Dr. Suleman Lalani, a Pakistan-born Muslim, won election to the Texas state House in November from Fort Bend County, one of a growing number of counties with no racial majority (Diego Ramirez/ Courtesy of Suleman Lalani/Stateline).
By Tim Henderson
Some booming suburbs, many of them in the Sun Belt, are becoming as racially diverse as major coastal cities — and often with less racial conflict.
Sixty-nine counties, mostly in the South and West, had clear racial majorities in 2010 but lost them by last year, according to a Stateline analysis of census estimates. Nationwide, there are now 152 such counties where no racial group is more than half the population, up 33 percent since 2010.
Most of the new no-majority counties are in Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia. The counties include many Black residents who have returned to their Southern roots — reversing the Great Migration of the 20th century — as well as Hispanic and Asian residents who, like many white movers, have headed South and West in search of new economic opportunities and more affordable homes.
Many of the newly diverse suburbs have less racial tension and resentment than cities, some experts say, because there is less economic inequality: Most residents, no matter their race or ethnicity, are college-educated homebuyers. That can create more harmony, at least on the surface.
Historically, white flight from cities to suburbs meant that urban communities that had become more diverse didn’t stay that way for long, said Barrett Lee, an urban sociologist at Penn State University who co-authored a study on no-majority communities in 2016. Once a white majority ended in such places, a Black or Hispanic majority quickly ensued. But lately, many suburbs have become more racially diverse in a pattern that might be more durable, Lee said.
“There’s been some liberalization. Whites were always the ones more opposed to sharing space and neighborhoods, but there’s been a little bit of change there,” Lee said. In many communities that have recently lost racial majorities, he said, “the sentiment has always been pro-diversity, wanting to promote that and sustain it. Ideally, it would continue, but that’s not the reality in some places.”
To be sure, even diverse suburbs are not immune from racial issues and conflict. A 2018 civil rights probe, for example, found Black students were disproportionately disciplined in Fort Bend County, Texas, schools, a pattern found throughout the state. County Judge KP George, the county’s top elected official, complained this year of hateful e-mails that mentioned his South Asian heritage.
And in the same county, physician Suleman Lalani faced attacks on his Muslim heritage during his campaign this fall for a state House seat. He won anyway. So did a fellow Pakistani immigrant from Tarrant County, which includes Fort Worth.
In a county where no racial group is more than 30 percent of the population, “a common thread is we have all felt the sting of racism and exclusion,” Lalani said.
“When I faced Islamophobia in my campaign,” Lalani recalled, “it was a coalition of African American, Caucasian and Latino supporters who came to show support at the polling locations … a complete and furious rejection of hate.”
Racial tension may be lessened in places such as Fort Bend because residents of all races have similar incomes and suburban lifestyles, according to a 2021 paper by Kiara Wyndham-Douds, an assistant sociology professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
The county’s median household income is over $100,000.
Among the residents Wyndham-Douds interviewed in Fort Bend was a Mexican immigrant who wept as she recalled how a white store clerk in Fort Bend, near Houston, greeted her warmly as “sweetie” after years of feeling isolated and unwelcome where she previously lived in Arizona. An African American woman said it was “hard to feel out of place” in Fort Bend, recounting dinner invitations from Muslim and Chinese neighbors.
Those stories contrasted with residents Wyndham-Douds interviewed in Queens, New York, a long established but similarly diverse area where the extremes of wealth and poverty are more glaring. People they interviewed in the New York City borough consistently mentioned racial strife and resentment, they said.
“Many people look at Fort Bend and call it progress,” Wyndham-Douds said. “On the surface, it appears to be more racially equitable than other communities, but who can even access these communities? Only people with substantial socioeconomic resources.”
Factors that draw people to newly diverse areas include economic opportunity and encouragement from early migrants who pave the way for others, experts say.
In Texas, where 15 of the nation’s new no-majority counties are located, political change is already evident in a limited way. Fort Bend County voted for the Republican presidential candidate in every election between 1968 and 2012, but it swung to the Democrats in 2016 and 2020. Tarrant County favored the GOP presidential candidate from 1968 to 2016 but joined the Democratic column in 2020.
Other large, often suburban no-majority counties also have turned Democratic in presidential votes —Orange County south of Los Angeles and Georgia’s Gwinnett County in suburban Atlanta are examples. Orange County voted Republican for president from 1940 to 2012 before voting Democratic in 2016 and 2020, and Gwinnett County did the same after voting Republican from 1980 to 2012.
Diversity doesn’t always lead to harmony, as this fall’s controversy over leaked, racist remarks by Los Angeles city council members showed in October. Los Angeles County has no racial majority, but Hispanic residents are approaching a majority at 49 percent of the population as of 2021, an increase from 48 percent in 2010.
After Queens and Fort Bend, the counties least dominated by one race are Gwinnett County (33 percent white); Broward County, Florida, which includes Fort Lauderdale (34 percent white); and Solano County, California, near Sacramento (35 percent white).
Among the counties that have lost racial majorities since 2010, Tarrant County in Texas has experienced one of the most dramatic changes. Black, Hispanic and Asian populations all have grown in Tarrant County, while the white population share has declined from 52 percent to 44 percent. President Joe Biden won the 2020 vote narrowly there, the first Democrat to do so since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, though the county also voted last month to reelect Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
Other counties that have experienced significant shifts include Brazoria and Bell counties in Texas, near Houston and Waco, respectively, and Sutter County in California, near Sacramento. In all three, the white population share fell from a majority to about 43 percentt as Black, Hispanic and Asian populations grew. All three counties voted for then-President Donald Trump in 2020 and Republican gubernatorial candidates in November.
One reason for slow and inconsistent gains for Democrats in Texas: Asian and Hispanic residents tend to vote Democratic, but they turn out at lower rates than Black and white voters, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“The fastest growing minorities still punch below their weight politically,” Jillson said. Furthermore, some Asian, Hispanic and other immigrants are included in the census even though they are not citizens with voting rights.
The counties in Texas that lost racial majorities reflect a relative decline in the aging majority-white population as more Hispanic and Asian people move in, he said.
“Counties such as Fort Bend and Tarrant are becoming increasingly diverse and, since both Hispanics and Asians vote about two-to-one Democrat, they are no longer conservative strongholds but are increasingly competitive,” said Jillson.
He predicted that Republican power in the state would remain entrenched by redistricting that favors the GOP but would begin to erode as demographic changes continue, much as Georgia politics has been transformed by Black migration.
Most of the Texas and Georgia counties that have lost racial majorities since 2010, other than Tarrant and Gwinnett counties, still vote Republican for president. Travis County, including Austin, lost a white racial majority between 2010 and 2021, but it has long favored Democratic candidates.
Except for Gwinnett County, the second most populous county in the state, most Georgia counties that have lost racial majorities since 2010 still favor Republicans. The exception is Stewart County, where a Black majority in 2010 fell to 48 percent in 2021 but which has voted Democratic in presidential elections since 1976.
A smaller number of counties are moving the other way, having gained racial majorities since 2010. They include San Bernardino and Riverside counties, east of Los Angeles, and Bernalillo County, New Mexico, which includes Albuquerque, all now majority Hispanic. New majority-Black counties include Richland County, South Carolina, home of state capital Columbia, and Charles County, Maryland, near Washington, D.C.
One reason more counties are losing racial majorities is the continued push of Hispanic immigrants into rural areas where their labor is desperately needed as white residents age out of the workforce. Several small Nebraska counties with meatpacking plants, for example, have drawn more Hispanic residents over the past decade.
White and Hispanic populations are nearly equal at 47 percent each in Colfax County, west of Omaha, where the Cargill beef processing plant in Schuyler is the county’s largest employer. That’s an 11-point drop for the white population share, which had a 58 percent majority in 2010.
There was a similar change in Dakota County, Nebraska, where Tyson Foods operates a beef processing plant. The white population share declined from 55 percent in 2010 to 44 percent in 2021 as the Hispanic population increased from 35 percent to 40 percent. In Colfax County, Latinos elected to the local school board include Guadalupe Marino, a school counselor and nurse practitioner who has said she wants to help Latino parents get more involved with the schools.
The Nebraska counties are typical of rural areas where immigration may stave off population decline as older white residents die or leave, said Daniel Lichter, an emeritus professor at Cornell University who has studied county demographic changes.
“In rural areas, white depopulation is mostly responsible, not the influx of new immigrant minorities,” Lichter said.
Tim Henderson is a reporter for Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, where this story first appeared.
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