White populations decline in diversifying Atlanta suburbs

Johns Creek leads list of new majority-minority Georgia cities, per census
Aklla Sumaq, a Peruvian dance group, performs during the Johns Creek International Festival on Oct. 23, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Aklla Sumaq, a Peruvian dance group, performs during the Johns Creek International Festival on Oct. 23, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

When Pablo Cecere, an Argentine immigrant, moved to the Atlanta metro area roughly four years ago, he and his family decided to settle in Johns Creek.

The north Fulton County city bore an appealing resemblance to the leafy Buenos Aires suburb of Pilar, where Cecere lived in the past. An even more determinant factor for the family — which includes two teenage sons — was the city’s top-rated public schools.

“Like a lot of people who move to this area, we came because we were looking for good education,” said Cecere, a technology consultant and current candidate for the Johns Creek City Council.

Cecere and his family are part of a diverse wave of new arrivals who, according to recent census data, helped flip the city of 82,453 residents from majority-white to majority-minority in 2020. Since 2010, the number of Hispanic residents in Johns Creek surged by 45%. The city also added 1,606 new Black residents, and it saw its large and multicultural Asian population, which makes up roughly 30% of the total population, grow by 37.5%.

Over the past 10 years, 53 cities in Georgia became majority-minority, an indication of the state’s overall diversification (per the census, Georgia as a whole is just over 50% white, on the verge of also reaching majority-minority status). Only 10 cities statewide flipped in the other sense, from majority-minority to majority-white.

Of all the cities that became newly majority-minority, Johns Creek is the largest, by population. The 10 biggest cities in the state to have undergone a similar demographic shift include Gwinnett County’s Peachtree Corners (No. 4), Sugar Hill (No. 8), Suwanee (No. 9) and Snellville (No. 10). Of the smaller cities that have also flipped majority-minority, six are located at least partly in metro Atlanta’s five core counties: Buford, Loganville, Mountain Park, Hampton, Dacula and Grayson.

Mike Bodker has served as mayor of Johns Creek since 2006, when the city was incorporated.

“We celebrate our diversity … It’s a source of pride,” he said. “I love the fact that we have so many different cultures here and that there’s so much to learn from my fellow citizens.”

People walk around the vendor tends during the Johns Creek International Festival on October 23, 2021. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

Impact of diversification

New majority-minority designations for cities in suburban Atlanta aren’t just the product of growing minority populations. The shift is also caused by shrinking white populations in those areas, possibly a sign of so-called white flight’s enduring influence on metro area demographics. White flight refers to “the departure of white residents from places (such as urban neighborhoods or schools) increasingly or predominantly populated by minorities,” according to Merriam-Webster.

In Johns Creek, the expansion of diverse communities in the past decade took place alongside a 14% reduction of the city’s white population. Johns Creek recorded 6,510 fewer white residents in 2020 compared to 2010.

Across the five core counties, Peachtree Corners, Suwanee, Snellville, Loganville, Mountain Park, Hampton and Dacula all followed a similar pattern.

In Snellville, the Hispanic population increased by 96% since 2010 (+1,298 residents), the Black population increased by 50% (+2,668) and the Asian population increased by 109% (+646). During that same period, the white population went down by over 27% (-2,855 residents). In Mountain Park, the white population is 19% smaller than it was in 2010. In Hampton, it’s nearly 16% smaller.

Charles Bullock, a University of Georgia political science professor, posits that a “small share” of those moving away from the suburbs may be “empty nesters” who are choosing to relocate closer to Atlanta, where the white population has grown since 2010.

Over in Johns Creek, Mayor Bodker says white residents and families make the decision to move for a slew of practical reasons, be it to pursue work opportunities elsewhere or to live in municipalities with lower tax burdens.

“I don’t think they are looking around and saying, ‘I want to get out of here because of the population change.’ I don’t think there’s a fear,” he said. “We’re not a community that has infighting.”

But Deirdre Oakley, an urban sociologist at Georgia State University, says a broad pattern of “white exodus” tends to reliably manifest in metro Atlanta whenever growing minority populations reach a “tipping point” in a given community.

“I mean, it’s got to be about race. Because, what else would it be about? These are good schools, safe neighborhoods. ... There’s no other explanation for it,” she said.

An affluent city northeast of Atlanta, Johns Creek regularly claims tops spots in such lists as “safest cities in Georgia,” “best suburbs in Georgia,” or “best places to raise a family in Georgia.”

“What suburban whites keep doing is, as their city or county in the suburbs gets more and more diverse, they tend to move farther out. It’s sort of an iterative effect,” she added. “So if one city becomes, you know, 30% Asian, that might lead to a percentage of the white population moving farther out. And then the question is, how far will they go without just leaving the state?”

Added Bullock: “This is part of a long, long, long-term phenomenon of white people moving further and further out. [At the beginning] it was simply people leaving Atlanta. And now, you know, Johns Creek is a long way from Five Points.”

Oakley explained that suburbia with higher levels of segregation are typically able to retain white residents longer than suburbs where residents of different races and backgrounds come into more frequent contact with one another.

“If it’s segregated, you’re in a segregated white neighborhood and they’re in segregated minority neighborhood, that probably wouldn’t instigate white flight. But if these neighborhoods become more and more integrated, it might just do that.”

History and political implications

The first iteration of this type of demographic shift in Atlanta took off in earnest in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement began making progress toward a more integrated city. Over the course of that decade, roughly 60,000 white residents left the urban core, with many of them moving to the suburbs along the northern rim.

White residents started relocating even farther away starting in the 1990s, in response to the arrival of immigrant populations that, according to Oakley, “have always tended to be suburban.” New residents also included Black professionals from other U.S. cities. The pattern has been in effect since then, and it “has accelerated between 2010 and 2020.”

Per Oakley, the gradually widening footprint of white residents relocating from diversifying suburbs helps account for the shifting politics of metro Atlanta, where Democrats registered notable gains during the 2020 presidential and 2021 Senate runoff elections.

But Bullock says that diversification inside suburbs could yield Democrats only a “short term” advantage, were Georgia Republicans to replicate tactics that proved successful with immigrant voters in places like South Florida.

“Ultimately Republicans may figure out that if they want to remain competitive, they need to begin to appeal to some of these minority voters. Now they haven’t done that so far, at least not in Georgia ... But at some point they may decide to go after some minority groups.”

Growing minority populations could also reshuffle metro Atlanta politics at the municipal level.

“Over here, they love saying that everybody has a seat at the table. But then the people at the table end up all being white. They say, ‘I may be white but I will represent all the minorities,’ and that’s not how it goes,” said Cecere, the Argentine immigrant running for a spot on the Johns Creek City Council, a currently all-white board.

Cecere’s platform includes devising policies of outreach and support to immigrant residents and minority-owned small businesses.

“We have to use our diversity to power the growth of the city,” he said.

The candidate field for the Johns Creek City Council also includes Rashmi Singh. If successful, she would become the first Indian American woman to hold elected office in Georgia, according to an endorsement from the Asian American Advocacy Fund.

“Representation of who we are as a city should be reflected in the council,” she said.

Data Specialist Jennifer Peebles contributed to this article.

Lautaro Grinspan is a Report for America corps member covering metro Atlanta’s immigrant communities.