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White majority fading in Calif.


LOS ANGELES - At some unknown moment between now and next July 1, if state demographers are right, California will become the first big state in the nation in which non-Hispanic whites are officially no longer a majority.

Or, to put it another way, California will become the largest proving ground for what it may eventually be like to live in a United States in which no one racial or ethnic group predominates.

Non-Hispanic whites account for about three-quarters of the deaths in the Golden State, and barely a third of the births. As recently as 1970, the state was 80 percent white.

Some experts argue that this transition, fueled by millions of new immigrants, mostly Latin American and Asian, and the higher birth rates of foreign-born residents, has already taken place and has yet to be reflected in official estimates by the state Finance Department only because of glitches in counting.

With the state's economy booming again, and the overall population expected to grow by something close to 18 million in the next 25 years, Californians are grappling anew with the meaning of this momentous shift, which the state Finance Department now projects will happen sometime in the next year, and many are finding reasons for optimism.

"Who knows when that line is crossed, but it surely will be," Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, said in a recent interview. "I believe leadership requires one to look on the bright side. There's no question that a more diverse population creates some potential discomforts and even potential conflicts, but it also brings great strengths."

The demographic shift has begun to change the state's politics as scores of new Hispanic voters have registered as Democrats in a backlash spurred by Republican-led campaigns against illegal immigration.

That is one of the factors complicating efforts by Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the likely Republican presidential nominee, to make inroads in a state where his aides believe his Southwestern brand of Republicanism should be appealing.

Though California is often celebrated as the crucible of trends, and other big states like Texas, Florida, New York and Illinois are on the road to becoming similarly diverse, demographers note that the nation will not catch up to California's diversity until midcentury, and even then small, interior states may remain disproportionately white.

"It's not the precursor for the rest of the country," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica.

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