(February 2003) In January, many newspapers carried headlines indicating that Hispanics had passed African Americans in population during 2001. For most of us, that would seem to be a fairly straightforward observation, but the situation is actually far murkier because of the complex way race and ethnicity are measured in the decennial census. And the 2000 Census made matters even more complicated. The 2001 estimates of the country’s racial and ethnic population are, of course, based on the 2000 Census population.

First, and most importantly, the census question on “race” (where people identify themselves as white, black, or of other races and ethnicities) and the Hispanic question are separate. This means that one can be both black and Hispanic.

The second level of complexity is because, for the first time, census respondents could check more than one race in 2000, an attempt by the Census Bureau to identify multiracial people.

The net result is that blacks and Hispanics are not two distinct groups. In 2000, about 1.7 million blacks were also estimated to be Hispanic. And therein lies the difficulty. How does one determine which group is larger? Should blacks be deducted from the Hispanic population or the other way around? Does one grouping take precedence over the other?

The table below presents black and Hispanic populations in as many ways as possible. Overall, 37.7 million U.S. residents were black, either alone or in combination with another race, such as white or Asian; 36.2 million were black alone. If we deduct the number of blacks who also were identified as Hispanic from the black population, there were 36.1 million who were black alone or in combination with some other race. Finally, if we use non-Hispanic blacks who identified solely as black, not combined with another race, the black population drops further, to 34.8 million.

U.S. Black and Hispanic Populations, 2001

Black (including multiracial) 37.7 million
Black (one race reported) 36.2 million
Non-Hispanic blacks (including multiracial) 36.1 million
Non-Hispanic blacks (one race) 34.8 million
All Hispanics (all races) 37.0 million
Hispanic less blacks (including multiracial blacks) 35.5 million
Hispanic less blacks (one race reported) 35.3 million

Source: U.S. Census Bureau.

The same subtraction can also be applied to Hispanics. When 1.7 million Hispanics who also reported themselves as black alone or in combination with some other race are deducted from the Hispanic total, the number of Hispanics falls to 35.3 million, 35.5 million if just blacks of only one race are removed.

So, did Hispanics pass blacks in 2001? For that to have happened, as shown in the table, it would be necessary to remove black Hispanics from the black categories. This diminishment might even make some sense if we believe that a black immigrant from a Spanish-speaking country does not readily assimilate with the resident black population. But removing Hispanic blacks from the black population can be quite arbitrary.

Fortunately, the issue will solve itself quite soon. The Hispanic population generally is growing far faster than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States, through immigration and a higher birth rate. A Hispanic woman averages just under three children in her life, compared with about 2.2 children for a black woman. The Hispanic population is growing at about 1.3 million per year, while the black population is growing at about 500,000 per year.

Carl Haub holds the Conrad Taeuber Chair of Population Information at PRB.