Published in the Star-Ledger, Sunday, December 24, 2006
The changing face of New Jersey
The ethnic and racial makeup of towns large and small is shifting rapidly,
and in some cases dramatically.
Sunday, December 24, 2006
BY ROBERT GEBELOFF AND MARY JO PATTERSON
New Jersey is changing faster than ever, in more places than ever before.
It can be seen in the faces of children crowding Chinese language classes in an affluent suburb. Or at a Colombian lunch counter in a former Morris County mining town. Or in the movement of African-American city dwellers to once segregated subdivisions.
During the last few years, the ethnic communities that make up New Jersey have been rearranging themselves so quickly that entire neighborhoods or towns have acquired a new look or language, often in less time than it takes for a generation of students to go through grammar school.
The 2000 Census, the last major survey of New Jersey's ethnic and racial makeup, is more than a half-decade old and already dated.
To get a clearer picture of the state's radically shifting demographics, The Star-Ledger analyzed recent school enrollment data and found whites declining in number in all but the wealthiest communities; Hispanics replacing African-American families in some of the poorer cities; blacks moving in large numbers into middle-class towns; and Asians establishing new enclaves all over.
Immigration, meanwhile, once confined largely to the cities, is reshaping towns across the state.
"New Jersey has always been an ever-changing state, but the most recent chapter of this cycle is a little different," said Clement Price, a professor of history at Rutgers-Newark with a special interest in race and race relations. "For the first time, New Jersey seems to be on a path where it will no longer be a predominantly white state."
The signs are often obvious. Parsippany, for example, is home to two Hindu temples (and is about to get two more). Bodegas and other Hispanic-oriented shops seem to be sprouting everywhere in Belmar. In many traditionally white towns, Protestant churches with shrinking memberships are often opting to lease space to dynamic immigrant congregations.
Now and then over the past year, demographic change has stirred conflict. In Bogota, a flap arose over a Spanish-language billboard advertising fast food. In Morristown, the rights of day laborers to congregate in the street became a live-wire issue. In Edison, tensions between the growing Asian population and the town's mainly white police force exploded into a near-riot.
In most towns though, the impact is much more subtle.
Over the next four days, The Star-Ledger will examine rapidly diversifying communities that have flown mostly below the radar: tiny Wharton Borough in Morris County, home to many new Hispanic immigrants; sprawling West Orange, in Essex County, which has experienced a surge of black and Hispanic school enrollment; booming Montgomery Township in Somerset, suddenly a dream destination for Asian families; and Union Township, a once-segregated suburb in Union County where race no longer dictates where you live.
Unlike the Census, which is taken only once a decade, the racial and ethnic backgrounds of New Jersey's 1.4 million public school students are collected each year. While those numbers may not exactly mirror a town's population as a whole, demographers believe they indicate where a town is headed, since young families with children are often at the core of community life.
And in some towns, the changes this decade have been dramatic.
Between 2000 and 2006, nearly 100 of 623 New Jersey school districts for which enrollment data was available saw the percentage of minority students rise by at least 10 percentage points, the analysis showed.
Overall, 85 percent of the state's school enrollment growth can be attributed to Hispanic and Asian students. White enrollment increased in only a handful of towns, mostly islands of wealth such as Kinnelon Borough in Morris County, or Rumson in Monmouth, where few blacks or Hispanics live.
By combing through the last six years of school enrollment data, collected by districts every fall and reported to the N.J. Department of Education, The Star-Ledger found:
- Since the start of this decade, more than 300 school districts have lost white enrollment, while 28 districts, in 13 counties, have gone from white-majority to white-minority. The overall makeup of the student body is now less than half white in 96 districts, or about 1 in 6.
- Latino enrollment is up in six out of seven districts statewide since 2000, with 50 districts having seen an increase of 10 or more percent in Latino students.
- The growth in the number of Asian students has been most pronounced in New Jersey's wealthiest districts. At the start of the decade, 1 in 11 students in affluent towns was Asian; today, the number is 1 in 8.
- Black enrollment has declined in the state's poorest school districts and risen in the suburbs. Many of those same suburbs are simultaneously losing whites.
"In the '50s and '60s, the suburbs were a way people saw to shield themselves from diversity," said Eric Oliver, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. "With the diversification of the suburbs, you're going to see these issues coming to the fore again."
Maria Guareno was a physical therapist who lived a comfortable married life in Colombia, with a house and pool and hired help to fix the family's meals. But when her marriage ended in divorce, she decided to seek a better economic future in the United States.
She and her two children landed in Wharton, where a cousin already lived. Maria eventually remarried; her new husband, Rafael, is a construction worker originally from the Dominican Republic.
She ended up renting a three-bedroom apartment in a massive three-family home built a century ago for railroad workers. When she first arrived in Wharton seven years ago, there weren't nearly as many immigrant families; now, just about all of her neighbors are from abroad.
Her daughter, Paola, is a senior at Morris Hills High School. A thoughtful 17-year-old, Paola plans to go to college, where she hopes to study psychology or criminology. She said she likes school, but often feels socially isolated.
"I don't fit in with the white kids because I'm Spanish, but I don't fit in with a lot of the Spanish kids because I speak English," she said.
The Guarenos said they haven't faced any overt discrimination in Wharton, where Latino school enrollment has soared 75 percent since 2000. However, like other recent immigrants, Paola said she sometimes senses the distrustful stares of store merchants and non-Latino neighbors.
Many other towns -- poor and middle-class alike -- are experiencing a huge influx of Hispanic families. They include Red Bank, Freehold, Belmar, New Brunswick, Plainfield and Belleville.
In three of these towns -- Red Bank, New Brunswick and Plainfield -- Hispanic children are actually replacing the black population in the schools, enrollment data show.
In fact, the share of black students attending public schools in poor districts has declined rapidly. Enrollment figures suggest two factors at work: The number of black students attending charter schools has nearly doubled to 9,956 statewide, and many black families have moved into working-class or middle-class towns.
They are people like Roger Smith, whose family moved from Newark to Union Township in 2002. His daughter was 3 at the time.
"I grew up in Newark, in the Central Ward," said Smith, 54, a youth worker for a nonprofit agency in Essex County. "The education I got growing up wasn't the best. That's why we moved to Union."
Smith said he started his house search in Maplewood, and "bumped into Union by mistake." The two towns adjoin. Smith liked like the look and feel of the place.
"I wanted a multiracial community," he said. "In Union , everybody is getting along with each other. Neighbors talk to each other. You won't find neighborhoods dominated by one ethnic group any more. Them days are winding down."
His daughter, meanwhile, is a second-grader at Union's Hannah Caldwell Elementary School. Smith said he was "very pleased, at this point" with her progress.
"My daughter's class has Indians, Brazilians, Africans, African-Americans," Smith said. "It's an amazing sight to see, and the best part is, you see them all getting along with each other."
Asians, meanwhile, are transforming many towns, especially in Central Jersey. Among 30 school districts reporting a significant increase in Asians since 2000 were South Brunswick, Montgomery, Edison, Monroe, Carteret and Parsippany.
While the Asian population is increasing everywhere, it is growing fastest in the state's wealthiest towns. Affluent Montgomery in Somerset County, for example, has attracted a sizable population of Chinese and Indian families in recent years.
"A lot of Asian people live in Pike Run," a huge new development built on farmland in the northern end of town, said Cindy Cen, a Montgomery real estate agent who was born in China. "They like that the houses are new, the town has good schools, and it's a good commute. There's also a Chinese supermarket in South Brunswick. Life is very easy in Montgomery."
At the start of this decade, northern New Jersey was one of the most diverse, yet one of the most segregated, regions of the country, according to demographic studies.
As it becomes even more diverse, sociologists and others are watching to see if it becomes more integrated residentially -- or whether segregation persists.
"If you ask most Americans if they embrace the idea of racial equality, they say, 'No problem,'" said Oliver, the University of Chicago professor. "But if you look at the reality of where people live, it's still a highly segregated country."
One of the biggest unknowns is how Latino immigrants will be assimilated, he said.
"This is a real interesting question," he said. "(Some people ask) 'Why don't they participate in our parades?' They don't feel they are members of the community yet."
Douglas Massey, a Princeton University sociologist who has written extensively about race, thinks skin color will prove key.
He believes light-skinned Latinos will follow the pattern of European groups and quickly assimilate. For dark-skinned Latinos, it will be more problematic, he predicted.
"The way most groups have moved up over time is taking one step up the economic ladder, and translating that into a step up the residential ladder," Massey said.
"African-Americans have a much harder time translating income gains into residential gains that would later translate into further mobility," he said.
Hispanics who do not have legal status here will also have problems melting into the culture, according to Massey.
Mexicans, in particular, may encounter hostility because of public rhetoric that has "racially demonized them" -- including the U.S. government's plan to build a 700-mile fence between the United States and Mexico, Massey said.
For decades, many social scientists and the media have accepted the idea that, once the share of minority residents in a neighborhood reaches a certain critical mass, the neighborhood "tips" and whites leave.
The concept was introduced in 1957 by Martin Grodzins, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, who wrote that a very particular threshold of minorities precipitated white flight from a neighborhood.
"White residents, who will tolerate a few Negroes as neighbors, either willingly or unwillingly, begin to move out when the proportion of Negroes in the neighborhood or apartment building passes a certain critical point," he wrote. "This 'tip point' varies from city to city. Once it is exceeded, they will no longer stay among Negro neighbors."
In 1972, Thomas Schelling, an economist at the University of Maryland, wrote about tipping in a chapter of a book on neighborhood racial segregation. He also argued that whites flee a neighborhood in large numbers once a threshold is reached.
In recent years researchers have tested the validity of the theory, using detailed Census tract information available since 1970.
Their conclusions differ.
Neighborhoods -- and schools -- do indeed "tip" when minorities comprise a certain share of the populations, according to one recent study. Actual tipping points differ according to neighborhood, but center around 13 percent, the study said.
Still, tipping points of 25 or 30 percent are "not uncommon" and some racially tolerant neighborhoods may never tip, said Jesse Rothstein, one of the study's co-authors and an economics professor at Princeton University.
Rothstein and his colleagues found tipping took place irrespective of the socioeconomic status of minority residents. "We put in different measures of class and income, to see if they drove race out of the model. They never did," he said.
The study lumped together all nonwhites, but whites may actually react differently to different racial groups, Rothstein said.
"It's hard to get precision on that," he said, as widespread Asian and Hispanic immigration is relatively new in many parts of the country.
Another scholar came to a different conclusion.
While many urban American neighborhoods did go from mostly white to mostly minority from 1970 to 2000, the main factor was residents' desire to leave cities and old suburbs for newer suburbs, not tipping, according to William Easterly, a New York University economist.
Racially mixed neighborhoods, with a sizable white minority, can remain stable, he wrote.
History teaches that immigrants and minority groups have found a mixed reception in this country, says Price, the Rutgers professor.
"We've reacted sometimes in a democratic way, and oftentimes we have not," he said. "Blacks and browns were run out of town, and some Europeans such as Jews and Italians had to work to be seen as 'white,'" Price said.
Whether Latinos will also be perceived as whites remains to be seen, he said.
Price, who is African-American, grew up in Washington, D.C., during the 1950s. When he was 9, his family moved from a mostly black neighborhood to a mostly white area of the city, Brookland. By the time he was 16 or 17, he said, most of the whites had left.
While the civil rights movement and its ripple effect have undermined the racism of that era, Price said, a form of white flight based on concerns about property values and stability remains.
"One of the privileges of whiteness has always been to move on," he said.
Robert Gebeloff may be reached at email@example.com or (973) 392-1753; Mary Jo Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-4215.
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