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CITY/STATE: How White Providence Really Is

Monday, May 20, 2013


The city of Providence is a very diverse place. In fact, it’s over 62% minority, making it a so-called “minority majority” city. However, the city of Providence is only a very small part of the overall state and region.

Metropolitan Providence is one of the whitest major regions in America. Looking at metro areas with more than one million people, Providence ranks third in the country for the total non-minority population. The percentage of the population that is “white only, non-hispanic” – Hispanic people can be of any race – is nearly 80%. Only Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are higher.

The minority population of the region is heavily concentrated in its traditional urban core. Providence and Pawtucket alone account for over half the state’s minority population. About 75% of the state’s minority population lives in one of Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, Cranston, or Woonsocket.

Looking over time, Providence scores better on diversity measures. Its minority population share grew by almost six percentage points from 2000-2011. This puts it in the middle of its large metro peer group. By contrast, other heavily white cities like Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were at the bottom of the charts in minority population change.

Minority population growth actually bailed out the entire region. During that 11 year period metro Providence actually lost over 81,000 non-hispanic white residents. Without minority population growth, the region would have actually shrunk in population.

Non-hispanic white population loss is not uncommon, however. Quite a few larger metro areas did. New York lost almost 700,000 non-Hispanic whites, Los Angeles 450,000 and Boston 135,000.

Speaking of Boston, our more supposedly cosmopolitan neighbor to the north shows us why we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too badly about not being as diverse as some other regions. Boston is by far the whitest of America’s tier one metro areas. It’s 75% white, not much less than Providence – and of its peers only Chicago has even 50% non-Hispanic white population.

The reality is that New England historically never had a huge minority population, unless you could European immigrants. It was the part of historic America furthest from the black slaveholding states of the South. It is next to Canada, not Mexico. And by the time non-European immigration took off, New England was already economically troubled and so was not as attractive for newcomers looking for economic opportunity. Even today Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire are among the top five whitest states. Rhode Island is actually in the middle of the pack.

However, there are implications for the region. We are living in a global economy. This requires global perspectives and global connections. One way you get that is through diverse populations, and ethnic diversity is clearly part of the mix. I’ve observed here before that Rhode Island is dominated by “inside the four walls of the state” type thinking, and a greater percentage of outsiders and more diverse populations would help provide more global perspective.

Given that migration is network based, the fewer minorities you have, the fewer inbound networks you have, making it more difficult to build up over time. Clearly Providence is demonstrating reasonably good performance in increasing minority population share versus some other heavily white post-industrial cities, which is good news.

The concentration of minority populations in the urban center is not unusual. However, given the jurisdictional fragmentation that exists in New England, you’ve got some places like Providence that are in effect minority dominated whereas many other places are almost entirely white. This can potentially create difficulties in trying to work together as a state and region on common problems. Given that minority populations are decentralizing over time just as the white population has, this gap may start to close itself over time as more outlying towns become more diverse.

Aaron M. Renn an opinion-leading urban affairs analyst, entrepreneur, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive in the 21st century. In his blog, The Urbanophile, he has created America’s premier destination for serious, in depth, non-partisan, and non-dogmatic analysis and discussion of the issues facing America’s cities and regions in the 21st century. Renn’s writings have also appeared in publications such as Forbes, the New York Times, and City Journal. Renn is also the founder and CEO of Telestrian, a data analysis platform that provides powerful data mining and visualization capabilities previously only available in very expensive, difficult to use tools at a fraction of the cost and with far superior ease of use.


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