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Data shows nearly even racial mix in Silicon Valley

Submitted by News Desk on Wed, 08/06/2008 - 10:00pm

Marty Loo, a white 54-year-old legal secretary who works in San Jose, doesn't mind being a racial minority in Silicon Valley. The population currents shaping the Bay Area this decade mean that everybody, increasingly, has become a minority.

"You kind of work together," Loo said of the mix, "or you don't work here."

Over the course of this decade, the South Bay had one of the biggest population drops among whites in California, according to census data released today. That trend, combined with a continued surge in Asian population, has given Santa Clara County an uncommon racial mix:

Whites, Asians and Hispanics are more evenly balanced here than anywhere else in America.

In new data being released today, the Census Bureau said there are now 302 counties - nearly one in 10 - that are "majority minority," where whites are less than half the population.

An analysis of the new federal data by the Mercury News shows that in only 39 of those counties, including Santa Clara, are racial and ethnic groups so closely balanced that no single group makes up 40 percent or more of the total population. Santa Clara was the only U.S. county in 2007 where whites, Asians and Hispanics each made up at least one-quarter of the total population.

Despite America's growing overall diversity, the nation's counties are a patchwork quilt where it is far more typical that one group commands the majority: whites in the rural Northeast and Midwest, Latinos in the Texas borderlands, blacks in many parts of the South, American Indians in parts of the Southwest.

"The only time you see this kind of kaleidoscope of American ethnicities and backgrounds is in a national picture. It's very different when you get down to the local level," said Bill Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Elsewhere in Bay Area

A mix like the Bay Area's is rare. Alameda County could argue that its racial mix is even more balanced than Santa Clara's, because it has a more significant black population, although Santa Clara has larger Asian and Hispanic populations. San Francisco has the highest percentage of Asians outside of Hawaii, at 33 percent of its population.

Demographers and economists say a number of economic and social factors have created that mix.

The large share of engineering and science degrees being earned by foreign students at universities such as Stanford, the University of California-Berkeley and San Jose State University in recent years creates a pipeline of new residents, many of whom go on to launch companies and bring family members and other workers from their home countries. Meanwhile, particularly early in the decade, high housing costs and the dot-com crash pushed whites to leave the Bay Area.

"This is a period where California has been a net exporter of college-educated workers to the rest of the country, and a big importer of college-educated workers from the rest of the world," said Deborah Reed, an economist for the Public Policy Institute of California. "The downturn in the economy probably kick-started the trend in folks leaving."

The new census data shows that about half of all U.S. counties lost white population last year, Frey said. Many were in the Great Plains or places where the total population is in decline, but nationally, the white population is not growing much, Frey said.

"It's kind of just shuffling around," he said. "Where one place gains, another place has to lose."

While the pace of the white population decline has slowed in recent years, Santa Clara County has about 80,000 fewer white residents than it had at the time of the 2000 census. Meanwhile, the county's Asian population has surged. Santa Clara County gained about 18,000 people from 2006 to 2007, the largest gain in the nation for the second consecutive year, the Census Bureau said.

Whites speak out

In a series of converhsations this week, whites in the county did not express concern about not being the majority.

Michael Cornwell, a 34-year-old San Jose tech worker, said "it's better" that no group is the majority.

Because of so many new people and ethnic groups arriving over the past 30 years, people adjust to new faces and traditions, he said.

"If you look at the South, it's the same generations of white Americans that have lived there for the past 300 to 400 years," Cornwell said. "Here, people come into the community and are more accepting. There's a strong Latino culture here, a strong Vietnamese culture here, and those two cultures are more dominant than any of the traditional cultures.

"There's no turf," he added. "It's just all Silicon Valley: Let's make money and be happy."

But even as the racial mix has deepened, over the past decade the number of hate crimes registered in Santa Clara County has dropped. By far, the largest share of hate crimes are reported against blacks, even though blacks make up just 2.5 percent of the county population. Hate crimes against Asians and Latinos have not increased.

Perhaps the most notable friction points in Silicon Valley, some say, involve languages.

"The only thing I ever hear from the whites is, 'I just wish they would spend more time learning English.' That's the only complaint I ever hear," said Bob Sipple, chairman of San Jose's Human Rights Commission. "I have had comments made on the recent issue with the Vietnamese community - Little Saigon - you know, 'Let it go, you're making too big of an issue out of it.' "

Some whites - often privately - complain that newcomers don't try hard enough to fit in.

In Cupertino, where the Cupertino Union School District has gone from about 42 percent Asian to about 70 percent Asian over the past decade, one longtime white resident, who spoke on condition that his name not be used, said he resents seeing so many business signs in languages he can't read.

Some Asians "have little interest in American values, in the sense of mixing in with the population," he said. "We're supposed to accommodate them, rather than them accommodating themselves to our lifestyle."

Contact Mike Swift at or (408) 271-3648.