WASHINGTON (AP) – Hispanics have surged past blacks and now constitute the largest minority group in the United States, a status Latino leaders are sure to use to push for political and economic advances.

The Census Bureau released estimates yesterday showing the Hispanic population rose 4.7 percent between April 2000 and July 2001, from 35.3 million to 37 million. During the same period, the non-Hispanic black population rose about 2 percent, from 35.5 million to 36.1 million.

“This is the first time that Hispanic number surpassed the black number,” Census Bureau analyst Roberto Ramirez said yesterday.

The data are part of the bureau’s first statistics on race and ethnicity since results from the 2000 census were released nearly two years ago.

“This undoubtedly is a benchmark with powerful symbolic value,” said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a research group. “But it doesn’t automatically translate into any tangible benefits for Latinos.”

Due to high birth and immigration rates, the Hispanic population more than doubled during the 1990s, the 2000 census found. Many new arrivals were drawn by the booming U.S. economy and settled in areas in the South and Midwest that previously attracted few Latinos.

Democrats and Republicans, aware of the surge, have placed increased emphasis on attracting Hispanic voters.

Last year, the two top Democratic candidates for governor of Texas debated in Spanish. Also last year, the Republican National Committee began sending representatives to citizenship ceremonies to register Hispanic immigrants.

Cecilia Munoz, vice president at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, said politicians must do more than ask for support.

“The question is what they intend to do with that,” she said. “Are they just going to offer platitudes in Spanish, or offer real public policy suggestions?”

Whites remain the largest single population group, numbering 199.3 million in July 2001, or nearly 70 percent of all U.S. residents, according to the Census Bureau.

Hispanics comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population, which grew to 284.8 million in July 2001. That’s up from 35.3 million, or 12.5 percent of the country’s 281.4 million residents in April 2000.

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