Howard County and ethnic diversity in the 21st century, part 1

4 minute read

Continuing my series on Howard County in the 21st century, in my next two posts I address the question of ethnic diversity. As described in an article on Columbia published by the News 21 project, promotion of ethnic diversity was part of the Columbia founding vision:

Simply stated, we are color-blind, [Jim Rouse] wrote in a 1967 memo to Columbia developers. This means that every person or family coming to Columbia to seek a lot, an apartment, a house; to start a business; to play golf, tennis, ride horseback, sail, swim, or use any other facility open to the public will be treated alike regardless of whether the color of his skin is white, black, brown or yellow.

As the article notes, given the state of the country at the time this commitment to diversity and tolerance was worthy of note. But how might this translate to the 21st century?

Let’s do a reality check against the census data. The main categories I’ll look at are African-Americans, Asian-Americans, multiracial persons, and Hispanics (who may be of any race—the Census Bureau treats this as a cultural and not racial category). These groups form 16.6%, 11.2%, 2.7%, and 4.7% of Howard County’s population respectively, or over a third of the total population assuming minimal overlap in the groups.

(Note that you can’t necessarily just add the numbers due to the potential for double-counting; e.g., someone could identify as both African-American and Hispanic, or as both African-American and multiracial. I’ve attempted to minimize overlap by counting as African-Americans and Asian-Americans only those identifying themselves as being of one race. Note also that these numbers are lower than the numbers in the article quoted above, although they apparently used similar census data. At least part of this discrepancy is probably due to my using figures for Howard County as a whole as opposed to just Columbia, and another part due to my using the lower single race figures for African- and Asian-Americans.)

We could compare these numbers to the figures for the US as a whole (12.3% African-American, 4.4% Asian-American, 2.2% multiracial, and 15.1% Hispanic), but I think a more useful comparison is with other local jurisdictions. For example, if we look at the comparable census data for Montgomery County we see that African-Americans make up 16.1% of the population, Asian-Americans 13.1%, multiracial persons 2.4%, and Hispanics 14.4%. Howard and Montgomery thus have similar diversity with respect to the non-Hispanic population, with Montgomery being more diverse with Hispanics included in the mix.

However a better comparison is probably with Frederick County, like Howard a semi-rural county adjacent to Montgomery and tied to the Washington-Baltimore regional economy. According to its census data Frederick County’s proportion of African-Americans is half of Howard’s (8.3% vs. 16.6%), its proportion of Asian-Americans a third of Howard’s (3.6% vs. 11.2%), and its proportion of multiracial persons two-thirds of Howard’s (1.8% vs. 2.7%); however Frederick County’s proportion of Hispanics is somewhat higher than Howard’s (5.6% vs. 4.7%).

So the image of Howard County as a relatively diverse jurisdiction appears to be at least somewhat true: relative to a similarly situated suburban county Howard County has a much higher proportion of both African-Americans and Asian-Americans. The former is presumably due in large part to the relatively welcoming environment Columbia offered African-American and mixed-race couples beginning in the 1960s, and the latter due to multiple waves of immigration from Korea, mainland China and Taiwan, India, and other countries beginning in the 1970s and continuing through today. (The report Howard County’s Foreign-born Community: Dimensions, Growth and Implications discusses immigration to Howard County in more depth.)

Looking back at the data from the 1990 census, we see that Howard County’s African-American population has grown relatively slowly (from 14.1% in 1990 to 18.0% today) while the Asian-American and Hispanic populations have about doubled (from 5.2% in 1990 to 12.2% today for Asian-Americans, and from 2.4% to 4.7% for Hispanics). (Note that the multiracial category was not added until the 2000 census, so in order to compare the 1990 values to the 2006-2008 values I am here counting as African-American and Asian-American those individuals who identified themselves as being multiracial in addition to being African- or Asian-American.)

Immigration thus now seems to be the primary driver of increased diversity in Howard County. This changing face of the county is reflected on the cover of the most recent issue of Howard Life magazine, a promotional publication put out by Howard County Tourism. Tourism brochures reflect not only how we wish others to see us, but also how we wish to see ourselves. Here Howard County portrays itself as a place where a Korean-American couple can find success as professionals and small-business owners, and with their daughter can enjoy the best that Columbia and Ellicott City have to offer. Per the magazine they love living in Howard County, and we’re glad they do.

So, this is all good, and we can continue marching into the 21st century as one big happy diverse family, with our only concern being keeping track of our expanded ethnic restaurant options. Right? I’ll come back to that question in my next post.