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Cities May Be Whiter, But Metro Areas Are Turning Brown

September 13, 2011 |
While city centers themselves are getting whiter, the surrounding areas and suburban communities are seeing a steady increase in minorities.
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A new report by the Brookings Institution says minorities are now the majority population in many of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, a demographic development with major political, social and economic consequences for the nation.

The study found that 22 of the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas are now “majority-minority,” with ethnic majorities making up more than half the populations in New York, Washington, Las Vegas, San Diego, Memphis and other metro areas. That’s an increase from 14 cities in 2000 and five in 1990.

While city centers themselves are getting whiter, the surrounding areas and suburban communities are seeing a steady increase in minorities.

The white population in these areas-at-large dropped from 71 percent in 1990 to 57 percent in 2010. Minorities, however, contributed to 98 percent of the growth in these metro regions in the last decade.

In the 100 largest regions, Hispanics make up the largest minority group, with blacks and Asians following. The white population still retains majorities in smaller cities and rural suburbs.

Many of these shifts show regional segmentation. Hispanics are settling in New York, Miami, Los Angeles and other parts of California, Texas and the Southwest; Asians are concentrated in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles; and African Americans are returning to Southern such as Atlanta, Dallas and Houston.

“What’s happened is pivotal,” said William Frey, the demographer that conducted the survey, told the Washington Post. “Large metropolitan areas will be the laboratories for change. The measures they take to help minorities assimilate and become part of the labor force will be studied by other parts of the country that are whiter and haven’t been touched as much by the change.”

Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, talked to Politic365 about some of the potential consequences for cities.

“This census is not a surprise to us,” Morial said. “I have been talking about this trend for 20 years. This reflects a trend that many of us that work in urban communities had seen for a long time.”

Morial believes the first place we’ll see the influence of these new demographics is in the political world. “The first immediate impact is going to be on the politics,” he said. “It changes the paradigm. These suburbs today look like cities in the 1970s and 1980s.”

The Brookings study found that Hispanic and Asians groups were growing the fastest, proving that the country is no longer just about the black/white divide but a younger, browner populous. Hispanic and Asian populations grew by about 43 percent each in the past decade, blacks by about 12 percent, and whites saw their population growth slow to just a 1.2 percent increase.

In the latest midterm election the number of Hispanic voters was at an all-time high.

“It’s going to be much more important for people run to run for office and talk about how they can appeal to whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians,” Morial said. “They’ll be a premium on those that can build effective coalitions.”

Still, he believes it is important to advocate for the needs of the black community.

“What I get concerned about is we get into a mindset of competition amongst minorities, amongst communities of color,” Morial said. “We have to be cautious while at the same time being very assertive on behalf of our communities and not allow African Americans to become marginalized as things change in this country.”

On the economic side, he said, what so far is a “positive trend” could have dire consequences if cities fail to provide a balance in resources to minority communities.

Studies show ethnic minorities have far fewer resources than their white counterparts, particularly in the aftermath of the last recession. Unemployment in both the black and the Hispanic communities — 16.7 percent and 11.3 percent respectively — is significantly higher than in the white communities. The housing crunch has hit minority families harder, with higher foreclosure rates, and there’s less overall wealth among the populations.

Morial said creating better transportation systems that can help people commute from the cities to the suburbs as well as improving infrastructure will be vital to the changing cityscape.

“When people hear infrastructure, they can’t just think of highways,” the National Urban League leader said. “Infrastructure has to be more than a highway paving program. Fixing the sewer systems, drain system, parks, playgrounds, improving the quality of life inside of urban and suburban community. There’s no debate about governments important role in infrastructure. It just has to be a broader conversation than we’re having in the country today.”

The National Urban League, Morial said, has been preparing for this shift. He said the organization has expanded to many suburban neighborhoods in Dallas and St. Louis, for example, and is working to broaden its reach. In cities such as Atlanta, even the name of the chapter now reflects the changing demographics — “the Greater Atlanta Urban League.”

“We have to recognize that the 21st century is not the 20th century. These demographic trends are very important,” he said.

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