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WASHINGTON - Hispanics have officially become the largest minority group in the United States, according to new figures the Census Bureau released on Tuesday.
The Hispanic population in the United States is now roughly 37 million, while blacks, formerly the leading minority, number about 36.2 million.
The figures are the first detailed findings on race and ethnicity since the 2000 Census was released two years ago. They are based on new population estimates from July 1, 2001, that were compared with the census figures from April 1, 2000.
The figures showed that the Latino population grew by 4.7 percent, while the black population grew by just 1.5 percent. The white, non-Hispanic population, estimated at roughly 196 million, grew by 0.3 percent during the same period.
"It is a turning point in the nation's history, a symbolic benchmark of some significance," Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, told The New York Times. "If you consider how much of this nation's history is wrapped up in the interplay between black and white, this serves as an official announcement that we as Americans cannot think of race in that way any more."
The growth in the Hispanic population is a result of higher birth rates paired with the huge wave of immigration that has taken place in the last decade. The Census Bureau counts all people residing in the United States, whether they are legal immigrants or not.
The figures are also an indication of the growing multiculturalism in American society and the change in the way the Census Bureau allows people to classify themselves. The 2000 census, for the first time, allowed respondents to choose more than one race in identifying themselves. In addition, Hispanics, a cultural and ethnic classification, can be of any race.
Roughly one quarter of Latinos living in the United States are non-citizens, according to the New York Times. More than 50 percent of the Latino population remains concentrated in Texas, California and New York. There also has been a significant migration of Hispanics to cities in the South, Midwest, and central plains,
Researchers expect the spurt to level off in a generation or so, as economic stability leads to lower fertility rates and Hispanics intermarry with other groups with some choosing to identify as black, some as white, and some as a combination of one or more ethnic groups or races.