Mary James, an empty-nester from Snellville, craves the in-town bustle. Michelle Forren is tired of planning life around rush hour in Duluth. And Louise Stewart is fed up with the Spanish-language business signs, backyard chickens and overcrowded homes in her Norcross-area neighborhood.
Though their reasons vary, all three women plan to join an emerging demographic: whites leaving Gwinnett County.
In what might surprise metro Atlantans who remember the nearly lily-white county of old, Gwinnett’s non-Hispanic white population declined for the first time last year, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The drop of about 1,500 whites came even as Gwinnett, the state’s perennial growth leader, added more than 27,000 residents.
One year doesn’t make a trend. And some observers question the census estimates. But the figures offer more evidence that the number of whites is at the very least leveling off in Gwinnett, adding a new dimension to a lightning-fast demographic shift that has transformed a once-uniform suburb into what one Washington think tank called a “mini-Ellis Island.”
One other indicator: White student enrollment in Gwinnett schools has declined in each of the past five years.
In some ways, Gwinnett is behaving like Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties, whose non-Hispanic white populations have been dropping. But those counties aren’t growing nearly as fast as Gwinnett.
Because thousands of whites still move to Gwinnett each year, the stagnating total suggests that many must be leaving, too, said Douglas C. Bachtel, a demographer at the University of Georgia. That matters because most of Gwinnett’s longtime residents happen to be white. And communities can struggle when their most deeply rooted residents leave, Bachtel said. “These are the foot soldiers for your community associations—the chambers, the PTAs for the various self-help groups,” he said.
But residents such as Stewart say they’re departing not because they’ve changed but because the community around them has. “I used to be able to have pleasant chats with neighbors, and now few speak English,” said Stewart, who lives with her four dogs in the Rockborough North subdivision off Beaver Ruin Road. “It’s a lonely feeling.”
Stewart, who teaches English for speakers of other languages at Gwinnett Technical College, waved to a former student as she walked down the street she’s called home for 25 years. “Are you still taking English classes?” Stewart shouted. The woman smiled and shook her head no. Stewart continued walking past yards sprouting satellite dishes and cactus plants. “Oh well,” she said.
The number of Hispanics in Gwinnett is now more than 12 times what it was in 1990, according to the latest census estimates. The Asian population has increased more than sixfold. And the black population has grown sevenfold. Until recently, the white population was growing, too, just not as fast. The county is now 57 percent white, down from 90 percent in 1990.
BY THE NUMBERS
The racial/ethnic breakdown of Gwinnett through the years.
Race/Ethnicity . . . 1990 . . . 2000 . . .2003 . . . 2004
White . . . . . . 316,060 . . . 396,301 . . ..401,063 . . .399,574
Black . . . . . . .17,929 . . .77,703 . . ..110,153 . . .122,633
Hispanic . . . . . ..8,076 . . .64,137 . . . 95,342 . . .106,372
Asian . . . . . . ..9,803 . . .43,096 . . . 57,470 . . ..61,781
Total . . . . . . 352,910 . . . 588,448 . . ..673,774 . . .700,794
Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Note: Totals do not add up because breakdown doesn’t include Native Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders and those who listed themselves as “other.”
POPULATION PERCENTAGE DECLINE
Non-Hispanic whites as a percentage of total population in Gwinnett.
. . ..1980 . . .1990 . . .2000 . . .2003 . . .2004
. . .96% . . .90% . . .67% . . ..60% . . ..57%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau