Each decade, the release of new census figures provides a brief moment of reflection on the nation as a society. Then the meditation turns into one about what groups are jockeying for political representation.
After all, that's how the founding fathers wanted it. They wrote a requirement in the Constitution for a decennial census, which determines how many congressional representatives each state gets and the number of electoral votes the states have in presidential elections. It's been that way since 1790.
The release on March 24 of the 2010 census figures shows that Hispanics drove more than half of the nation's population growth and Latinos now exceed 50.5 million U.S. residents. The uptick, in part, reflects both natural growth and also success in curbing some of the vicious undercounts of the past. It has taken extra efforts since 1970 to get a more accurate enumeration like this.
We now know that the 34 percent Hispanic growth in the six Southwestern states basically pulls the political center of gravity more toward the mountain and Pacific states and away from the East. The population count justifies about 10 new congressional districts with a Hispanic majority.
Actually, how the world looks today following the March 23 announcement is not different from how it was the day before. But the census is the basis -- trigger, if you will -- for realigning representation to the changing demographics. But how else the census is important to Latinos is often overlooked.
U.S. Latinos have had a long struggle to get recognized as a group the way they are now, one that persisted from the 1890s to the 1950s. In those times, Hispanics were mostly thought of as a regional, mostly inconsequential population group. Candidates with presidential aspirations hardly ever noticed and the nation remained in deep denial that Latinos existed.
As various regional Latino groups found a common voice in the 1960s, their theme centered on going beyond invisibility to full participation and representation in local and federal politics. There was push-back to be sure, not only by incumbent majorities but also from other competing groups, as in the case of African-American groups, who were asserting their own power in pursuit of representation. Yet, often the media of those times egged on popular culture -- whether white or black -- with notions that could be easily misinterpreted.
Competition for recognition and representation was often mischaracterized as strife.
The flaw came from a fissure in how non-Hispanics whites think, a worldview, as their anthropologists like calling it. It was memorialized in how the Constitution created a political fiction, the original three-fifths as a way for the census to enumerate slaves and apportion representation.
That was the origin of a mentality that persisted and formed a ridiculous way of thinking that the world is black and white. This nation's leaders and its media have had trouble with some social categories ever since. Sometimes nationality, ethnicity, identity and culture are confused with the notion of race and pigmentation. But the idea of "race" has pretty much outlived any meaningful purpose. "Group origin" or "identity" in these times might fit better.
The 2010 census comes like mental floss for one other misconception. Many in the media have used the cliche "majority-minority." It's an oxymoron if ever there was one. It seems to refer to former "minority" (i.e. non-white) populations that have become, if you can count, majorities in communities throughout the country. or that several former "minorities" form a "majority." It also suggests that there's a lingering diminished value in the new situation.
In reality, when no one population category forms a majority, the largest group is the plurality.
The founding fathers understood. This is why they put E pluribus unum, "Out of many, one," on the Seal of the United States.
Let's just hope the "majority-minority" notion now goes away for keeps. It fills no useful purpose. Let it drown from the vapors of its own miasma.
The notion of a more plural society, validated by census numbers, is a much more liberating mindset.
Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.