New Census Data Expected to Reveal a More Diverse America

The estimates suggest that about 113 million people — a third of all Americans — now live in a plurality county

A mural on a fence is displayed at United Fort Worth
AP Photo/LM Otero

Almost 120 years ago, African American domestic workers settled in the Como neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas, where they held Fourth of July parades, patronized shops on Horne Street and lived for several generations in what seemed like a small town within the big city.

But many young families started moving away at the end of the last century, leaving behind small frame houses ready for renovation. An economic boom in Fort Worth helped make that possible. Hispanics who came from Mexico and Central America to work in construction, manufacturing and service jobs moved in, refurbished the homes and helped revitalize the area.

The new arrivals have changed not only the Como neighborhood but surrounding Tarrant County, one of a growing number of places in the U.S. where white residents no longer make up the majority. No racial or ethnic group does.

New data from the Census Bureau due to be released Thursday will map the scope of that demographic transformation over the last decade. The numbers are expected to show dozens of counties across 18 states, largely in the South and Southwest, that no longer have a majority racial or ethnic group. The non-Hispanic white population is expected to shrink for the first census on record.

The estimates suggest that about 113 million people — a third of all Americans — now live in a plurality county.

The census figures will make plain the impact of expanding diversity: Virtually all population growth in the U.S. is among people of color, groups long viewed as racial or ethnic minorities. But when there is no majority, that label is increasing out of date.

How the U.S. handles its increasing diversity, whether new barriers are created or old ones knocked down, “is a hot topic, and it’s going to be a hot topic for some time since it’s how we define equality in America,” said Estrus Tucker, a diversity consultant who is Black and a lifelong Fort Worth resident.

A first batch of census figures released in April showed that U.S. population growth had slowed to a rate not seen since the Great Depression. The numbers released Thursday will offer details on precisely where white, Asian, Black and Hispanic communities grew.

The data being released this week comes more than four months late due to delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Census Bureau on Monday released state population totals that determine the number of House seats each state gets out of 435. According to the data, southern states grew the fastest, with a 10.2% overall increase in population.

Past census data has shown growth in the U.S. driven by immigration, but that's only one of the factors now. Over the past decade, new arrivals from overseas slowed and then virtually disappeared during the pandemic. Instead, birth rates are driving the change: Hispanic and Asian women's share of births has grown this century while it has declined for white women.

Estimates suggest the new numbers may show fewer than half of U.S. residents under 18 are white, while more than three-quarters of those over 65 are white.

The ripple effects from these changes can be complex, said Manuel Pastor, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California. Pastor says he believes an aging white population's anxiety about racial and ethnic changes helped lead to the rise of former President Donald Trump.

“You've got an aging white electorate that does not seem to be willing to make the investments in a young population that propels people to success — schools, infrastructure," Pastor said. “There's a portion of the population — myself included — who's delighted by Korean taco trucks popping up ... But, on the other hand, there are people who feel a great dislocation and loss of personal identity.”

For some, the rising population of people of color means new political empowerment. Tarrant County used to be among the nation’s most Republican-leaning, big-city counties, but recent elections show how the changing demographics are shifting it toward Democrats. Last year, President Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the county in almost a half-century. While a Republican mayor was elected earlier this year, a group of young, diverse Democrats swept into the Forth Worth City Council.

“We are finally getting to a point where we have people representing us — who are us,” said Pamela Young, who is Black and is the lead criminal justice organizer for United Fort Worth, a grassroots community organization. “It gives me so much hope and joy."

The data released this week will be used to redraw congressional and legislative districts, setting off a round of partisan fighting over representation in an increasingly diverse nation. The stakes are particularly high in Texas and Florida, two Republican-led states getting new congressional seats, where growth is being driven in Democratic-leaning urban areas.

Some researchers are not convinced that the decline in white population as defined by the census form is meaningful. Large numbers of Hispanics identify as white, and a growing share of the population has a mixed race and ethnic background. That's an indication that “the socially constructed boundaries are being blurred,” said Princeton sociologist Marta Tienda.

“This is a positive development so the narrative about declining white population is statistical nonsense,” Tienda said.

To that end, the Census Bureau this year decided to forgo using the terms “majority" and “minority" when measuring diversity, saying those words limit its ability “to illustrate the complex racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. population." Instead, the agency is using several new measures that show how diverse communities are through an index, a map and a score.

The rise in counties with no majority racial or ethnic group over the past decade took place primarily in counties that are home to some of fastest-growing cities in the nation — Austin, Charlotte, Fort Worth and Tampa. Yet it also was evident in more rural counties that lost population, places like Texas County, Oklahoma.

The remote county in the state's panhandle used to have a beef-packing plant that kept an overwhelmingly white workforce employed. But that plant closed, and employment shifted to a pork-processing facility that brought in workers from Latin America and, increasingly, Africa and other parts of the globe.

While the white population dwindled and shops on the main street of its largest town, Guymon, shuttered, areas with Latino majorities boomed. Now the county is 47% Latino, 5% Black and 43% white. Several dozen languages are spoken in its schools, which are bursting at the seams. A third of its 20,000 residents are under 18.

NBCLX Storyteller Chase Cain goes deeper into the history of the U.S. Census and what it means for the populations that get overlooked during the nationwide count every 10 years.

The school district is seeking approval of a $70 million bond measure to finance new buildings, and supporters know they have an uphill battle in the conservative county, where older white residents still dominate an electorate that has rejected several previous bond measures.

“I've literally had people say ‘I won’t pass that bond because those people don't deserve my tax money,'” said Julie Edenborough, director of federal programs for the Guymon school district.

But, in a possible sign of changing attitudes, a $20 million bond measure passed narrowly in 2016. Several longtime residents appreciated the newer arrivals. “We'd fall apart without them,” said Melyn Johnson, director of Main Street Guymon, a business group. “To keep it all going, we have to have people.”

In Fort Worth, there's a newfound energy and optimism about the tight-knit Como neighborhood, not only from the influx of new Hispanic residents but also because of a recent commitment from the city to spend $3.2 million on street improvements, sidewalks and streetlights.

“You see the diversity in so many areas of the county,” Tucker said. “You see glimpses of that diversity shifting in our elected offices. Maybe not enough, but it's coming.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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