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Rural America, mostly white, is becoming more diverse

Three-quarters of rural Americans are white, a larger proportion than the roughly six in 10 for the nation overall, but the rural population is becoming more diverse, said a pair of analyses of Census data. The rural America of the future will be increasingly diverse and not as politically conservative as many assume, said the Brookings Institution.

“Contrary to the dominant narratives that use ‘rural’ as a synonym for ‘white,’ 24% of rural Americans were people of color in 2020,” said Brookings. “While rural America is still less diverse than the nation as a whole (42.2% people of color), it is diversifying as well: The median rural county saw its population of color increase by 3.5 percentage points between 2010 and 2020.”

The rural population was relatively static from 2010 to 2020, increasing by just 164,000, or 0.3%. But the rural Hispanic population surged by nearly 1 million people, or 20%, in the past decade. Meanwhile, the number of whites declined by almost 5% and the rural Black population fell by 6%.

“The overall rural population between 2010 and 2020 would have declined substantially if not for growth in its Hispanic population,” three researchers from the Housing Assistance Council said in the Daily Yonder. Hispanics make up 10.4% of the rural population and Blacks make up 7.4%. People of two or more races make up 4% of the rural population, and Native Americans are 2%, twice the national rate.

There are highly regionalized variations in the concentration of Blacks, Latino Americans, and Native Americans, said Brookings. “Rural counties in the South and West are particularly racially and ethnically diverse — with a substantial number of rural areas in these regions majority or near-majority people of color.”

More than 85% of rural Blacks live in the South, said the Housing Assistance Council. A large number of Native Americans live on or near reservations and trust lands in the Plains, Southwest, and Alaska. Nearly half of rural Hispanics live in four states — Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona.

“The regional variation also has political ramifications,” said Brookings. Former president Trump won only three majority-Black rural counties and did not fare well with rural voters working in the hospitality and leisure sector, particularly in the West.

“Rural counties with recreation-focused economies were also more likely to gain population over the last decade, meaning the future of rural America is not only increasingly diverse but not as conservative as many assume,” wrote Brookings researchers D.W. Rowlands and Hanna Love.

The Housing Assistance Council researchers said, “Despite advances made through the civil rights movement, labor struggles, and increased self-determination, the experiences and conditions of non-white rural residents and communities are often overlooked given their relatively small populations.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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