Race and ethnicity are central and often complex components of our national identity, history, and struggles. Racial dynamics also manifest themselves in our geographies and communities. Rural communities across the United States are comprised of many races, ethnicities, and cultural histories that have been essential to the story of the nation. Contrary to the long-standing narrative of racial and ethnic homogeny across rural America, many racial and ethnic groups are represented in rural communities.
Traditionally, rural communities have not been as racially or ethnically diverse as the nation overall. The 2020 Census reported that approximately 74.8% of the rural population is White non-Hispanic, compared to 57.8% for the United States as a whole. Hispanics are the second most prevalent racial or ethnic group in rural America comprising 10.4% of the rural population. It is important to note that Hispanics may be of any race. With a population count of 4.5 million, Black residents make up 7.4% of the rural population, and are the third most prevalent racial or ethnic group in rural areas.
Both nationally and in rural areas, some of the largest growth among racial and ethnic groups were among residents who identified themselves as being of two or more races. In rural communities in 2020, approximately 2.4 million or four percent of the rural population were of two or more races. Persons of two or more races surpassed Native Americans as the fourth most prevalent racial or ethnic group in rural areas. Native Americans, identified as American Indians or Alaska Natives, comprised roughly two percent of the rural population in 2020 – which is more than twice the rate of Native Americans nationally.
The Changing Face of Rural America
The overall population in rural America increased only modestly by 164,000 residents or 0.3% between 2010 and 2020. Growth varied widely, however, across rural racial and ethnic groups. White non-Hispanics still make up approximately three-quarters of the overall rural population. But the rural White non-Hispanic population decreased by 4.7% between 2010 and 2020. The White non-Hispanic population nationally decreased by 2.6%. Similarly, the number of rural Blacks decreased by 6.4% in the same time period.
One of the more significant demographic trends in the U.S. over the past several decades has been dramatic and sustained growth in the Hispanic population. While growth from 2010 to 2020 was not as substantial as in previous decades, the rural Hispanic population increased by roughly 1 million, or 19.7%. The overall rural population between 2010 and 2020 would have declined substantially if not for growth in its Hispanic population.
The rural Native American population declined over the past decade by half a percentage point reversing a trend of increased growth in this population group over the past few decades. The rural Native American population, however, increased markedly when including Native Americans who identified as one race or in combination with other races.
Relatively dramatic increases occurred among rural Asians, Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders, and multiracial populations, all of which experienced double-digit population gains over the past decade. The number of rural residents identifying as multiracial (of two or more races) in the 2020 Census increased an astounding 148% from 2010, which was consistent nationally. Multiracial residents now comprise approximately four percent of the total rural population. The changing racial and ethnic landscape has wide-reaching implications across social, economic, and housing trends for rural communities. With that said, it is important to note that the population growth of some rural groups, while dramatic in percentage terms, is still relatively modest in absolute population.
The Geography of Race Looks Different in Rural America
While rural America is becoming more diverse, nonwhite and Hispanic groups comprise a relatively smaller proportion of rural populations than of the nation as a whole. For example, in 87% of counties in the nation, White, non-Hispanics are the most prevalent racial or ethnic group. These residential patterns are partly a result of demographic trends and events such as the “Great Migration,” by Blacks from the rural South, and partly due to historic and enduring factors of exploitation, relocation, exclusion, and trauma.
Geographic clustering of groups in regions and communities can be exemplified by the statistic that over 85% of rural Blacks reside in the Southern region of the United States. Black residents comprise an even larger portion of the population in the southern “Black Belt” communities of Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, as well as the Lower Mississippi Delta states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Large numbers of rural Native Americans reside on or near Native American reservations and trust lands in the Midwest plains, the Southwest, and Alaska. Nearly half of all rural Hispanics reside in the four states of Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Over one-fifth of all rural Hispanics live in Texas alone.
Despite advances made through the civil rights movement, labor struggles, and increased self-determination, the experiences and conditions of non-White rural residents and communities are often overlooked given their relatively small populations. Greater diversity combined with increased awareness and attention to issues of race following the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing racial unrest of 2020, signal that rural areas are not a monolith in terms of race and ethnicity. Rather, rural America is a collage of racial groups, cultures, and communities that is continually evolving and striving for greater equality and recognition for all residents.
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Race Matters Across the Rural Spectrum
Across the country, rural social and economic conditions generally lag in comparison to many urban and suburban areas. In addition, rural communities with large non-White populations often experience worse social and economic conditions in comparison to White non-Hispanic communities. Racial and ethnic minority populations and communities have historically and systemically been excluded from pathways to adequate housing. Racial discrimination results in substandard and inaccessible housing that perpetuates economic distress in many racial-ethnic minority communities. The geographic isolation and relative segregation of some rural communities continue to be important components of poverty and substandard housing in many rural communities. Addressing disparity in access to affordable and quality housing must specifically center systemically marginalized racial-ethnic populations.
For more information on Race and Ethnicity in Rural America see the Housing Assistance Council’s Rural Research Brief.
Lance George is the Director of Research & Information at the Housing Assistance Council. Natasha Moodie is a 2021-2022 Stevenson Fellow at the Housing Assistance Council. Keith Wiley is the Senior Researcher at the Housing Assistance Council