Minority populations make strides in metro Atlanta demographics

It has been nearly 40 years since Atlanta began its initiative to become an international city.

For the U.S. Census Bureau, that time has finally come.

Metro Atlanta's minority population continues to grow at a quickened pace that is likely to change the make up of the state's central core, according to recently released census figures compiled in 2009.

Gwinnett County last year joined Fulton, DeKalb, Clayton and Rockdale in demographics where the minority population added together is larger than the white population. That represents a momentous flip from 1990 when the county was about 90 percent non-Hispanic white.

Several more metro counties, including Douglas and Henry, are close to seeing their racial and ethnic majority change, possibly as soon as the completion of the ongoing decennial census.

In fact, almost 85 percent of all metro Atlanta growth in 2009 was in minority population, including a whopping 92 percent in the core metro counties of Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton, according to census figures. Exurbs like Rockdale, Fayette, Cherokee, Henry, Forsyth and Douglas counties remain majority white, but their minority populations have almost tripled, going from 104,000 in 2000 to 294,000 in 2009, according to the census.

The population shift could have far-reaching ramifications in everything from schools to jobs to politics, demographers and other experts say. There would be newer needs for social services, a different vision on transportation and more affordable housing, said Jim Skinner, research planner with the Atlanta Regional Commission.

The boom also brings with it economic consequences. The population shift is occurring not because of white flight from metro Atlanta, but low birth rates among that group. Immigration and higher birth rates within minorities, especially in the Hispanic community, will soon lead to minorities filling the jobs of an aging white population, he said.

From 2000 to 2009, Gwinnett County’s minority population increased by almost 215,000 residents. Although the Census Bureau just recognized Gwinnett’s changeover to a majority minority population, county residents have seen the trend coming for years.

In 2003, the First Baptist Church in Lilburn began eight separate language services for its diverse congregation and surrounding neighborhoods. Since then, the Hispanic congregation has grown to more than 100 members, with Chinese and Vietnamese services just trailing that number.

“Several years ago our congregation was faced with the decision of whether to move to the suburbs and we decided to stay here,” said David Huff, associate pastor of worship and administration. “It’s been fascinating to watch the ministry that goes on here at the church”

Gwinnett’s school system reached a majority minority enrollment level during the 2004-2005 school year, when the white student population was 46.5 percent. Over the past 10 years, the numbers of limited English and Title I programs (for disadvantaged or migratory students) have increased, said schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach.

The increasing minority numbers have carried over into county services, where health and human services officials have identified 25 different countries of origin among their senior center clients. The department has seen enrollment increase for its English classes as well as traffic to its one-stop service centers.

The changing demographics are not without challenges, said agency director Pat Baker. For example, providing meals that appeal to every appetite and satisfy dietary requirements of a federal grant can be difficult, Baker said.

“As this area becomes more Hispanic, you see more of a mix of changes in things as small as eateries,” said David Grable, a 12-year Norcross resident visiting Gwinnett Place Mall in Duluth for lunch. “I was going to [visit] Chick-Fil-A for lunch, but it’s no longer in the food court.”

As the area demographics have changed, the mall reflects how the entire county has begun to cater to Hispanics and Asians, said Tanisha Arnold, 38, who works in the mall.

For Arnold, the changes have not all been good.

“[The Asians and Hispanics] cater to their own people and it seems like they don’t want other people patronizing their stores. They are not inviting,” she said. “It’s getting to where Americans are being forgotten.”

Signs of change accompanied the 2008 presidential election, said Emory University political science professor Merle Black. Reliable Democratic strongholds like Fulton, DeKalb and Clayton counties were joined by Rockdale, Douglas and Newton in voting for Barack Obama.

"And in Cobb and Gwinnett, the margins by which [Obama] ran behind John McCain was much smaller than in previous elections," he said.

State Rep. Alisha Morgan, who represents parts of Cobb County, estimates her district has grown from 30 percent black when she first ran for office in 2002 to 55 percent black today.

Between 2000 and 2009, Cobb's minority population increased by more than 104,000 residents, jumping from 20 percent of the total population to 25 percent last year, according to census figures.

"What we're seeing in Cobb is some of the longtime elected officials are struggling because the demographics are changing and it's requiring them to meet the challenges of connecting to their constituencies,” Morgan said. “For any district that is growing majority minority, you have to have a certain skill set to be a bridge builder.”

In his field, Michael Dorsey is the ultimate bridge builder.

The Atlanta native and Cobb businessman owns the one-stop DJ Diva Beauty Outlet on Austell Road in Marietta. The outlet includes a beauty supply store, hair salon and barber shop, with a wig and clothing store.

Dorsey, 43, is an African-American owner of a business traditionally owned and operated by Koreans, he said, but he has become an accepted owner in the area.

He estimated Hispanics make up about 35 percent of DJ's clientele opposed to 45 percent black patrons, with whites and other ethnic groups filling out the remaining 20 percent.

“Minorities rule this area and this business is made for minorities,” he said. “I give them respect and in turn they give me respect.”

Jamaican immigrant Stephen Willoughby, 35, is hoping the mixed communities surrounding his Talk of the Town Soul Food restaurant in Austell keep his business afloat.

Willoughby, who opened the restaurant last year, serves all traditional soul food favorites, including greens, pork chops and fried chicken. And while all the customers at his store one recent evening were minorities, he said his clientele is actually 65 percent white. The New York transplant appreciates the diversity of his customers, as well as his neighborhood.

“The one thing good about Atlanta, everywhere you go there are minorities,” Willoughby said.