With Greensboro leading the pack, Triad region becoming more diverse

by Jordan Green

Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes and then-Greensboro police Chief Tim Bellamy took questions about immigration enforcement during a 2009 forum. New Census numbers raise the question of whether a black-Latino coalition will emerge as a potent politcal force. (file photo)

Sometime in the last couple years, Greensboro passed a critical tipping point: White people as a share of the total population dropped below 50 percent. The Gate City can now be described as a majority minority city, with whites comprising the largest group, followed by African Americans, and Hispanics and Asians respectively a distant third and fourth.

Greensboro now joins Durham, Fayetteville and Wilson as racially diverse North Carolina cities in which no one group holds a majority.

While Greensboro is the only Triad city that no longer has a white majority, Winston-Salem and High Point, along with Forsyth and Guilford counties, are moving in the same direction. In the three Triad cities and their respective counties, whites — while growing in number — make up a declining portion of the overall population. The black population, meanwhile, has grown modestly: 30. 9 percent in Greensboro and 15.5 percent in Winston-Salem.

“The growth of the Hispanic population, particularly in areas where there’s a large black vote, which is usually reliably Democratic, adding a Hispanic vote can shift areas and tip it from reliable Republican to a tossup,” said Roderick Harrison, a demographer at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. “I think we saw that in the 2008 election. That coalition won North Carolina for Obama.”

The most significant changes have been wrought by growth in the Hispanic and Asian populations. Hispanics have doubled across the two counties, and now make up 14.7 percent of Winston-Salem’s population. The number of Asians in Triad communities has also surged, and they comprise 6.1 percent of High Point’s population.

“Latinos don’t have very high voter registration,” said Ferrel Guillory, who directs the Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill. “The immediate impact is not likely to be dramatic. Greensboro for a while has had a mix of black legislators and council members. No one knows whether blacks and Latinos are going to form a coalition.”

Of course, the political landscape is more directly shaped by voter registration, which excludes those under the age of 18, and tends to skew towards baby boomers and the elderly.

“But look at age,” Guillory said. “White folks tend to be, in aggregate, older. They’re baby boomers. Blacks and Latinos tend to be younger. That tends to have workforce implications and also political implications.

“I think of Latinos in terms of the old saying about physics,” he added. “There are active forces and there are potential forces. They’re clearly a potential force.”

The change in Greensboro’s racial makeup could was easily predicted by the demographic composition of Guilford County Schools’ student population 10 years ago. At that time, white students made up exactly half of the overall student body, with blacks comprising 40 percent, Asians 4 percent and Hispanics 3 percent.

Over the past decade, black students have maintained about the same share, but white students make up only 38.6 percent of the student population. Asians are 5.7 percent and Hispanics are 9.6 percent.

Also telling, one in 20 students attending Guilford County Schools identify with two or more racial categories today — compared to one in 50 at the beginning of the millennium.

“The school district is kind of tip-off of the future,” Guillory said.

Today’s students are tomorrow’s wage and salary earners, homeowners and voters. Their political loyalties remain largely up for grabs.

“A lot may depend on which political party and which political leaders seem to be responsive to black and Latino aspirations,” Guillory said.

He cited as an example California, where an electoral backlash

by Latinos against Republican policies per- Greensboro’s African-American leadership ceived as anti-immigrant have helped the could certainly use some allies, its agenda Democratic Party consolidate power over having been frustrated in recent years. Most the past 20 years. He also mentioned Texas, notably, black leaders are on the defensive where then-Gov. George W. Bush appealed against a push to reopen the White Street to Latino voters by speaking Spanish on the Landfill in northeast Greensboro fueled by campaign trail, and later promoted an ill-fated white voters’ demand for cost savings in city immigration reform initiative as president. services and keeping taxes low.

“It’s clearly in the state’s long-term interest In 2007, voters elected the city’s first to make sure that young blacks and young African-American mayor, but she found her- Latinos are educated and acculturated because self on the losing end of a 5-4 split and lost they’re here to stay,” Guillory said. “As older her bid for reelection after only term. Now, baby boomer whites leave the workforce, Perkins, who is a registered Republican, there are going to be new jobs available. anchors the council’s liberal faction, which That’s not a political point. The key factor has shrunk to only three members. The here is people tend to get involved in politics majority faction has steered the city along a as they put down roots, as they build families largely fiscally conservative course. and get into the workforce — when they have The Rev. Cardes Brown, president of the a stake in the community. To the extent that Greensboro NAACP, said African Americans your young people who are now in school share with Hispanics and Asians a disadvan- go to university and go into the workforce, tage in accessing city services, and would they are likely to become voters. They will benefit politically from joining forces. He said

remember which political party fostered their the black community’s voting power has been aspirations more than the other.” diluted by the fact that an inordinate number Harrison said a significant portion of the of African-American men are in prison, while Hispanic population in the South attends Hispanics have been politically demobilized Pentecostal churches, giving the Republican by 287(g) and other law enforcement initia- Party an opening to appeal to them on cul tives that penalize illegal immigration. tural grounds, but the anti-immigrant fervor Jose Isasi, CEO of Winston-Salem-based displayed by the GOP base in recent years Que Pasa Media Network, said the large is likely to cement an alignment with the number of Hispanics who remain undocu- Democratic Party. mented and unqualified to vote presents a sig- Currently, seven of nine members on nificant hurdle to developing political power.

Greensboro’s nonpartisan city council are “We’re working towards a significant polit- white and two are black, and the white and ical realignment,” he said. “It will happen in black communities comprise the two major the urban areas first…. It won’t happen in the voting blocs. Some white politicians such as next two election cycles because of the issue at-large Councilman Robbie Perkins have of undocumented [people] and the limited appealed to African-American voters to win number of Hispanics that actually vote. When elections. Were Hispanics and Asians to regis- it happens will depend on when immigration ter to vote in numbers commensurate to their reform occurs.” respective populations, they could potentially White resistance would be only one pres- create a swing vote considering that neither sure point in a potential black-brown political whites nor blacks hold a demographic major- coalition in North Carolina. ity. “I do think that on the whole in most “That is a population that right now is places the black and Hispanic populations leaning more toward the active government,” have highly overlapping agendas on educa- Harrison said of North Carolina’s growing tion, health, housing and employment,” Hispanic and Asian communities. “Immigrant Harrison said. “Sometimes there can be fric- communities typically have needs and issues tions that prevent their coalescing. Often they to which they would look to the government are groups that are succeeding each other in for attention and assistance. There are many neighborhoods, and that can drive competi- issues in schools, employment and enforce tive friction. ment of anti-discrimination housing ordinanc- “That kind of change can be difficult,” he es that should appeal to immigrant Hispanic added. “If you’re used to being the minority and Asian groups.” of interest, it’s hard to share the stage.”