twentieth century to stoke antagonism between the various white-ethnic immigrants from Europe, and African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans.

Furthermore, it needn't prove to be true. Indeed, the improvement of one ethnic group's status should not mean the decline of another's, not in America. That's not the

way it worked for white ethnic groups in the twentieth century. That's not the way it should work in this circumstance, either.

One reason is that, with the civil rights movement of the 1950s-1960s as our great civic lesson, hopefully the majority of Americans of all ethnic backgrounds and American society as a whole learned something significant in the latter third of the old century about what it means to be an American.

In addition, although some predict increased tension between our two groups, African Americans and Latinos have engaged in collaborative efforts for years. As a raft of statistics show, many of our concerns are the same: inferior schools, a lack of affordable housing, low-paying jobs, little attention from the two major political parties and a biased criminal justice system.

The changing demographics offer opportunities, not only for more inter-group tension, but also for more inter-group cooperation—for us to form partnerships and to get better at working together toward common goals.

For African Americans to hold up their end of the relationship that can come into being, they must continue to prepare themselves to compete for the future—to gain the educational and the technological skills that are essential to becoming and remaining competitive in an increasingly global and technological society.

As the Urban League has been saying throughout the 1990s, this drive toward economic self-sufficiency is of primary importance regardless of where black Americans stand in the numerical pecking order.

That means that African Americans have got to educate our children so they're prepared to compete with the brightest minds in the world. That we've also got to focus on starting businesses, building wealth, increasing home ownership, and increasing our electoral participation. That we've got to become more technologically astute, so that using hardwired and wireless technologies becomes a second nature to our children and us.

Considered in those terms, the rise of Hispanic Americans is a reminder to African Americans that they've only just begun the work to get ready for the 21st Century.

But the evolving demographics of American society are also a reminder to all Americans that as the American people become more and more diverse, the American opportunity structure must become more and more inclusive. Americans of all races and ethnic groups must work together to create a better future for all our nation's children.

Which means that it's a good time for us to reiterate to our Hispanic brothers and sisters: Welcome to the club.

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