Thursday, December 12, 2013
It's not what you'd call unexpected news: Last week, for the first time ever, the Census Bureau reported that white births are no longer a majority in the United States.
For the 12-month period that ended last July, 50.4 percent of the children born in this country were minorities -- including Hispanics, blacks, Asians and those of mixed race. White births, meanwhile, fell to 49.6 percent.
Missed it? Maybe that's because Maine, where 94.3 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white, has regained its dubious distinction as the least colorful state in the nation.
Again, not a big surprise. Along with Vermont (currently second at 94.2 percent) and New Hampshire (fourth at 92.2 percent), Maine long has been at or near the top of places where the population skews decidedly vanilla.
Which brings us to an obvious-yet-rarely-asked question: Why, as the rest of the country changes color right before our eyes, is Maine so perpetually pale?
"It's the weather," more than one white Mainer told me as I shopped that query about last week. "It's too cold for minorities."
To which Shay Stewart-Bouley of Saco replies, "I don't buy that at all."
Stewart-Bouley, who is African-American with a "splash of Mexican," moved to Maine from Chicago for family-related reasons a decade ago.
She works as executive director of the Joyful Harvest Neighborhood Center in Biddeford, writes a column called "Diverse-City" for the Portland Phoenix and also writes an often-hilarious blog called "Black Girl in Maine."
Awhile back, Stewart-Bouley posted an entry on her blog entitled "Moving to Maine ... the Black Edition" -- a heads-up of sorts for other African-Americans who might be considering a move here.
"Well the first thing you need to know about Maine, it's really, really white," she wrote. "So white you will be like oh my!"
But that's not because of the weather, she said in an interview last week.
"To be honest, the weather here is far nicer than the winters back home in Chicago," observed Stewart-Bouley. "Hands down, Maine gets more snow than I'm accustomed to, but from a temperature perspective, I haven't worn long underwear in probably 10 years. So this is a pretty warm place."
Stewart-Bouley's theory: With the exception of urban centers like Portland and Lewiston, Maine's color is largely dictated by the "rural nature of the state. By and large, most minorities live in large urban areas that have a very different infrastructure than a state like Maine."
She's got a point: Maine's minority clusters, fueled largely by resettled refugees and other immigrants, are found in Portland (83.6 percent white) and Lewiston (85.5 percent white).
Hence only Cumberland, Androscoggin and Washington counties (home to much of Maine's American Indian populations) fall below the state's white-population rate of 94.3 percent. All other 13 counties are even whiter than the statewide rate.
Dante Chinni, who directs a project called Patchwork Nation for the Jefferson Institute in Washington, D.C., says three factors tend to push minority populations upward these days -- particularly when it comes to the widespread growth in Hispanic numbers that he says are primarily behind the nation's rapidly changing color.
• The first is proximity to the Southwest -- Texas, New Mexico and California are now the country's least-white locations (along with Hawaii and Washington, D.C.).
• The second factor, Chinni said, is any housing boom that depends on a deep pool of readily available construction workers.
"In Maine, you never really got the big housing bump," he noted.
• Finally, Chinni said, there's large-scale agriculture that, like construction, requires more workers than the indigenous population can provide. Beyond its annual blueberry harvest, Maine has little to offer there as well.
(Continued on page 2)