Op-Ed: Extra folks transferring to different states might curb polarization
America has been sluggishly divided into red and blue states by experts, as if there was no constant movement of people between them. Fortunately, the reality is a lot purple – and more hopeful – as immigrants, coloreds, and millennials are reshaping parts of America by voting and moving.
These demographic groups are migrating from the large coastal cities to the suburbs, to the city centers, to the south and even to parts of the Midwest. These newcomers both change their new home and are changed by them.
For much of the past century, most of the migration of Black Americans and immigrants took place to the major cities of the Northeast and to the west coast in the later decades. Over the past decade, these populations have been relocating from these traditional ports to areas where there has been relatively little migration in the past.
In his analysis for Heartland Forward, a nonprofit research group, demographer Wendell Cox found that among the largest metropolitan areas, the fastest growth in the foreign-born population in the past decade was in Dallas, Houston, Nashville, and Columbus, Ohio, and their numbers rose between them 25% and 40%. In contrast, foreign-born populations are stagnating or declining in Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, the country’s traditional immigration centers.
Ironically, the fastest growth has occurred in the states that backed Donald Trump, while it declined in the states that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016. Rather than gathering in a few places, immigrants are increasingly following the earlier patterns of the 19th century and spreading to the US in the middle of the country.
This movement is already changing and energizing some regions in surprising ways. Nashville may be the country music capital – stereotypically the epitome of white American culture – but it’s also home to small Kurdistan, a Somali population, and a growing Latino community. Even in a place like Fargo, ND, which was more than 90% white in 1990, newcomers and more foreign-born residents have created a more diverse city. When I was there in the summer, I happily stumbled upon a Thai ice cream parlor.
A similar pattern of movement away from traditional turnstiles can be seen among African Americans. In countries like New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland, Ore, black populations are stagnating or even declining. In the city of San Francisco, the African American community has declined from 13% in 1970 to about 5% today. Despite dating back to the 19th century, this community has grown so small that there is even a 2019 film called “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.”
Where are the African Americans going? Places like Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, as well as a variety of smaller subway areas like Boise, Idaho; Fayetteville, Ark .; Provo, Utah; Portland, Maine; and Scranton, PA. For African Americans and other minorities, the main motivator seems to be the economy, a recent report for the Urban Reform Institute shows.
The median household income of African Americans in Atlanta, adjusted for the cost of living (where the cost of housing is a major factor), was more than $ 60,000, compared to $ 36,000 in San Francisco and $ 37,000 in Los Angeles. The median household income for Latinos is more than $ 65,000 in Columbus and St. Louis, compared to $ 43,000 in Los Angeles, $ 47,000 in San Francisco, and $ 40,000 in New York.
Home ownership is a critical economic factor. Real estate remains the key to financial security: home equity makes up around two-thirds of middle-income Americans’ wealth, according to the Census Bureau. However, in some parts of the country, particularly along the California coast and the northeast, home ownership is often inaccessible. About 50% of black residents own their homes in places like the Atlanta and Oklahoma City subway areas, compared with just under a third in the Los Angeles and Denver subway areas. Among Latinos, El Paso and St. Louis stand out as subway areas of high home ownership, while Boston and San Jose home ownership is much lower.
Even before the pandemic, according to the Brookings Institution, millennials were leaving big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and heading for cheaper subway areas like Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin and Houston. The pandemic – in part through the ability to work remotely – has further accelerated the move of younger technicians from San Francisco, New York, Boston, and Chicago to Sacramento, Madison, Wisconsin, and Cleveland.
The movement of socially liberal millennials, minorities and immigrants is seen by some progressives as a way to build a lasting democratic majority in parts of the country that are conservative. This was certainly seen in the Georgia Senate races, where African American and Latino voters helped lead two progressive Democrats, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, to victory.
Conservatives fear that left-wing newcomers will overthrow the politics of their strongholds. But we should also consider the possible long-term effects if historically marginalized people are able to buy houses and start businesses. In the past, these changes have resulted in people being a little more conservative.
In Texas, where Latinos generally do better economically and are better able to buy houses than in California or New York, they also tend to split their votes more evenly between parties, with nearly 40% voting for Trump.
Even in big cities like New York, Trump managed to improve performance in minority and immigrant neighborhoods, possibly in response to the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 restrictions on companies that employ more color workers. American communities are largely in the middle of the road as their representatives, with moderates being the largest group in cities, rural areas, and suburbs across the country, according to a new study by The Times and polling agency Reality Check Insights.
This movement towards centrist politics through migration may provide a way out for our toxic and highly polarized political environment. These demographic trends, which are unlikely to go away, could prove to be the unifying force the country needs.
Joel Kotkin is President Fellow for Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director of the Urban Reform Institute. He is the author of “The Coming of Neo-Feudalism”. @joelkotkin