How an international market explains Virginia’s changing demographics

One recent afternoon, Hye No and his wife were wheeling a shopping cart to their car at New Grand Mart in Midlothian, a Richmond suburb. They had just finished buying groceries at an international food supermarket that opened May 8, featuring aisles stocked with Asian and Hispanic specialties. “They have any type of fish there, and it’s fresh,” says No, who emigrated from South Korea to the town of Chester in 1984.

The Nos may represent a quiet but crucial change underway in Virginia. Over time, richer, better-educated minorities are emerging as economic opportunities have spread from Northern Virginia to other areas, mostly metropolitan suburbs. As lucrative jobs attract them, the political nature of the state will change as well.

A recent study shows just how opportunity is improving in Virginia for diverse groups. The Center for Opportunity Urbanism surveyed 52 cities and ranked people of African American, Asian and Hispanic descent in such categories as income, homeownership and population and income growth.

The Washington area, including Northern Virginia, comes out fairly well in the tally. The surprise is that Richmond and Virginia Beach-Norfolk consistently come in with strong rankings. Overall, in best-city ratings for African Americans, the District came in No. 3 and Virginia Beach-Norfolk was No. 6. For Asians, Richmond was No. 2 and the District was No. 3. For Hispanics, the District came in No. 5 and Virginia Beach-Norfolk was No. 6.

Richmond and Virginia Beach-Norfolk also scored well for minorities in homeownership rates, income and population growth. Other big winners were Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C.

This is not to say that the problems of minority poverty are over — far from it. Inner-city and mostly African American parts of Richmond have poverty rates of 26 percent, among the highest in the state. Inner suburbs are drawing poorer families.

Report authors Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox do have a distinct point of view. Houston developers fund their center, which pushes a view that Houston’s limited zoning and affordability have built a minority-friendly job oasis that should be emulated elsewhere.

Author and demographer Kotkin told me that economic growth in the South and parts of the West has long outpaced that in the Far West and Northeast. News coverage of racially tinged police shootings clouds economic progress made by minorities who are leaving high-expense cities such as New York for the South and Southwest. “Many of the places that worry about racial inequality are the places where it is the worst,” he says.

I don’t buy the argument that easy-zoning suburbs are the way to go, but I have to admit that parts of the report ring true. In suburban and mostly white Chesterfield County, Va., where I live, a recent report shows that Asian families were only $1,000 short of matching the Caucasian median annual household income of about $75,000. African Americans were not far behind at about $60,000. Hispanics made the lowest at about $46,000.

What’s driving the growth? Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington, says federal spending in Northern Virginia is fueling much of it. “You are going to see economic advantages expand as jobs move out to other parts of the state,” he says.

The spread is uneven. Hamilton Lombard, a research specialist at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, says he hasn’t seen much data suggesting big income gains for African Americans and Hispanics. Stewart Schwartz, head of the D.C.-based Coalition for Smarter Growth, faults Kotkin for ignoring problems of public transit and walkability. “Who wants to drive miles to a suburban office park?” he says.

However they play out, better job opportunities for minorities will affect traditional state politics. Challenged will be older ideas held mostly by whites about Virginia’s exceptionalism and pecking order. Diverse groups might recharge their sense of identity and push back against xenophobia.

Farnsworth says he’s already seeing a new form of estrangement. Older, rural and mostly white areas are becoming increasingly Republican as other, more urban areas enjoy the strong economic growth that’s attracting “more educated and more driven” diverse groups, he says.

New Grand Mart is a prime example of the business bustle. Scott Kim, a manager, told me that his company, which has stores in Alexandria, Falls Church and Langley Park, studied the Richmond market thoroughly. Foreign food outlets had been mostly mom-and-pop stores in strip malls despite growing pent-up demand. As his cash registers jingle, he says he is “amazed” at the diversity of the Richmond area.

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