Majority-Minority Counties in the US, 1790-2010

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Map in gif/gallery form here.

The map/slideshow above shows the location of majority-minority counties in every United States Census from 1790 to 2010. There has been a lot of commentary on the news that America is projected to become a majority-minority country in the next few decades, with minorities set to be over 50% of the population by 2044. Four states (Hawaii, California, New Mexico, and Texas) are already majority-minority, and the growing diversity of America is reshaping our politics, culture, and society.

However, the concept of a majority-minority nation (or state, or county) is fraught with potential confusion, since our understanding of who counts as a minority in America is constantly shifting. These shifts are reflected in the Census’ changing racial categories, which can be explored with this great interactive resource from Vox.  For example, much of the recent rise in the minority population has been driven by a growing Hispanic population, but until 1980 most Hispanics were counted as White by the Census.

Definitions of race have shifted even more suddenly in the past: in 1920 Mexicans were counted by the Census as White, but were then switched to being a separate race in 1930, and then were switched back to being White in 1940. These quick changes were not arbitrary, but came out of changing American views of Mexicans. In the 1920s, fear of Mexicans and illegal immigration began to grow, and in 1925 the border patrol was first established. This prompted the switch of Mexicans from being formally White to being a minority group in 1930 (although it is important to note that Mexicans were already being treated as second-class citizens in many states). However, in the 1930s Mexican diplomats and Mexican-Americans protested vigorously against the loss of “Mexican Whiteness”. The racial “threat” of Mexicans also receded during this time, as the Great Depression drastically slowed immigration into America. In 1936, the Census Bureau decided that Mexicans would again be considered White, and they remained classified this way until the addition of the Hispanic “ethnicity” in 1980.

The two maps above show how the change of Mexicans to Non-White in 1930 affected the racial geography of the Southwest. In 1920 the only majority-minority counties in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona were a scattering of Native American and Black areas, while in 1930 a new swath of majority-minority Mexican counties suddenly appeared near the US-Mexico border. Thus, as our racial definitions have shifted, so has our sense of which areas are majority-minority.

However, even if race is socially constructed, for certain groups racial definitions have remained stable enough to allow this map of majority-minority counties to also show important migrations. For example, while the American definition of blackness has evolved from the infamous “one drop rule” to the present day’s racial system, where many Americans with Black and White ancestry identify instead as “Multiracial”, the definitions have been stable enough for Census data to capture large historical movements of Blacks. One example you can see on the map/slideshow at the top of this post is The Great Migration of the 20th century. Between 1910 and 1970, six million Blacks moved from the Southern United States to northern cities. They left to escape the oppression and violence of the Jim Crow South, and to find greater economic opportunities in the Northern states. The gif below illustrates this migration, you can see the number of majority-minority Black counties in the South decline from 286 counties in 1900 to only 110 counties in 1970.


Thus, the map/slideshow at the top of this post is able to use the lens of majority-minority counties to show both how racial definitions have changed, and how the demographics of different areas have shifted over time. Future posts on this blog will go into more detail about specific racial shifts shown by the map, such as the disappearance of majority Native-American areas in California, Michigan, and Minnesota in the 1860s, as well as the presence of majority Chinese areas in Idaho in 1870 and 1880. The rest of this post will instead focus on some of the broad trends in the number of majority-minority counties over US history.

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If we want to examine the big picture of racial geography in America, one way is to simply count the number of majority-minority counties over time. The graph above shows the percentage of all counties that are majority-minority from 1790 to 2010. However, this data is somewhat misleading, since different states have hugely varying numbers of counties. For example, while California has a larger population than Texas, California only has 58 counties whereas Texas has 254 counties. This means that states with a large number of counties, like Texas, are weighted too heavily if we only look at the raw number of majority-minority counties over time.

An alternative method is to look at the percentage of the population that lives in those majority-minority counties. This gives us a better sense of how concentrated the minority population is. The chart below pairs that data with the total percentage of the population that is a minority in each decade. Comparing the two shows the relationship between overall minority population, and minority density. The more majority-minority counties there are relative to the minority population, the more densely packed the minority population is.The two statistics mostly move in tandem, so as the minority population goes down in the country, so does the size of the population living in majority-minority counties. However, it is interesting to note that even as the minority percentage of the population stabilizes from 1920-1950, the share of the population living in majority-minority counties continues to drop until 1960. This is likely due to the Great Migration. As Blacks moved north the number of majority-minority counties in the South dropped, but Blacks did not move in large enough numbers to create new majority-minority areas in Northern states. Thus, even while the minority proportion of the population was stable or increasing, minorities were becoming more spread out and less densely packed into the South.

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The overall trend we can see from these charts is that the racial history of the United States resembles a parabola. At the beginning of the nation’s history, the minority percentage of the population (mostly slaves) was high, and a high proportion of the population lived in majority-minority areas in the South. As the minority proportion of the population declined and the Great Migration diffused the Black population into the North, the percentage of majority-minority counties declined until it reached rock bottom in the middle of the 20th century. However, in the past half-century shifting racial definitions, as well as increased immigration and birth rates among minorities, has led to an explosion in both the minority percentage of the population and the size of the population living in majority-minority areas. It is likely that today well over a third of the population lives in majority-minority counties, and in a few decades a majority of Americans will likely be living in those areas.

Note on the Map/Slideshow

One note on the map is that it represents majority-minority counties with a color scheme dictated by whatever the largest minority group is. So, for example, if a county was 49% White, 30% Black, and 21% Asian the county would be colored red to indicate a majority-minority county with the largest group being Black, even though Whites are actually a plurality of the population.

Data Source:

Minnesota Population Center. National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 2.0. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2011.


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