Meet America’s remarkably diverse future.
The course of America’s population makeup for much of the 21st century is clear: one of increasing ethnic and racial diversity that will transform the nation from majority white to one in which no single ethnic group dominates in numerical terms. In other words, a majority minority nation.
The shift is not a single event, but a process that is already underway, with majority minority states—California, Texas, New Mexico, Hawaii—as well as cities and communities across the United States. The United States is “increasingly multi-hued, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic,” a recent study by Pennsylvania State University concluded.
Here are snapshots of five communities where the future is now—locations that register the highest rates of diversity, measured in terms of four major ethnic groups: whites, African Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Needless to say, each of these categories encompasses even greater diversities of national origin and culture—not to mention another fast-growing group: those of mixed-race background who increasingly see themselves as a distinct fifth category.
From 2000 to 2010, Houston grew faster than any other U.S. metropolitan area—and became one of the United States’ most racially and ethnically diverse cities, according to a study by the city’s Rice University. Much of that growth came from immigrants who have moved directly into cities in the South and Southwest, according to Professor Michael Emerson, one of the report’s authors. “This is the secret of Houston’s phenomenal growth over the past decade,” he said.
The city built itself upon the foundations of transportation, oil and manufacturing; its port ranks first in international tonnage and second in total cargo tonnage handled. But Houston today is also a national center for health care and medical research, and home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
This dynamic and diversified economy continues to generate the jobs and opportunities that fuel both Houston’s growth, and growing diversity. “Houston runs about 10, 15 years ahead of Texas, 30 years ahead of the U.S. in terms of ethnic diversity and immigration flows,” Emerson said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR).
That diversity can be found throughout the city, including the Mahatma Gandhi District, informally known as Little India, that is a center for Indian shops and restaurants that have helped launch a food revolution in a city that, a few decades ago, offered little more than steakhouses and Tex-Mex food. At Pondicheri restaurant, for example, chef Anita Jaisinghani offers variations on the home-style cooking and street food of India, all with local ingredients.
“Houston is an immigrant magnet,” resident Glenda Joe told NPR. “Texas looks like me. I’m half Chinese, I’m half Irish. I also do business; I work with universities; I also ride horses. That’s what Texas is.”
California’s capital is not only one of the United States’ most diverse cities, but among its most integrated, with a larger number of people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds living nearer each other than in many other cities.
Time magazine named Sacramento the country’s most diverse city in 2002, and a decade later, it has become even more so. By percentages, according to 2010 Census figures, Sacramento is 14.6 African American, 18.3 Asian, 26.9 Hispanic, 34.5 white, 1.4 Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian, and 7.1 who identify themselves as of two or more races.
The state government remains the city’s largest employer, and despite the closure of nearby military bases and a decline in agricultural processing, the city continues to grow with people moving from the San Francisco area and immigrants from Asia and Latin America. Sacramento hosts several major institutes of higher learning, including 1 of 23 campuses of the California State University system, and the nearby University of California, Davis, whose noted Davis Medical Center is located in the city.
Sacramento celebrates its diversity with an array of ethnic-themed events throughout the year. One example: Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in 1865. For Sacramento, that meant a parade and festival to mark a milestone for both African Americans and the nation.
For its professional basketball team, the Sacramento Kings, diversity means building an international fan base—in India. (See sidebar.)
Jersey City, New Jersey
This New Jersey city, located across from lower Manhattan in New York, has been part of America’s vast immigrant experience since the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The city’s Liberty State Park overlooks two icons of that heritage: the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island—gateway for generations of migrants to the United States.
Jersey City has substantial communities of people who either immigrated from or can trace their origins to Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Vietnam, China, Haiti, Poland, Italy, Ireland, the Philippines and South Asia.
“If America’s a melting pot, Jersey City is truly the melting pot and it always has been,” said Jerramiah Healy, who served as mayor from 2004 to 2013, in an interview with Bloomberg News. “We were the reception committee for the world and that really hasn’t changed.”
The city is also home to the United States’ largest Egyptian Coptic community, which highlights another fact about demographic change: it can transform virtually every aspect of society and culture, including religion.
Jersey City declined in the mid-20th century as railroads and factories closed, but it has since recovered with redevelopment of its waterfront and construction of a high-rise financial and business district known as Wall Street West. With its relatively affordable housing and proximity to New York, Jersey City boasts one of the highest per capita concentrations of artists of any city in the country.
By any demographic measure, California leads the nation in diversity; of the top 25 most diverse cities, as measured by Penn State researchers, 10 are in California. At the top of the list is Vallejo. In percentage terms, 2010 census figures showed the city to be 32.8 white, 24.9 Asian, 22.6 Hispanic, 22.1 African American and 7.5 two or more races.
“We’re a culturally richer community for that kind of diversity,” commented city manager Dan Keen in an interview with the Vallejo Times-Herald. But he added that residents, regardless of background, “want good city services, jobs, economic opportunity.”
After agreeing to a recent sales tax increase, city residents voted on which projects they wished to spend the additional money. The top item was street repair and lighting. They also chose to fund community gardens, improvements to city parks, and small scholarships for high school graduates to attend local colleges.
The Mare Island shipyard, parts of which are a National Historic Landmark, is being redeveloped as a new commercial hub and residential section of the city. And like Jersey City, artists from the San Francisco area are discovering that Vallejo has ample affordable studio, theater and work spaces.
Diversity is no novelty for Honolulu, Hawaii’s largest city, which has an Asian majority population. Asians today constitute about 43 percent of the city’s population, according to 2012 census figures, with large numbers who trace their origins to Japan, the Philippines, China and Korea. The second largest category: 21.6 percent who identify themselves as belonging to two or more races—a trend that is especially pronounced among younger generations of Americans in other parts of the United States as well.
Honolulu, located on the island of Oahu, is a center for government and finance. But the main business of Honolulu is the same as for the rest of the island chain: tourism.
The most famous location within the city is Waikiki, a white-sand beach neighborhood. Other popular island destinations that reflect Hawaii’s history and culture are the landmark volcanic crater Diamond Head, the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Hawaiian history and culture, Iolani Palace, and the nondenominational Buddhist Byodo-In Temple, outside the city, built in 1968 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii.
Howard Cincotta is a U.S. State Department writer and editor.