Race and culture are usually the most common measures of diversity, but population diversity is additionally reflected by a mix of gender identities, sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, education levels, disabilities, and religions. Hawaii, California, Nevada, Texas, and Maryland have the most racial and ethnic diversity, while Montana, New Hampshire, West Virginia, Vermont, and Maine are the least diverse with predominantly white populations, according to a study by Wallethub. Plenty of predominantly white cities and states around the country would like to racially diversify their populations, but their willingness to consider how their communities, institutions, and culture are structured and what must be changed to be welcoming to more people of color has varied. Change is possible however, and even small steps can be taken by city leaders, government officials, and businesses to add to their populations and motivate people of color to migrate to the area—they just need to know where to start.
If history is an indicator ...
Although a recent U.S. News analysis shows America’s larger cities are becoming more ethnically diverse than they were a decade ago, not every part of the country has kept up—and it’s not necessarily their fault. A state’s racial diversity can be dependent upon the migration of people’s ancestors. People of different ethnicities have laid down roots in different parts of the U.S. for a variety of reasons. Immigrant populations tend to gravitate toward areas where they have family ties, where a large number of people who share their same background are concentrated, or where there are jobs that will hire them. That pattern still holds today.
The geographic roots of Black Americans, for example, date back to the slave trade. Charleston, North Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana, were entryways to the slave trade, which is why many Black Americans lived in Southern states until industrialization in the beginning of the 20th century caused people to migrate north. The flow of Latino immigrants typically comes from the South, which is why Texas and other southwestern states hold a large fraction of the population. Asian Americans tend to have stronger ties to the west coast, although waves of Asian immigration over the last few decades have begun to spread out the population.
“The historical roots of migration and points of entry to the United States powerfully explain why some places are more diverse than others,” said Joseph Cortright, director of City Observatory. “If you look at Iowa, for example—Iowa is a long way from New Orleans and Charleston, a long way from the Mexican border, a long way from the west coast, and didn't heavily industrialize in the 1930s. Add those factors together and statistically that's going to be a less diverse place.”
The faster an area grows, the more quickly the population can diversify. Nevada, for example, is considered America’s fastest growing state. In 2017, only 26% of the state’s three million residents were born there. The state has become increasingly diverse over the years. While the white population has stayed at the same level over the last few years, the state’s non-white population continues to increase. Currently, Nevada’s racial demographics break down to about 29% Hispanic or Latino, 49% white, about 8% Black, and roughly 8% Asian.
“The demographics of Nevada are now shaped more by new migrants,” Cortright said. “In places like New Hampshire and Iowa, there are relatively few new migrants. Absent some really rapid growth in those places, it's really hard to see how the demographics can change rapidly.”
But even as cities and states like Nevada become more geographically and racially diverse, many of those areas have become increasingly segregated by income and class. Racial segregation has declined since 1970, but income segregation has increased. A 2018 study by City Observatory found that racial and economic segregation have a seriously negative impact on marginalized communities and that “higher levels of racial and ethnic segregation are associated with larger interracial earnings differentials.”
For cities actively looking to bring in people with different backgrounds, Cortright has some advice: “Build a time machine,” he said jokingly. “A lot of this stuff is already baked into a pretty strong historical cake. What states are doing today isn’t determining how diverse certain areas are. It’s stuff that happened one or two centuries ago.”
Despite the unlikeliness of a quick upswing in diversification, organizers and city leaders in some predominantly white states are determined to address the problem.
The struggle with attracting new people
Iowa, which has a white population of more than 90%, has been grappling with how to diversify, especially after increasing calls to move the primary caucus to a state more reflective of the nation’s ethnic makeup. New Hampshire, which has a white population of 94%, is facing a similar problem, but organizers in the state have been taking a hands-on approach to actively attract more people of color. In 2018, New Hampshire’s first large-scale effort to consciously include more people of color brought together representatives, business leaders, and civil rights organizations for a brainstorming discussion.
Rogers Johnson, a former New Hampshire state representative and president of the Seacoast chapter of the NAACP, was in attendance at the 2018 meeting and remains involved in ongoing discussions with other leaders on the subject. The goal, he said, shouldn’t be for states to diversify just for the sake of diversifying. Instead, the focus should be on bringing more culture and creating a stronger, more stable economy.
“Many young people like the concept of diversity; they’ve grown up with it, they accept it, and they embrace it,” Johnson said. “When you create an atmosphere of diversity, you then enhance the ability of the state to really benefit all of its citizens. In order to grow, you have to retain and attract younger people who are willing to come here and work.”
Before businesses can take steps to recruit new workers, the population first needs to be convinced that more people of color in their communities are necessary for a sound economy—and that’s not always an easy task.
“There’s a large population of people who are unaccustomed—or unaware—of what it’s like to be an African American or Hispanic person because they’ve never encountered them,” said Johnson. “They’ve never understood what the culture is like. The degree to which you can educate those people—or the entire state—can raise the level of acceptance, not just tolerance.”
To begin the process, cities and states can start by recruiting a skilled, diverse workforce from among candidates of color. Community leaders in New Hampshire, which prides itself on being a business-friendly state, have begun reaching out to business leaders to encourage them to make it a priority to recruit new people. Other states like Oklahoma, which has a white population of more than 72%, have implemented programs in some cities that provide cash stipends for workers to move to the area. For example, the goal of Tulsa’s program is to increase the dwindling population and attract a younger demographic.
Higher-paying jobs can attract new people to different areas, but the diversification process doesn’t begin and end with job recruitment and a better salary. State and city leaders must be willing to invest resources in order to integrate. Larger cities and states are able to attract and maintain diverse groups of people because they bring in more resources that can then be distributed to the community. These funds can be used to implement cultural services, programs, and events. Smaller states and cities on a tighter budget are unable to do this, which makes it challenging to draw in and keep new people.
“If you want to keep people of color there, you should have everything from nightlife to religious organizations to nonprofit organizations focused on a particular culture,” said Andre Perry, a fellow with the Brookings Institution and author of the book, Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America's Black Cities. Perry said rural, white cities also have to do a better job of addressing institutionalized racism in both the job market and the criminal justice system.
“There's often a reason why people of color aren't living there, and for very good reason,” he said. “If you have a biased criminal justice system, that’s one of the fastest ways to get Black and brown people to leave. They have to feel safe if they’re going to stay there.”
But even with claims that more predominantly white states want more racial diversity, some believe the attempts to bring in people of color are disingenuous. In the Vox article “White America is quietly segregating: Everyone wants diversity. But not everyone wants it on their street,” author Alvin Chang points to previous studies that found that whenever a minority group grows in size and power, the majority group often feels threatened.
Johnson doesn’t agree with the implication that all predominantly white areas are inherently racist or are somehow actively deterring people of color from moving there.
“People believe—or want to believe—that there’s a level of discrimination,” he said. “The reality is that it’s not real discrimination; it’s just a misunderstanding and lack of education.”
The diversification struggle likely won’t be a problem cities and states have to endure for much longer: The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the country will no longer have a single ethnic majority by 2044. How well cities and states will welcome more people of color into their communities through economic opportunities and more integrated cultures has yet to be seen.
“This is a big country and not everyone can be everywhere,” Perry said. “I don’t expect every place to be a representation of America overall. That’s just not realistic. However, cities and municipalities can do a much better job of defining the character, culture, and moral backbone of their town.”