The Washington Post

What the Census Says About DC

Mar 25, 2011

Roderick J. Harrison, demographer and former Chief of Racial Statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau, discussed what the census results, which were released on Thursday, reveal about DC.

Hello, I'm Roderick Harrison, a former Chief of the Racial Statistics Branch at the US Census Bureau, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Howard University.  I look forward to discussing the 2010 Census results with you!

Mr. Harrison: With the economic resurgence in several of the DC neighborhoods over recent years, please discuss what you have found from the census results about these changing areas, especially the U St Corridor and H St, NE. Thank you.

Data on economic characteristics are not part of this release - tract level data is now released in the 5 year file of the American Community Survey, which averaged data for 2005-2009.  That means that its lagging behind the changes that you can see in the neighborhood, and it might be a few years before we have the statistics on what you're seeing now.

When is it projected that whites will be the majority group in D.C? 10years, 20years, never?

At the current pace, blacks will lose majority status in 5 or so years.  It could be some time before whites become a majority given the Hispanic and Asian populations in DC

There was an effort in the last census to track Caribbeans.  Do you have the results of this effort?  What are the numbers?  Is this broken down by country?

Caribbeans are identified in using the Place of Birth and Ancestry questions, which are now on the American Community Survey.  The latest data available from the ACS is 2009, and it is available by country.  email me at if you want to help you get access to the numbers

Is there a break out of by age?


What kind of impact will the shifting demographics of D.C. have on social policy for the city and for our region? It is not too hard to notice a stark gap in metro Washington between a well-educated and affluent cohort that is multiracial and multiethnic, but predominantly white, and a cohort of impoverished and poorly educated residents, mostly African American and Latino. That gap has only worsened, and I believe too many people either ignore or downplay this gap to the detriment of the region. If the proportion of affluent, well-educated residents increases, will it mean less attention to the very real needs of the area's poorer and less educated residents? Or, may this be an arena where changing demographics portends a shift in governance and public policy that has yet to arrive? My hope is that this demographic shift will be accompanied by a more pluralistic form of governance that addresses as broad a range of social needs as possible, regardless of income or education levels, but I fear that these changes will only contribute to a reluctance to close income and educational gaps. Thank you.

Your question is too thoughtful and complex for me to answer here, but yes, DC is the most polarized city by education and income in the nation, and the racial/ethnic divides are exactly as you outline.  Policy has been ineffective in closing these gaps, and might remain so.   The efforts are largely through workforce development strategies that have proven weak against job market trends.  The best hope is the Community College added to UDC.

So I've seen separate articles reporting on signifcant black migration out of Chicago, Detroit and now D.C. Each one has had a slightly alarmed tone, suggesting that the drop in population is necessarily a bad thing. But is it? Why is this movement any different than any other demographic shift that's taken place in the country over the past 150 years? It's not like most inner city neighborhoods were originally black. Individual groups are much less important than the strength of the city as a whole. This is just the latest step in a centuries-long process to develep stable and productive cities in this country.

It probably isn't "bad," except perhaps for politicians who may rely on high concentrations for elections.  Some of the outmigration is to suburbs, which might represent upward mobility or better housing/neighborhoods.  Others seem to be migrating to the South and West, where job growth has been better than in the East and Midwest - so yes, this might reflect pursuit of social and economic opportunities.

Does the Census show whether the rich are getting richer, and the poor, poorer?

Yes - and this has been the trend for at least 3 decades now

The statements by Marion Barry and others upset about the change in D.C.'s demographics are outrageous. Can you imagine a white politician in Montgomery County saying "The key to keeping this county white is jobs, jobs, jobs for white people" or "We're seeing the eroding of a community. If you're a white person accustomed to a way of life, that way of life is coming to an end."?  People would be screaming racism and calling for federal civil rights investigations.

It does reflect the tensions that can arise as areas and cities shift in composition.  He's probably articulating some of the anger and frustration that some of his constituents feel, but I agree, it's not helpful for moving forward.

So Barry wants ward 8 redistricted. This may be more or a political question, but if was fairly done, wouldn't he be out of a job? No one except for the extremely poor in that area would ever vote for someone so crazy.

It will have to be re-districted as it has lost population while other wards have gained.  One person one vote requires that the Wards have approximately the same number of residents.

Does the Census break down the Hispanic category to country of origin (i.e. Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Spain, etc.)?

Yes - email me at if you want help in getting those numbers.

Does the Census break down the data about Asians according to country of origin (i.e. Korea, China, Thailand, Vietnam, etc.)?

Yes - and see the previous question on Hispanics. Actually, the 2010 detailed nationality data won't be processed and released until later this year, but we have these stats from the American Comnunity Survey, 2009

DC used to be extremely poor, now it seems like its gotten a new influx of wealth. Instead of just focusing on race, are the people moving into DC more wealthy too? You can't get rid of the bad neighborhoods and expect it to happen without some change in who is living there.

Yes - the growth is in college educated, high income people, but these stats are from the American Community Survey now (2009 most recent) not the 2010 Census itself.

I often notice that people can use numbers in funny ways to prove a point. When the population of an area is growing, you can use percents to say the population (as a percent of a whole) of one demographic has decreased, even when the the total number of people in that demographic has actually increased. The decline in percent is really a sign that the other demographics grew faster. Is it possible to have a presentation of population change that doesn't distort the results?

Yes, it is possible, and you've given some good initial guidance for doing so.

Do you see a relationship between the increase in Hispanic births and the decrease in African American births as it relates to the goals of planned parenthood as stated by founder Margaret Sanger? Of 50 million abortions since 1979, 15 million were African American. 50% of Planned Parentood clinics are located in urban African American communities while Hispanics influenced by thier strong Catholic faith have far fewer abortions?

The declining birth rates of the African American population pre-date Roe v. Wade and the increase in AA abortions.  It parallels declines in white births and trends in most developed nations where birth rates have fallen below replacement.  

Some people worry about the fact that the African American population is a smaller part of the city's overall population.  How do you interpret the change?

It reflects the fact that DC is one of the strongest job markets for college grads (it has the highest % of BAs in the nation), and the outmigration of black from the poorer wards in the city - perhaps reflecting socio-economic mobility.  So, the change might be disturbing to some, but it's driven by essentially positive forces.

When I click on the link for the Weekly Schedule, I get an error screen that tells me that my Glass Fish operations are broken, or some such, related to Java. Know anything about that?

Thanks for bringing this to our attention.  Please email what you're experiencing to and someone will help you.

Mr. Harrison, As the multi racial population increases, which existing racial groups appear to be most impacted (i.e. what racial groups will see a corresponding decline in population representation as Multi-Racials in the country increase)? Also, what percent of people did not declare any race and is there any insight into what race/ethnicity categories these people fall into? Thank You Very Much, Kartikh

Nationally, about 45% of American Indians/Alaska Natives and 53% of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders identified more than one race, reflecting the history of high intermarriage in these populations.  In contrast, only about 3% of the population identified more than one race. 

Is DC becoming more-educated? What does that mean?

Yes - DC has the highest % of BAs of all cities in the nation, and it's increasing because the federal government and other industries in DC (including IT) have high demands for college educated (and up) workers

How many elderly 65+ living alone? How many 80+ in DC?

I would have to look that up.  email me at

How did the number of families with children change?  By reputation, the District is a great place to be childless (single or gay) but most parents are the ones too poor to move to the suburbs. The quality of public schools is nowhere near that of many local suburban jurisdictions, and the shopping options are either high- or low-end, but lack the grocery strip centers and stores typical of suburban malls.

I don't know - good question.  The impression is that many in-migrants are young urban professionals (and some empty nesters) but I haven't seen this carefully traced.  Email me at if you want me to take a look at this

As you look at the cities which have lost black population--they all have historically corrupt black-led governments: Detroit, DC, New Orleans, Cleveland. Isn't it likely that those large numbers of people never existed at all, and were a figment of their cities' imaginations, being used to collect federal dollars? Carol Mosely-Braun isn't the only person to collect SS checks for a dead relative.

No - most of these cities, if anything, suffered undercounts over the decades.  These are all cities that have lost industry and jobs (New Orleans, of course, to Katrina) - the decline has much more to do with economic decline than political corruption.

Is this shrinking of the black majority possibly attributed to a growing tendency to self-identify as 'biracial' or 'multiracial'? In other words, could it be that the black population might not necessarily be leaving the District; instead, is it that people are simply preferring to self-identify differently?

No - the numbers "lost" to bi-raciality are too small.  It might be a small percentage of the change, but most of it is movement to the DC suburbs.

Do you think the census numbers could be used to identify whether the charter schools in DC are, in fact, schooling children who are actually Maryland residents?

No - the census knows where people live and whether they are enrolled in school, but not WHERE that school is.  One would have to use data collected by school districts.

My question is where are all the black people going? PG County? Or Ward 9 as Marion Barry calls it. Is this why we're seeing such a rapid decline in the stature of PG County. Crime, Schools, etc... I've also noticed non hispanic whites moving to/or back to PG County...maybe for the same reason Have you heard anything about this trend?

Yes - from 1990-2000 the outmovement was heavily to PG.  It will take a while to analyze this for 2000-2010, but most researchers suspect that this will again be the story.

Dr. Harrison: As I read about these demographic shifts, I often hear people blaming gentrification for it. Could you explain how gentrification works, particularly in DC? The typical complaint is that as more affluent residents enter a neighborhood, etc., they drive up the cost of living there, thus displacing the poorer residents. In DC, and in many urban areas, these changes occur along racial lines. However, is DC the same as other areas? I note, for example, that property taxes here remain incredibly low by regional and national standards, so I find it hard to believe that poorer residents (of any color) are forced out by increasing costs. When our house doubled in assessed value, I think our tax burden went up a few hundred dollars a year. That does not seem like enough to drive out large numbers of people. So what, exactly, is causing the "black flight," esp. in a city that relies on high income taxes (rather than property taxes) to raise its revenue?

Great question - too good to answer here.  No one has good data on who is displaced by gentrification and where they go.  However, the areas of the city with the greatest population losses are not the areas with the greatest gentrification (some recent trends in Anacostia excepted).  It seems more likely that areas losing population are losing people to  suburbs that they see as an improvement in their lives. 

While many of these results continue long term trends, what for you was the biggest unforeseen surprise in the census results?

I'm not sure that it was entirely unforeseen, but the rapidity of the racial change is striking - by historical standards - when you see the numbers literally in black and white.

Cities are fluid. People move and out and they are always changing. Historically DC is actually a white city up until the 1960s. I think politicians like barry are less concerned about helping poor black folks than just ensuring his own political base continues to reelect him regardless of his worthiness. the city should not be in the business of socially engineering the demographics of a neighborhood.

Agree, and the point on urban fluidity is well put.  At the same time, most cities do need to be concerned when change might make life more difficult for long-term populations, the elderly, etc, and policies and programs are often needed (or expanded or changed) to address those problems.

To the person asking about gentrification. It isn't that the accounting cost of living in the city goes up; it is that the opportunity cost of living in the city goes up. If you are a home owner and the value of your home goes from $50k to $350k, you have a huge opportunity cost of living in the city. You could sell your home and live in the suberbs for much less.

The question is missing the point. Public policy creates demographic destiny too: if public policy continues to attempt to confiscate higher earnings, those earners will leave. Look at Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, California....

yes, you are right.  On the other hand, many cities lost population in the 1970's and 1980's as repair of declining infrastructures led many with the income to have choices to leave for newer, suburban neighborhoods with better public goods.  It can be a difficult balancing act.

I don't know if it's your of WaPo that chose the word "segregated" in the articles today, but it is a loaded and incorrect word. If African-Americans __choose__ to live in communities that are mostly African-American, they aren't living apart because of segregation (which is a word that suggests racism). That is voluntary separatism and there shouldn't be complaints from the African-American community about segregation when voluntary behavior is now the cause. Also, WaPo fails to call it bigotry when non-black persons move to historically black neighborhoods. This is bigorty on the part of WaPo liberals.

Historically, most predominantly black neighborhoods in US cities became so due to segregation and discrimination in housing markets.  Choosing to live in a black neighborhood might be more of a free choice today, but many who might make other choices are also constrained by what they can afford.  Surveys show that when asked, blacks, on average, say the  "ideal" neighborhood racial composition would be about 30-35% black, so many are probably not living where they are because this is what they would choose if they had more options.

Is there such a thing as a reduction in crime and an increase in living standards (ie education) without "gentrification"? Has that happened anywhere or will Marion Barry have a reason to complain no matter what happens?

Yes - in fact we can point to dozens of neighborhoods in dozens of cities where crime rates declined in the 1990's and the past decade - it just doesn't make the news in the same way that gentrification, with its potential for conflict, does

My wife had you as a professor at Howard. She said you're awesome. Did you think she was awesome too?

who was she?  do thank her for the kind comments, and thank you for passing them on

Who redraws the lines for political areas (Wards?) in the District? Won't the next rezoning be a gerrymander by Gray?

I don't know the process in DC, but compared to most places the 2000 redistricting in DC seemed professional and non-political.  City council and ANC members have much more at stake, as it is their districts that get re-drawn.  A mayor has to enough votes across the cities, regardless of which wards the votes come from.

Has there been an increase or decrease in home ownership and has it been specific to certain areas?

I don't know - I'd have to try to look that up.  email me at if you want me to see what I can find. 

Thank all of you for such great and thoughtful questions. I enjoyed trying to answer them, and am willing to get some of you the stats or more detailed answers you sought if you email me at

In This Chat
Roderick J. Harrison
Roderick J. Harrison is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology, and was Howard University’s Senior Research Scientist in 2009 to help strengthen the university’s capacity to submit competitive grants. Previously, he served as Chief of Racial Statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau, where he greatly increased the number and depth of the Bureau’s publications on minority populations, and as Director of DataBank at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. He received the American Statistical Society‘s 1998 Roger Herriot Award for Innovations in Federal Statistics for co-chairing the Research Subcommittee that helped revise the federal classification system for race and ethnicity. A Harvard graduate, Dr. Harrison earned his Ph.D. in sociology at Princeton, and has served on the faculties of Harvard University and UCLA. He has been a DC resident since 1990.
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