The confused reaction to the U.S. Census Bureau's new report that "Hispanics and Latinos" now outnumber "blacks" suggests that it's time we abandon the phrase "minority groups" to describe nonwhites in the growing complexity of our nation's population.
Not only is it misleading to speak of such huge numbers as "minorities," there is the larger question of whether these are really "groups." And while we're at it, we'd be better off dropping the concept of "race" as well.
The bureau reported that there are now, in bureau terminology, more "Hispanics or Latinos" (37 million) than "blacks or African Americans" (36.2 million) in the land.
Commentators saw this as foreshadowing a struggle over which "minority group" will have more clout, as though these were two opposing teams.
In fact, both of these population categories are statistical abstractions bearing little relation to how people see themselves or where they place their loyalties.
Furthermore, the two categories are constructed on different principles, so they are not even comparable; we can't really say which is larger, or what the size might mean politically, socially or economically.
Unlike any other census ethnic category, the "Hispanic or Latino" count is made up of people who listed themselves as something else: "Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or some other Latino origin," as the census form puts it.
All those who checked off one or another of those options then got reclassified by the bureau into the bigger category of "Hispanic or Latino," regardless of whether that was how they saw themselves or if they felt any affinity to the others in the group.
So does the growth of this census category portend a powerful new Latino voting bloc? Not likely. For one thing, a big part of the growth is from new immigrants, who couldn't vote even if they wanted to. Among those who are citizens, there are deep divisions stemming from their differing histories.
Puerto Ricans, U.S. citizens since 1917, are hard to mobilize around immigration issues, which are of deep concern to many Mexicans, Central Americans and others. In most big cities, getting these groups to cooperate has been the major challenge to politicians seeking the "Latino" vote.
In the Southwestern states, self-styled "Hispano" descendants of old-time settlers are reluctant to vote for "Chicanos."
The most glaring political division among Latinos is the overwhelming tendency of Cuban Americans, especially those in Florida, to vote Republican, whereas most other Latino groups, when they vote, vote Democratic.
The other, supposedly rival, minority group -- "black or African American" -- is an abstraction based on what people check off as their "race." And "Hispanics," as the Census Bureau continually reminds us, "can be of any race."
But what is race? According to the census form, you can be "white," "black or African American," "American Indian and Alaska Native," "Asian," "Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander" or "other."
What are we talking about here? DNA? Soul music versus salsa versus polka preference? Preferred body image? It was up to each respondent to decide.
Many Latinos found the question so incomprehensible they checked "other."
In all, about 4.1 million people -- Latinos and others -- rejected all the single race categories. Of these, 1.5 million listed themselves as black "in combination with one or more other races."
What the census figures suggest, but can't possibly contain, are highly mobile emerging identities. Sometimes, on particular issues, there undoubtedly will be competition between people calling themselves "black" and others who call themselves "Latino," just as there is competition among groups within each of those larger categories.
The larger significance of the census findings is not that there will be two rival groups, but that there are growing numbers of "people of color" who are going to insist on defining themselves and their own agenda in their own ways.
The only reliable things the new census figures tell us are these: First, there is a very large and growing pool of people who might, if they choose, think of themselves as "Hispanic" or "Latino" -- and thus might be mobilized as an electorate or market. Second, fewer and fewer Americans are willing to let themselves be defined by any single "race."
Some part of that "Latino" pool will, undoubtedly, act as a more powerful nationwide ethnic lobby, but not necessarily in competition with "blacks."
On some issues -- immigration and language rights especially -- many of them are likely to vote as "Latinos." On others, such as demands for equal treatment before the law, many will think of themselves first as "people of color" or even "blacks."