When BBQ Meets Diversity

How the simple act of sitting down to a traditional North Carolina meal highlighted the demographic shift that is changing the face and tastes of America.

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Spectators watch a musical performance at the Fiesta del Pueblo festival in Raleigh, North Carolina. (AP/Jim R. Bounds)
Spectators watch a musical performance at the Fiesta del Pueblo festival in Raleigh, North Carolina. (AP/Jim R. Bounds)

Returning to my native North Carolina is always a welcome trip. While my brief visit last week was all business, I found a free moment to see a few old friends and chow down on Carolina-style BBQ.

I’ll get back to the food in a bit, but first let me tell you that I was in the state capital of Raleigh to attend a panel discussion on the impact of diversity on that city and region. The robust discussion attracted some 80 folks who turned out on a Tuesday night to engage with their fellow citizens and a panel of social activists and demographers. PolicyLink, a national research and action institute, and my colleagues at Progress 2050 sponsored the gathering. Our host was Mitchell J. Silver, the chief planning and development officer and director of Raleigh’s Department of City Planning.

Back in the closing days of the previous century, as I grew up a few hours south of Raleigh and later attended college just a few miles away in Chapel Hill, hardly anyone ever talked about how diversity might affect my home state. I never noticed the demographic changes that were beginning. In fact, if the subject of racial change ever surfaced, it would have been strictly a simple black-and-white conversation.

But no longer. Raleigh’s population and city size has grown exponentially, thanks largely to the rapid growth of Latino residents, said Angeline Echeverría, executive director of El Pueblo, Inc., a Latino-rights organization in Raleigh and a fellow panelist. “All across North Carolina, Latino [population] growth since the 1990 Census has been fueled not only by immigration into the state but by new natural births,” she told the audience. “The greatest numbers are in urban areas like Raleigh, but there’s been considerable increases in rural counties, which have experienced the largest percentage [of] growth.”

More specifically, in Raleigh, the Hispanic community has grown from 0.8 percent in 1980 to 1.3 percent in 1990 and 6.1 percent in 2000, according to figures reported by, a diversity-tracking project administered by the Harvard School of Public Health.

According to figures provided by the City of Raleigh Department of City Planning and the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 144,766 people living in Raleigh across about 55 square miles in 1978—back when I used to drive over to visit my college buddies and eat BBQ at roadside stands. In 2012, the most recent period for which data are available, there were 423,179 people living over 211 square miles in Raleigh.

Last year, my colleagues at Progress 2050 joined forces with PolicyLink to produce All-In Nation: An America that Works for All, a book that outlines the challenges and opportunities that abound across the land as the nation rapidly becomes a place with no ethnic or racial majority. Part of the research for that book took them to Raleigh to hear residents talk about how the state has changed. They made this return trip to share some of the findings from the book and to get an update since Progress 2050 and PolicyLink were last there.

During the discussion, James H. Johnson Jr., director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, noted the pressure on residents and officials to embrace the increasing racial diversity in the state. “This is a competitiveness issue,” he said. “The state can’t advance if we don’t create good jobs for all its residents. Inequality is bad for business in the state.”

John Halpin, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, said that his polling and survey data suggest that the American public is more open to diversity than is generally assumed. In fact, he said, there is a widespread assumption that the nation has already become more diverse than it actually has. “The public overestimated the number of Latinos and other people of color in their communities than actually exists,” he said, noting that most feel it is a positive development. “But the leaders are not where the people are on this. That’s why we have such gridlock in places like state capitals and in Washington.”

Another panelist, Angela Glover Blackwell, founder and CEO of PolicyLink, picked up on this idea, noting that, “Equity has become an economic imperative.” She said there were places across the nation, such as Raleigh, where people understand this and are getting it right.

Which brings me back around to food—North Carolina BBQ, to be specific. Newcomers to the state learn very quickly that BBQ, like college basketball, takes on almost religious overtones for North Carolinians. You pick a style of BBQ: In the eastern part of the state, it is a vinegar-based sauce, and in the western part of the state, it is a red tomato-and-molasses-based sauce.

The sauce is the key, and it is slathered exclusively over grilled chicken or pork; to serve it over any other type of meat is blasphemy. But at a group dinner after the panel discussion, Mitch Silver insisted on escorting the group to The Pit, his favorite BBQ joint. One of the specialties of the place was something I’d never thought I would see in North Carolina—BBQ tofu.

I didn’t try it, but I was reliably told it was delicious and tasted “just like chicken.” My, that only proves just how much diversity in the most basic of ways has changed my old North State home.

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.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)