The Surprises of a Changing Nation

As the nation’s demographics continue to shift, Americans living in homogenous regions may be shocked as the racial and ethnic makeups of their communities change.

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Eduardo Simenta of Mexico, raises his hand as he recites the Oath of Allegiance at a Naturalization Ceremony in Oklahoma City. (AP/Sue Ogrocki)
Eduardo Simenta of Mexico, raises his hand as he recites the Oath of Allegiance at a Naturalization Ceremony in Oklahoma City. (AP/Sue Ogrocki)

I have been challenged lately to think in surprising ways about the nature of our country’s shifting diversity. Despite spending nearly all my working hours buried in studies and analyses of the racial and ethnic demographic trends sweeping the nation, I’m not a know-it-all on the subject. Still, it takes quite a jolt for a list of facts or figures to stun me.

But that’s what happened when I stumbled across a recent Washington Post article, “Diversity in America’s counties, in 5 maps.” It’s a set of charts that reveal—county by county—where people live in the United States, grouped in racial and ethnic concentrations. The flashing animation stopped me in my tracks, and I was compelled to spend most of the afternoon thinking about its implications.

A few of its key findings floored me, mostly because I had never before thought of the facts in this way:

  • More than half of the United States’ 3,143 counties are more than 90 percent white, when including Hispanics as white.
  • Each of the 96 U.S. counties with a majority black population is located in the South. These counties are home to nearly 6.75 million people.
  • No county in the nation is majority Asian, although 41 counties have Asian populations of more than 10 percent. Two counties—Honolulu, Hawaii, and Aleutians East Borough, Alaska—are slightly above 40 percent. Two California counties—San Francisco and Santa Clara—have a population that is just a little more than one-third Asian.
  • Only two counties in the nation are more than 90 percent American Indian—Shannon County, South Dakota and Wade Hampton Census Area, Alaska. The population of the 27 majority American Indian counties is very small, with only about 333,000 people calling them home.

Niraj Chokshi, a blogger who covers state and local politics for The Washington Post’s GovBeat, created the interactive. He didn’t attempt to analyze the data, instead allowing the numbers to speak for themselves. Chokshi followed up the diversity map with another series of maps, which revealed that “a fourth of all Americans live in what the Census Bureau calls ‘poverty areas,’ neighborhoods where at least 1 in 5 have incomes below the poverty level.”

Taken together, the two sets of interactive maps create a mosaic of the nation that belies much of what many Americans wish to believe about the United States and its residents. For all our highly vaunted talk of the nation being a “melting pot” or “salad bowl,” we continue to live in communities that are highly segregated by race, ethnicity, and wealth. This is a real problem. The reality of how and where people in this country live affects how—and if—citizens of different races and ethnicities interact with each other. Undoubtedly, it also affects how public policies—such as affirmative action and immigration reform—are shaped and interpreted.

In last week’s column, I explored the ways in which where Americans live affect how they think about government and politics, basing my findings on a recently released study from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. In an earlier column, I noted that where people live might also be used as a basis for rethinking who should benefit from affirmative action in the college admissions process. As these two examples show, location is a factor we cannot afford to ignore.

Through my work with the Center for American Progress’s Progress 2050 project, I have learned that the nation’s population is rapidly becoming what some demographers call a majority-minority. This could occur as early as 2043, assuming the Census Bureau’s most recent projections are accurate. Two factors account for the changes: First, the nation’s white, non-Hispanic population will decrease by 19 million people over the next five decades. Second, the Hispanic population will grow by 75 million people.

Economic, racial, and ethnic diversity may be a hazy concept for those Americans surrounded by people who look just like them. But that’s only an illusion, not a reflection of the nation’s actual makeup. It’s just a matter of time until people living in homogeneous neighborhoods start to realize that their communities are changing—that an increasing number of residents may have darker or lighter skin, or perhaps speak an unfamiliar language.

They may experience a shock similar to my own when I saw those maps of the changing nation.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

Applications are now open for the next class of the CAP Leadership Institute. For more information about the program or to apply, please follow this link. The deadline for applying is July 18, 2014.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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