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Census data reveals new dividing lines: ethnicity and age

March 24, 2011

This month, the U.S. Census Bureau has been doling out the last of the ground-level census data which will be used by the states to draw new congressional and legislative districts. Trace your cursor across the map all this data produces, and the grinding point of the South’s politics over the coming decade comes into view.

Writing about the data for Kentucky, an editorial in this week’s Lexington Herald-Leader notes that without its sharp growth in minority population, the state likely would have lost a seat in Congress, like neighboring Ohio and Illinois.

Something similar could be said about the region as a whole. The South gains a total of seven new Congressional seats and Electoral College votes just as the Republican majority has become entrenched in state houses from Montgomery to Baton Rouge, giving an obvious boost to the GOP. But this increased political clout is due largely to the growth in the number of those who either don’t vote or vote Democratic.

Another paradox of this census is that the highest percentage increase in white residents is occurring in those border and Rocky Mountain states which have been most closely associated with the problem of illegal immigration from Mexico. Places like the newly minted metro area of Rio South Texas,  which is what McAllen, Mission and Edinburgh are becoming, owe their growth to the snowbirds moving there to retire as well as the Mexicans crossing the border for work.

It turns out that earlier estimates for the increase in Hispanic residents in the border states tended to be too high, while the Census Bureau’s biggest underestimates for Hispanic gains were in Alabama and Louisiana. The percentage of white population increase in these and most of the Southern states was anemic compared with the border and mountain states. Texas, the only state which is both border and Southern, had the highest percentage gain in white residents in the South, 19.9 percent, even though the overall percentage of  white Texan is shrinking as a share of the state’s total population.

The explosive increase in the South’s Hispanic population has tended to overshadow the continuing growth in the African-American population, but in most of these states this still accounts for a significantly greater number of current and future voters. The only state in the South where the growth in white residents surpassed that of African-Americans in the past decade was South Carolina.

The suburbanization of minorities in the South has been noted a good bit recently without close attention to its causes. In many places like the suburban counties east and south of Atlanta, the increase of African-Americans in the suburbs is associated with an increase in their standard of living, and that has generally been cited as the prime factor in the suburbs’ increased diversity.

But the elimination of Section 8 public housing in cities like Atlanta, the cratering of many intown African-American neighborhoods due to foreclosures and the subprime lending racket, and the mushrooming of building around smaller Southern cities which didn’t have suburbs a decade or so ago have all played a role. Not all this movement is associated with upward mobility, and we don't know yet whether it will bring any significant change in political orientation.

Will this disperse black voting strength or amplify it? It’s hard to say. As for Hispanics, in most cases they arrived in the suburbs and exurbs before the cities, and their potential impact on politics in the neighborhoods where they’ve settled is yet to be realized.

It does seem clear that as the decade progresses, geography will become less and less reliable as a political guide, with the old distinction between inner city and suburb steadily eroding. Another factor, age, is arising to replace it.

“It’s basically all over for Anglos,” Steve Murdoch, former Census Bureau director and director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas at Rice University commented recently, reflecting on the steadily widening gap between old and white, and young and non-white, in a state where two of every three children are now non-Anglo.

Whether Murdoch’s prediction proves to be true or not, similar demographic pressures, between an older, whiter group of voters and one which is larger, more amorphous, younger and darker, are visible across the South. As the struggle over school funding and educational standards continues, that emerging division will become more distinct. Voter ID laws and bills cracking down on illegal immigration are the flashpoints of that division today, but these ethnically tinged issues could quickly turn into age-sensitive battles over support for public education and tax laws written in recent years to attract affluent and overwhelming white retirees.

This data suggests the next dividing line won’t be drawn between the inner city and the ‘burbs. It will be between the school yard and the assisted living facility.



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