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In Houston, America's Diverse Future Has Already Arrived

Jul 1, 2013
Originally published on July 1, 2013 9:16 am

All this week, NPR is taking a look at the demographic changes that could reshape the political landscape in Texas over the next decade — and what that could mean for the rest of the country.

To see the speed of demographic change in Texas, look no further than its largest city — Houston. Only 40 percent of the city's population is non-Hispanic white, and by a Rice University count, it's the most racially and ethnically diverse city in America.

"Houston is an immigrant magnet," says Glenda Joe, a Chinese-Texan community organizer whose extended family came to Houston in the 1880s.

"Texas looks like me. I'm half-Chinese; I'm half-Irish," she says. "I also do business; I work with universities; I also ride horses. That's what Texas is."

At about 35 percent of the population, Latinos make up the second-biggest group in Houston after non-Hispanic whites or Anglos, according to Census numbers. But Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing group — doubling between the 1990 and 2010 census to about 7 percent.

"There is no majority group here, not even close," says Michael Emerson, a Rice University sociologist who studies Houston's demographic change. He and his research partners put together the 2012 analysis that gave Houston the title of most diverse metropolitan area in America. If you look at the four major ethnic groups — Anglo, black, Asian and Latino — all have substantial numbers in Houston, with no one group dominating. It comes closer to having an equal balance of each group than you would find in New York or Los Angeles.

The city's transformation to an international megalopolis happened quickly, and only within the past few decades. As the metro area shot to nearly 6 million people, 93 percent of all that growth was non-white.

"Houston runs about 10, 15 years ahead of Texas, 30 years ahead of the U.S., in terms of ethnic diversity and immigration flows," Emerson says. "So it is fundamentally transformed in a way that all of America shall transform."

Jobs fuel the transformation. The energy industry remains a huge player, but there's also the Texas Medical Center, burgeoning biotech and a bustling shipping port. Despite crippling humidity, long commutes and a reputation for refineries, Houston's cheap land, affordable homes and low barriers to doing business have lured immigrants from all over.

"You are here to make your fortune; you are here to move ahead in the world. You are about making things happen. There's no way that you could be a leader here in this community and not recognize that," says Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is a minority among politicians. She's the only female mayor among the top 10 most populous cities, and she's one of the only openly gay politicians, period. And she's learned a few lessons about governing a place where different cultures combine.

"Too often what happens in a state capital or in Washington is that it is about parties and partisanship, not about the practical realities of running something. Cities have to run," Parker says.

For her, running the place means embracing the sociological situation. Houston is remarkably practical that way. Just ask seventh-generation Chinese-Houstonian Glenda Joe.

"It's inexorable. The change in terms of leadership, the change in terms of how we look — it's inexorable," Joe says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

To see the speed of demographic change in Texas, one need, look no further than its largest city, Houston. Today, only 40 percent of the city's population is made up of non Hispanic whites, making it one of the most diverse cities in America.

NPR's Elise Hu reports on lessons Houston can offer the rest of the nation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Pescado. Pescado.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: If it wasn't for the explosive growth of immigrant populations in Houston, businessman Vican Sun's wholesale club wouldn't exist.

VICAN SUN: From what I know, Sun's Wholesale Club, is one of a kind.

HU: Here, you can buy bok choy only 30 pounds at a time. Tofu packed in bags the same size as mulch. Or a whole hog.

SUN: So we have to sell hanging meat, because so fresh.

HU: Latino's make up the largest ethnic group in Houston. But Asian-Americans grew the fastest, doubling in population between the 1990 and 2010 census. As both populations soared, demand for bulk ethnic food from Asia and Central America got so intense that Sun's small grocery store grew into a sprawling 200,000 square foot campus. Today, he employs 350 people from more than a dozen countries.

GLENDA JOE: Houston is an immigrant magnet. And when immigrants come, they bring their food, and thank goodness they do.

HU: That's Glenda Joe, who's guiding our tour through strip-mall lined Southwest Houston. Joe's a Chinese-Texan community organizer whose family has lived here since before there were cars.

JOE: Texas looks like me. I'm half Chinese. I'm half Irish. I also do business. I work with universities. I also ride horses. That's what Texas is.

HU: Houston's demographic numbers back her up.

MICHAEL EMERSON: There is no majority group here, not even close.

HU: Michael Emerson is one of the Rice University sociologists that studies Houston's demographic change. He says the metro area's growth is recent, doubling to six million people within the last few decades. And 93 percent of all that growth was non-White.

EMERSON: So, Houston runs about 10, 15 years ahead of Texas, 30 years ahead of the U.S. in terms of its ethnic diversity and immigration flows here. So it is fundamentally transformed in the way that all of America shall transform.

HU: Jobs fuel the transformation. The energy industry remains a huge player, but there's also the Texas medical center, burgeoning biotech and a bustling shipping port.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN ALARM)

HU: Despite crippling humidity, long commutes and a reputation for refineries, Houston's cheap land, affordable homes, and low barriers to doing business have lured immigrants from all over.

It's a situation Houston Mayor Annise Parker knows well.

MAYOR ANNISE PARKER: You are here to make your fortune. You are here to move ahead in the world. You are about making things happen. There's no way that you could be a leader, here in this community, and not recognize that.

HU: Parker is a minority among politicians, the only female mayor among the top 10 cities, and one of the only openly gay politicians - period. So she's learned a few lessons about governing a place where different cultures combine.

PARKER: Too often what happens in a state capital or in Washington, is that it is about parties and partisanship, not about the practical realities of running something. Cities have to run.

HU: For her, running the place means embracing the sociological situation. Houston is practical that way. Just ask our seventh-generation Chinese-Houstonian Glenda Joe.

It's inexorable. The change in terms of leadership, the change in how we look, it's inexorable.

In Houston, America's culturally-converged future is now.

Elise Hu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, how the changing demographics in Texas could effect the electoral map in future presidential elections.

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.