Census Confirms Remarkable Shifts In Ethnic Makeup

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The ethnic makeup of the United States underwent a remarkable transformation over the past decade, as the number of Asian-Americans more than doubled and the Hispanic population grew by more than 50 percent, according to the first nationwide racial and ethnic breakdown of data from the 1990 census.

The figures, released last week, reflect a nation that is increasingly culturally diverse, thanks largely to high levels of immigration from Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, China, and India.

As a result, the data show that whites continue to decline as a proportion of the population, that the Hispanic population is growing faster than expected, and that Hispanics and Asians have begun to fan out from their original points of immigration to virtually every region of the country.

Specifically, although whites are still by far the largest racial group, they now make up only 80.3 percent of the population, down from 83.1 percent in 1980. Blacks, meanwhile, constitute 12.1 percent, up from 11.7 percent in 1980.

The next largest group is Hispanics, who now make up 9 percent of the population, compared with only 6.4 percent in 1980. Hispanics can be of any race.

They are followed by Asians and Pacific Islanders at 2.9 percent (up from 1.5 percent), and Native Americans, Eskimos, and Aleuts at 0.8 percent (up from 0.6 percent).

Another 3.9 percent of Americans labeled themselves as "other."

Some observers last week commented that the shift in favor of minorities over whites of European origin has already been reflected in the makeup of public-school classrooms nationwide.

"Certainly, schools in urban centers have been noticing these changes over the last 10 years," said Denise Alston, senior education associate for the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund. Now, other parts of the nation are seeing such developments as well, she added.

"Actually, we weren't surprised at all," said John B. Kellogg, a staff member of the Boston-based National Coalition of Advocates for Students. The demographic indicators of the 1980's, he said, "all predicted a growing minority population in the United States over the next several decades."

The 1990 figures put the nation's population at 248.7 million, up by nearly 10 percent from 1980.

That total includes:

199.7 million whites, an increase of 6 percent.

Nearly 30 million blacks, an increase of 13.2 percent.

Nearly 2 million Native American and Eskimo- and Aleut-Americans, an increase of 37.9 percent.

7.3 million Asian- and Pacific Islander-Americans, an increase of 107.8 percent.

22.4 million Hispanics, an increase of 53 percent.

The data indicate that training in languages and multicultural sensitivity will be key for both students and teachers in this decade, Ms. Alston and Mr. Kellogg said.

"There will be more young children in U.S. public schools for whom English is not their primary language," Mr. Kellogg said.

Many of these youngsters will speak such Asian languages as Hmong, Vietnamese, or Khmer, he said. "You've got some very fundamental challenges in terms of languages," he said.

Cultural norms also require attention, Mr. Kellogg said. For example, when speaking to a teacher, Asian children may keep their eyes downcast as a sign of respect, but an adult from a Western culture might think that the child is not paying attention, he said. "Possibilities for misunderstanding are literally endless, and they're subtle," he added.

To help smooth the way to an education for minority children, he recommended that schools invite adults from the minority group who can "communicate across cultures" to serve as teachers' aides or in other capacities.

"You need individuals who have a foot in both cultures," he said, adding that recruiting them need not be difficult. "You could go out to a community today and find people ready to go," Mr. Kellogg said.

Enlisting more members of minority groups and ethnic communities as teachers and other educators also is crucial, he said. However, this does not mean that every instructor a minority child encounters need be of his or her race, Mr. Kellogg added. Rather, he said, it means children "need to look up every now and then and see a teacher who is like them."

The changing demographics of the student and teacher populations "need to be brought into sync," he said. "And it has to be done pretty quickly."

Ms. Alston noted that the Education Department recently released a report indicating that the three most commonly used bilingual-education methods all are effective in teaching Hispanic children. (See Education Week, Feb. 20, 1991.)

Given the diversity of American children, "school systems are probably going to need to use all three, if not develop some more," she said.

Nonetheless, she and other observers described the nation's evolving racial composition as a fine springboard for teaching children, and their elders, about other cultures.

"I see it as a tremendous opportunity for this country to learn about the rest of the world," Ms. Alston said. Knowledge only of the history of the white, European nations will not suffice if Americans are to function effectively in a multicultural, global society, she added.

"We view this changing demography as a real opportunity," Mr. Kellogg agreed. "The richness that immigrants and children of diverse backgrounds bring is really the key to our future. It's not going to be a Western, white world in the 21st century."

"I don't think Western values are going down the tubes," for they ''will have an important place in world society," he added. "What I'm saying is that the world is diverse. There are competing values."

One state that already promotes study of other cultures is Minnesota, where whites make up 94 percent of the population, 2 percent less than in 1980.

The number of blacks in the state has increased 78 percent and that of Native Americans and related groups 43 percent since 1980. The biggest change by far, however, is among Asians and Pacific Islanders, who now number nearly 78,000, an increase of 194 percent.

Linda Garrett, an inclusive-education specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education and a former teacher and administrator, said the Minnesota census data "certainly is not news to us."

She noted that much of the Asian population growth in her state is among families who initially lived elsewhere after immigrating, so that "everyone is not a newcomer to the country."

In 1988, Minnesota required districts to devise ways to include in the curriculum material on the contributions of racial groups, women, and the disabled, Ms. Garrett said.

"One of the things we can be glad of is that over the years we've been doing things in this area, so we don't see the census figures and panic," she added.

Vol. 10, Issue 26, Page 1, 16

Published in Print: March 20, 1991, as Census Confirms Remarkable Shifts In Ethnic Makeup
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