Houstonians never hesitate to tout their city's robust diversity. For more insight on the impact the city's ethnic makeup will have on our future, CultureMap spoke with Rice University sociology professor Stephen Klineberg about what sort of future we're facing, and how we can shape it.
CultureMap: How has Houston's ethnic makeup evolved in recent decades?
Stephen Klineberg: The story of Houston is that all the growth of the city in the '60s and '70s up until 1982 consisted of Anglos pouring into the city. Since the collapse of the oil industry in 1982, it's been all non-Anglo. This biracial city has become one of the most culturally diverse cities in the nation.
The Houston Area Survey reveals that, of all the 60-plus population, 67.3 percent are Anglo. Under the age of 30, more than 75 percent of Houstonians are non-Anglo. There is no force in the world that is going to stop Houston from becoming more Latino and more Asian.
CM: What potential benefit does this diversity hold?
SK: It's going to be a tremendous advantage to be a microcosm of the world. That is a big part of what will make Houston a world city. Many immigrants are highly skilled professionals, or pooling their resources to work their way out of poverty. One thing that is interesting is that younger Anglos are far more comfortable with this influx than older Anglos. Younger Anglos are much more likely to say that mounting diversity is a source of great strength because they are growing up in a world where they take ethnic diversity for granted.
This ethnic diversity could also end up tearing us apart and become a major liability, reducing rather than increasing our competitiveness. How we invest in the education of Latino and African-American communities will determine this fate. Here, more than anyhwere else, the future depends on education.
CM: Can you speak about the current educational system that serves these communities?
SK: HISD has 200,000 students: 61.7 percent are Latino, and 26.5 percent are African American. Of both populations, 45 percent drop out of high school. Both factions are overwhelmingly living in poverty, as seen by the fact that more than 79 percent qualify for reduced-cost and free lunch programs. It is a safe statement to make that if Houston's African American and Latino young people are unprepared to succeed in the knowledge economy of the 21st century, where there are no decent jobs for those without a high school degree, it's hard to envision a prosperous future for Houston.
CM: How can the city implement an educational infrastructure that can combat this pattern?
SK: Houston is ground zero for education reform. We have the largest Teach for America presence, Apollo 28 and extraordinary charter schools like YES Prep and KIPP are proof positive that these kids can learn and the gap can be closed. But the jury is still out. There are 9,000 kids in these remarkable programs, and 200,000 in HISD. We are at this truly remarkable hinge in history, and there is enormous potential.
CM: If Houston doesn't fulfill these education requirements, what sort of future does the city face?
SK: We'd become a third world city with massive amounts of money being spent on jails, welfare and police protection. We're creating a growing urban under-class. The city's blue collar past has disappeared. It's clear that we can do it, but it's not clear if we will.
CM: Are there any specific places that will be sources of migration?
SK: You go where your cousins are; where you have connections. Houston is doing better than a lot of the rest of the country. People from Michigan are coming, but the basic story is no net growth in the Anglo population. Just look at San Luis de Potosí, where almost all migrants come to Houston. That shows how immigration is network driven.
Ultimately, there's not just one future out there, but several futures. There are good futures, and crappy futures. One thing is for sure: No city has been transformed as suddenly, completely and irreversibly as Houston.