It's fitting that the March release of preliminary data from the 2000 Census coincided with the third-season premiere of The Sopranos, HBO's popular and critically acclaimed series about suburban New Jersey mobsters. In their own ways, both the Census and The Sopranos foreground issues of ethnic identity. Both also reflect the breakdown of accepted notions of what those identities mean, and both raise questions about what might-- or should--come next. Even as that breakdown gives rise to all sorts of social tensions and anxieties (witness ongoing debates over affirmative action), it is a development that is to be cheered. It points to a time when the United States may finally move beyond its long, tortured fixation on race and--more important--its history of according privilege on the basis of racial and ethnic categories.
Most of the news coverage of the early Census data stressed the increase in the number of Hispanics over the past decade, especially in relation to blacks, the country's largest minority group. Demographers have long predicted that Hispanics, who made up only 3.9 percent of the total U.S. population in 1960, would become the single largest minority group in America sometime early in the 21st century. That moment is about to arrive: Government figures estimate that last April 1, there were some 35.3 million Hispanics, just shy of 35.4 million non-Hispanic blacks. (Hispanics can be any race; they are defined by the Census as an ethnic category describing people of "Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin.")
While the number of blacks increased by about 21 percent over the past decade, the number of Hispanics increased by 60 percent. Most of this is due to immigration, which also explains the large percentage increase in non-Hispanic Asians, who saw their number grow by 74 percent since the 1990 Census, to a total of about 11.5 million. Non-Hispanic whites increased by about 5 percent since the last count, to about 198.2 million.
But the most interesting trends revealed by the Census are those that suggest a blurring of traditional racial and ethnic identities. It's worth underscoring that such "traditional" categories are mostly of relatively recent invention. While the U.S. Census has always asked a race question, such categories have never been stable. As Melissa Nobles, author of Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics, has written, official racial...