W A S H I N G T O N, March 12, 2001 -- The number of Hispanics skyrocketed by roughly 58 percent over the last decade, drawing virtually even with non-Hispanic blacks as the nation's largest minority group, newly released government figures showed today.

The figures from the national headcount showed there were 35,305,818 Hispanics in 2000, slightly fewer than the 35,383,751 non-Hispanic blacks.

It further documented the changing complexion of America reflected in data released last week to several states.

And the American population grew even more complex. The new data showed that 2.4 percent, or 6,826,228, of Americans identified themselves as members of more than one race. The rapid change in diversity is "our big story," said John Long of the Census Bureau's Population Division.

Hispanic Considered Ethnicity

The Hispanic population surged 57.9 percent since 1990, from 22.3 million in 1990 to 35.3 million in 2000. America's non-Hispanic black population increased by 21.1 percent, to 35.4 million, while the non-Hispanic Asian population grew by as much as 74.3 percent to 11.5 million.

In the 2000 headcount, people could identify themselves as members of any of 63 racial categories, up from only five categories in the previous census. Thus, direct comparisons between the two censuses are impossible. Also, "Hispanic" is considered an ethnicity, not a race; people of Hispanic ethnicity can be of any race. The growth rate for America's white population, in contrast to that of minority groups, was much slower. The number of non-Hispanic whites increased by 5.3 percent, to 198.2 million, the figures showed. Despite all the choices available to census respondents, "The overwhelming majority of the U.S. population — roughly 98 percent — reported only one race," said the Census Bureau's Claudette Bennett.

The national-level figures come at the start of a hectic period in which the Census Bureau must transmit by April 1 detailed population data to all 50 states. Governors and state legislative leaders will use the data to remap congressional, state and local legislative districts. The numbers are also used to distribute over $185 billion per year in federal money among the states. However, the data officials will receive will present a more elaborate picture of America, because people responding to the 2000 census had far more options on how they could identify themselves racially.

The 2.4 percent of all Americans in this census who said they were of more than race was on target with previous government estimates of how many people would take advantage of this first-time opportunity.

Respondents in 1990 could only select from one of five categories: "white," "black," "American Indian, Eskimo or Aleutian," "Asian or Pacific Islander" and "some other race."

The 2000 census gave people the option of choosing from one of 63 race options, including "white," "black or African American," "American Indian and Alaska Native," "Asian," "Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander" and "some other race."

The figures released today confirmed long-held forecasts of a growth in the Hispanic and Asian populations, which demographers said was spurred mainly by immigration.

For instance, the Census Bureau had estimated on Nov. 1 that there were roughly 32.8 million Hispanics. That's 2.5 million fewer than reflected in the actual Census 2000 headcount.

The official numbers reflect how many people lived in America on April 1, 2000.

Democrats contend the Census 2000 data could have accounted for even more people had the actual headcount been statistically adjusted to protect against traditional undercounts of minorities, the poor and children. The Census Bureau said there was a net national undercount of about 1.2 percent of the population, or 3.3 million people, down from 1.6 percent or 4 million people in 1990. Most of those involved in an undercount were minorities, officials have estimated. Republicans who oppose adjusting the raw figures have called the 2000 headcount the "most accurate in history" and have said that such an adjustment would inject even more errors into the count. The Constitution allows only for an actual enumeration, they have argued.