This Day In History: January 22

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On January 22, 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau releases detailed statistics on race and ethnicity, the first time such numbers had been released since the 2000 census. The numbers showed that the Hispanic population of the United States had increased by 4.7 percent since the last count, officially making Hispanics the largest minority group in the country.

The trends of the last several decades had indicated that this milestone was approaching. The foreign-born population of the United States had been increasing exponentially, from just 9.6 million in 1970 to 31.1 million by 2000, and immigrants from Latin America accounted for a large percentage of those newcomers. The 2000 census showed that 29 percent of immigrants in the U.S. had come from Mexico alone, while immigrants from other Latin American nations made up another 22 percent. Birth rates in the Hispanic-American community were also among the highest in the nation.

The demographic shift was significant for several reasons. Robert Puro from the Pew Hispanic Center told the New York Times that it challenged the way Americans thought about race: "[M]uch of this nation's history is wrapped up in the interplay between black and white," he said. "This serves as an official announcement that we as Americans cannot think of race in that way anymore.'' The announcement marked one of the inciting moments for an undercurrent of racism that has brewed in America ever since, as some whites have become increasingly concerned with birth rates and the notion that America will someday no longer be majority-white. But Sonia Perez, from the National Council of La Raza, framed the landmark as a moment for unity. "Rather than comparing groups," she said, "we should be looking at the status of communities."

The Hispanic-Americans represented by the census data have had a profound effect on American society. In many parts of the nation, Spanish is now on at least equal footing with English, and American music and culture would be unrecognizable without the contributions of its largest minority group.