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City's ethnic mix reflects national trend
When it comes to diversity in Houston, the future is already here. The city’s current ethnic mix, with its many cultures, reflects what the population of the rest of America will look like by the mid-21st century. While such diversity gives Houston an edge as a global city, this population shift is also creating challenges for future generations to maintain economic prosperity to keep the city competing on the world stage.
“The census projections for the United States in 2050 is the same chart as the reality of Houston in 2010,” explained Dr. Stephen Klineberg of the Rice University Kinder Institute for Urban Research. “So, Houston is one of the places where the American future will be worked out because it’s here now. And it will be across all of America by 2040 or 2045, where the entire population of the United States will be majority-minority.”
According to the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, diversity breaks down as the following for the multi-county Houston area: 40 percent Anglo, 35 percent Hispanic, 17 percent African American and eight percent Asian and other. Klineberg’s August 2013 presentation, “The Changing Face of Houston,” reports figures for Harris County in 2010 as 41 percent Latino, 33 percent Anglo, 18 percent African American and eight percent Asian.
“This is what all of American will look like in about 35 years,” said Klineberg. “How we navigate this transition will have an enormous significance not only for Houston’s future, but for America’s future. Houston is where America’s future is going to be worked out – worked out for better or for worse.”
The city’s diversity, nonetheless, translates into a melting pot of cultures reflecting variations in the arts, cuisine and neighborhoods. Houston has 93 consulates – the third largest consular corps in the nation – and more than 8,000 restaurants reflecting a wide range of ethnic food choices.
“The different cultures make Houston what it is. You can see diversity in the food scene, in the art, in the business community and in the Texas Medical Center,” said Holly Clapham-Rosenow, vice president of marketing for the GHCVB. “In turn, it also makes Houston more attractive to people from around the world to visit and to live. It comes full circle.”
Clapham-Rosenow said the GHCVB recently completed a destination perception study polling a combination of Houston residents, residents from other parts of Texas and visitors from other states. The study revealed 71 percent of the respondents agree Houston is diverse and rated Houston very highly because of the city’s variety in dining and its arts and culture. Regarding tourism, she believes there’s an indirect correlation between the city’s diversity and attracting tourists.
“We can’t draw a straight line and say people are visiting specifically because we are the most diverse city in the country, but we can say that we’ve gotten significant national and international media attention because of it,” said Clapham-Rosenow, citing coverage of Houston’s diversity by NPR, the BBC and Smithsonian magazine. “And, those stories make Houston more appealing to a visitor looking for a dynamic, cosmopolitan city. Plus, our diversity is the foundation of our two biggest assets – our food scene and our culture – and we know those are the two main reasons people visit.”
According to 2011 statistics from the Greater Houston Partnership, more than one in five (21.9 percent) Greater Houston residents were foreign-born versus one in eight nationwide. Houston ranked sixth in the nation in that category, as same year GHP figures reveal Greater Miami leading the way with 38.2 percent followed by Los Angeles (34.1 percent), San Francisco (29.7 percent), New York (29 percent) and San Diego (23.4 percent). Houston’s foreign-born population of 1.34 million is more than the total populations of nine states and Washington D.C., the statistics show.
Houston’s diversity mix has changed dramatically from 50 years ago. Klineberg’s “The Changing Face of Houston” presentation reveals in 1970, for example, diversity percentages for Harris County were 69 percent Anglo, 20 percent African American, and only 10 percent Latino and one percent Asian.
“The essential story of Houston is virtually all the growth of the city during the oil boom years was Anglos, pouring into Houston from everywhere else in the country because this is where the jobs were,” said Klineberg. “One million people moved into Harris County between 1970 and 1982.”
“After the oil bust of 1982, the Anglo population stopped growing and then all the growth of this city – the most rapidly growing city in America – has been due to the influx of African Americans, Latinos and Asians,” he continued. “And this bi-racial southern city – dominated by white men in all of our history – during the last 30 years has become the singular most ethnically diverse metropolitan area in the country.”
The story of America’s diversity is interesting as well. Klineberg said between 1492 and 1965, 82 percent of immigrants to the U.S. came from Europe. When civil rights laws changed in 1965, then came an influx of large numbers of non-Europeans.
“Eighty-eight percent of all immigration since 1965 came from everywhere else on this Earth but Europe, and Houston is at the very center of this transformation,” he explained. “It’s a truly remarkable transformation.”
Other statistics reveal older folks across America are disproportionately Anglo – 57 percent over the age of 65, compared to 22 percent Anglo under 30 years old. “Nowhere is that clearer than in Houston,” said Klineberg.
“Seventy percent of all the children of Harris County are African American or Latino. And, they will be the future of Houston.”
He warned, however, that with the baby boomers retiring, the diverse populations will be faced with the challenge of propelling the city well into the 21st century.
“How well educated and prepared are they to do the job? That’s the great question for Houston’s future.” This ethnic saturation can be the greatest asset Houston can have in this global economy,” concluded Klineberg, “or it can tear us apart and become a major liability.”
Richard Varr is a staff reporter and free-lance journalist. Previously, he was a news reporter for FOX26 News.