SAN FRANCISCO—The most diverse state in the nation became even more so over the past decade, with big shifts in California’s ethnic populations likely to trigger seismic changes in its political landscape as well.
Even as the state’s overall population grew more slowly than at any time in the last century, the Latino and Asian populations experienced robust growth, according to 2010 U.S. Census data released Tuesday. Demographers attribute much of the growth to an infusion of immigrants from places like Central America, South Asia, Korea and the Philippines, though census data on those populations won’t be available for some time.
The biggest population gains were among Latinos, who now make up 37.6 percent of California’s total population, compared with 32 percent in the 2000 census. The white population dropped to about 40 percent of the state’s total, versus 46.7 percent in 2000.
For the first time, Latino children made up a majority of California's under-18 population, according to the 2010 data—a figure that suggests the state’s total Latino population will surpass 50 percent by 2020.
But the state’s Asian population posted the biggest rate of growth, up 31 percent over the past decade, compared with 28 percent for Latinos. The biggest percentage gains occurred in five Bay Area counties, said David E. Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee in San Francisco, putting the region "at the heart of Asian-American political influence in the state."
Asians now make up 12.8 percent of California’s population—and closer to 15.5 percent when Pacific Islanders and people of mixed race are included, said Dan Ichinose, director of the Demographic Research Project at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles. "This is very important because Asians are disproportionately multiracial," he added.
California’s black population, on the other hand, was in retreat, with urban areas—Oakland is a striking example—suffering the biggest declines. The slide in population could mean the loss of African-American seats in Congress, the state Legislature, city councils and county Board of Supervisors, experts said.
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Many of those urban African Americans migrated to the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, drawn by cheaper housing prices and a more appealing quality of life—until the Great Recession left those areas economically decimated.
Shift in Political Clout From Coast to Interior
Indeed, the state’s fastest growing counties were in the Central Valley and Inland Empire, signaling a coming shift in political clout away from coastal areas such as Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area, analysts said. The census data will be used to redraw California's political districts to elect members of Congress and the state Legislature in Sacramento.
Overall, the state’s population increased by 10 percent over the decade, to 37.2 million—a relatively modest gain that means that, for the first time since California became a state in 1850, it will add no Congressional seats in the national political reapportionment that follows every census count.
"The big story for California is it's now becoming an anchor rather than a magnet in the West," William Frey, demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., told the Wall Street Journal.
Many of the state’s demographic trends have moderated along with overall growth, noted Hans Johnson, director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California. “We’ve seen a moderation in terms of some of the ethnic population increases—we’ve continued to see a strong increase in Latinos and Asians, but not as high as in the past. We continue to see whites leaving California, but the flow outward is slower. The net effect is an increasingly diverse population.”
Just as significant, “California’s ethnic diversity is not just isolated to a few big cities,” Johnson pointed out. “In New York state, it’s really just New York City that’s diverse—the rest of the state is very white. But in California, we saw with this census that suburban areas are often very diverse. San Bernardino has a higher proportion of Latinos than L.A. County. I would not have guessed that we would see that.”
Lee cited the economy and jobs as key factors explaining the population patterns. It is significant that in the very expensive, very competitive Bay Area, Asians are thriving as a population group,” he said. “Asians are integral to high technology, biotech, finance, tourism, and trade with China—all the major industries of the region.”
In the Southland and Central Valley, he added, agriculture, light manufacturing and service industries tend to be dominant, drawing more Hispanics.
Latinos Account for 90 Percent of Increase
The spike in California’s Latino population mirrors what’s been seen around the country as the latest census data is released in states as different as Texas, Nevada, Illinois, Washington and North Carolina. Even in places such as South Dakota, Mississippi, Maryland, and Arkansas, the Latino population doubled in the past decade, growing at 10 times the rate of the non-Latino populations.
Of California’s 3.4 million new residents, some 90 percent are Latino, said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research and advocacy at the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund in Los Angeles. That growth largely offset the 5.4 percent decline in the state’s non-Hispanic white population over the same period. “Without Latino population growth, California would not have been able to maintain its  Congressional seats and the political power that goes with them,” Gold said.
Much of that growth occurred in parts of the state—such as Riverside, San Bernardino, San Joaquin, Kern, and Contra Costa counties—that have been heavily white and Republican. For example, in Riverside County, whose 41.7 percent population gain made it the fastest-growing county in the state, the number of Latinos surged by 78 percent, while whites—who made up 51 percent of the population in 2000—slipped to 36.2 percent of the total in 2010.
A study last year by the Brookings Institution found that the Inland Empire had the largest increase in Latino population of any metropolitan region in the nation during the last decade.
The shift in places like Riverside is sure to lead to clashes as the brand-new Citizens Redistricting Commission uses the census data to draw new districts for Congressional and state lawmakers. “The commissioners are going to need to take into account the fact that you have significant Latino population growth in different parts of the state,” Gold said.
Gold said the census data also highlighted the need for lawmakers to pay more attention to the concerns of Latino young people. “Fifty-one percent of Californians under age 18 —one out of two youth —are Latino. They are California’s future leaders, California’s future electorate, California’s future workforce. So for California to prosper and have a robust democracy, it must address the needs of Latino youth.”
Other parts of the state saw population changes that could also dramatically reshape their politics.
- In the conservative bastion of Orange County, minorities—who tend to lean more Democratic—for the first time surpassed whites to become the majority of the population.
- In heavily Latino Los Angeles, the Asian population grew faster than any other population group. But in such cities as Carson and Compton, long known as African-American enclaves, the populations became majority Latino (in Compton, Latinos made up 65 percent of residents in 2010).
- In San Francisco, the number of Asians grew by 11 percent, while the white population shrank by 12.5 percent and the black population of San Francisco plunged by 22.6 percent. (Click here for a map showing the distribution of San Francisco's Asian community, courtesy of Lee and the Chinese American Voters Education Committee.)
- The once largely white suburbs of Contra Costa and Alameda counties have also seen a huge influx of Asians.
- Close to 33,000 blacks migrated from Oakland over the past 10 years, a 23 percent drop in the city’s black population. African Americans now make up just 27 percent of its population, versus 25 percent for Latinos, 26 percent for whites, and 17 percent for Asians.
- Richmond, long known as a black enclave, is now 39 percent Hispanic, versus 27 percent a decade ago.