Blacks, Hispanics lead metro population growth

The last 10 years saw a boom in the number of black, Hispanic and Asian residents in metro Atlanta, while the number of white residents fell in four of the area’s five biggest counties, according to U.S. Census figures released Thursday.

The surge in minorities as a percentage of the population also occurred at the state level. Georgia added 1.5 million people, an 18 percent increase. The Hispanic population grew 96 percent, followed an 81 percent increase in Asian residents and a 26 percent increase in black Georgians. The white population grew less than 6 percent statewide.

The numbers paint a compelling portrait of a state and a metro area becoming increasingly diverse. If that’s not a major surprise, it’s because the Census Bureau’s annual American Community Survey, which made its debut in 2005, has been spelling out the changes for the past five years.

But unlike that survey data, the decennial census, designed to count every person in the nation every 10 years, has no margin of error. It makes the changes official.

The impact of this growth will be felt in any number of ways. The 10-year count is used by state legislators in redistricting, redrawing the state’s election maps. It’s also important to all the groups who want to make the case that they deserve a seat at the table in deciding how districts are formed. And its vital to organizations that receive federal funding based on population.

The biggest surprise for some researchers was the increase in black residents, who were found not only in the traditional urban core, but increasingly moving to the suburbs and exurbs.

DeShawn Lewis came to Marietta in January 2010 after a job transfer took him away from Shreveport, La. In June, Lewis bought a house in Kennesaw to find a better school for his girlfriend’s 14-year-old son.

To the 32-year-old Lewis, the metro Atlanta area has more than lived up to its billing as a hub for young black professionals.

“Every black person you meet here is a professional,” said Lewis, a quality program manager with General Electric. “And the neighborhoods here are very diverse. The schools are great. The only thing bad is the traffic.”

Residents like Lewis are part of a national migration of African Americans back to the south more than 50 years after they fled northward to escape the South’s Jim Crow laws.

Georgia is among the top states in the growth of the non-Hispanic black population, said William Frey, demographer with the Brookings Institution in Washington, a nonprofit think tank. He said Georgia is leading the way in black growth because of deep family ties, cultural links and a perception of reduced discrimination.

As predicted, the Hispanic population exploded in metro Atlanta over the decade, especially in the city's northern suburbs. In Gwinnett County, for instance, the number of Hispanics grew more than 152 percent, while Cobb County showed an 80 percent increase, Fulton 51 percent and DeKalb 29 percent.  Hispanics also were represented on the south side, showing a 100 percent increase in Clayton County.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the major growth in the Hispanic community must translate into more political voice for that population. He said the association will closely watch the political redistricting process to ensure that the drawing of district lines does not dilute the Hispanic voice.

The metro area's white population was just as fluid. Clayton, DeKalb, Cobb and Gwinnett counties all lost white residents, while Fulton, Henry, Paulding, Forsyth and Cherokee saw increases in the number of white residents.

But the losses were stark. Clayton's white population plummeted from 82,637 to 36,610, a 56 percent decline. Cobb's white population fell 7.3 percent, DeKalb's dropped 5 percent and Gwinnett's decreased by 10 percent.

Patrick Duncan, a white resident of Clayton,  is president and chief executive officer of the county's Convention & Visitors Bureau. He moved to Clayton four years ago from Florida.

“I've enjoyed living in Clayton,” he said. “I really feel like I’m out of the hustle and bustle of the city and I find it very relaxing. It’s nice to have a four and a half mile commute to work. Years ago, I lived on the north side and worked downtown. The commute was horrible."

In contrast to counties such as Clayton, the city of Atlanta experienced an influx of white residents .

Courtney Delaney, a white Atlanta resident, moved to the city in 2007 after landing a job with Carter’s Inc., a Midtown-based fashion company. The St. Louis native knew she wanted to live in the thick of things, so she chose an apartment within a half-mile of her Midtown office.

“I wanted to be in a hip metro area, and I didn’t want to deal with the traffic,” said Delaney, 28. “I wanted to be in a work-play area.”

The ultimate result of all these trends: The more things change, the more once-disparate areas begin to look the same.

"There is not as marked a difference in the racial mix in the suburbs," said Roger Tutterow, an economics professor at Mercer University. "All people want the same thing -- good schools, affordability and quality of life. These things cross racial lines."