Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Gulf of Mexico Region: 2000-2017

Linda Benedict, Schafer, Mark J.  |  3/20/2015 1:05:55 AM

Mark J. Schafer, Tasia Mehzabin and Huizhen Niu

The Gulf of Mexico has long been one of the more diverse regions within the United States, and it is projected to become evenmore diverse in the coming decades. Before 1960, primarily two racial groups, whites and blacks, characterized the region’s diversity. Since 1960, the region has experienced dramatic increases inethnic diversity with Latino migration into Texas and Florida. The region’s smaller Native American populations are decreasing whileAsian populations are increasing. But Latino migration is projectedto continue to drive diversification in the region in the coming decades.

Mapping Racial and Ethnic Diversity Index

LSU AgCenter researchers examined county-level trends and projections in racial and ethnic diversity in the Gulf of Mexico region from 2000 to 2017, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Both the 2000 and 2010 censuses asked about Hispanic ethnic identity in a separate question from racial identities in which the categories were white, black, American Indian, Asian, Native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islander, some other race, and two or more races. In this study the researchers combined all who identified as Hispanic into one separate group.

There are two components of diversity in a given location: (1) the number of different groups represented and (2) the distribution of people across groups. Conceptually, more diverse places have both more groups and a more even distribution of people across groups. Several diversity measures have been developed that consider both number of groups and evenness of distribution. The LSU AgCenter study uses the ESRI Diversity Index, which has a range from zero (no diversity) to 100 (complete diversity). Zero means everyone belongs to the same race or ethnic group; the index approaches 100 when individuals are evenly split among two or more groups.

The diversity index translates into the probability that two randomly selected people belong to different racial or ethnic groups. A diversity index of 33, therefore, equals a 33 percent chance (or 1 in 3) that any two people are different races or ethnicities; an index of 50 means a 50 percent chance (1 in 2) that any two people are different; 67 means a 67 percent chance (2 in 3), and so forth. Counties with a diversity index of 33 or lower were labeled as low diversity; counties with an index between 33 and 50 were labeled average diversity; those between 50 and 66 were labeled high diversity; and those over 66 were very high diversity. Importantly, the diversity index does not privilege any one group. A county with 6,000 white residents and 4,000 black residents would have the same diversity index, 48, as a county with 6,000 black residents and 4,000 white residents, which would also be 48.

The maps in Figures 1, 2 and 4 show county-level diversity for the 134 counties in the Gulf of Mexico region for three separate years – 2000, 2012 and 2017. In 2000, the mean county level diversity index for all 134 counties was 36.5, and there were 50 low diversity counties; 61 average-diversity counties; 23 high-diversity counties; and no very high-diversity counties. The least diverse counties in 2000 were Citrus County, Florida, just north of Tampa, and Livingston Parish, Louisiana, east of Baton Rouge, with indexes of 10 and 11, respectively. In these counties there was only a one in 10 chance that two randomly chosen people would be different races or ethnicities. The most diverse counties were two Houston, Texas, area counties, Fort Bend County and Harris County, both with diversity scores of 62 (Figure 1).

By 2012, the number of low-diversity counties had been reduced to 18, and the number of average-diversity counties declined to 47. By contrast, the number of high-diversity counties increased to 53, and an additional 15 counties had diversity scores over 66, placing them in the very high-diversity category (Figure 2).

In 2012, the least diverse county was Cameron Parish, Louisiana, with a diversity index of 14.2, while the two most diverse counties were Hendry in Florida and Harris in Texas, with scores of 81.4 and 81.6, respectively. In these counties there was an 8 in 10 chance that two randomly selected people were different races or ethnicities. In 2012, Hendry County, Florida, had a total population of 39,505, with 19,517 Latinos, 13,583 whites, 5,170 blacks, and 1,235 others (Figure 3).

The Gulf Coast region is expected to become even more diverse over the next several years. Long-term projections are less precise, but reliable estimates can be made for 2017. By 2017, only 11 counties are predicted to still be low-diversity, and the number of average- diversity counties will decline to 45, while 59 counties will fall in the high-diversity category, and 20 will be very high-diversity. All of the very high-diversity counties will have relatively equitable distributions of non-Hispanic white and black, as well as Latino residents, perhaps also with smaller proportions of Asians and Native Americans (Figure 4).

Racial and Ethnic Diversification in the Gulf of Mexico Region

The mean county-level diversity index in 2000 was 36.5, or in the average diversity range (Table 1). By 2012, the mean county diversity index increased to 48.8, and it is expected to continue to increase to 51.3 by 2017. The last column indicates that the region’s county-level diversity index will have increased by more than 50 percent by 2017.

More than two-thirds of the 134 Gulf counties will experience 30 percent or more increases in diversity from 2000 to 2017. In Live Oak County, Texas, for example, the chances that two randomly selected people were different races will have increased from about 24 in 2000 to 60 in 2012. If you lived there in 2000, there would be only a one out of four chance that another random person was a different race or ethnicity from you. But if you move there by 2017, the chances will increase to three out of five that another person will be different from you. By contrast, eight Texas counties will experience diversity declines from 2000 to 2017. This is due to increasing white Latino populations. Six of these counties will be more than 90 percent Latino, and 90 percent white, by 2017.

The breakdown by states indicated that Alabama’s seven coastal counties exhibited a comparatively higher level of diversity than other states in 2000, but they have not seen as much change in diversity as the other states. Florida’s coastal counties are diversifying the fastest, with a projected 73 percent increase in diversity from 2000 to 2017, followed by Texas coastal counties, which are expected to see a 50 percent increase in county-level diversity. The coastal counties of Mississippi and Louisiana should each see about a 35 percent increase in diversity, suggesting that the coastal portions of these two states are also diversifying, just not quite as rapidly as those of Florida and Texas.

The breakdown by urban and rural counties shows that urban counties are diversifying much more quickly than rural counties. Rural counties were more diverse than urban counties in 2000. Urban counties are now more diverse and are expected to continue to outpace rural counties over the next decade, but rural areas are still experiencing significant racial and ethnic diversification in the region.


The Gulf of Mexico region, along with other Southern states, has long been one of the most racially diverse regions within the United States. Moreover, the region’s current diversification trends are directly related to migration of Latinos into Florida, Texas and, increasingly, the central Gulf states. Although workers are more likely to work with someone of a different race or ethnicity and students are more likely to go to school with someone of a different race or ethnicity, the county-level analysis presented here cannot confirm or discount this assertion. People live, work and go to school in neighborhoods that are still more segregated than these county-level figures suggest.

Another drawback to this analysis lies in the fact that an increasing percentage of Americans assert multiple racial and ethnic identities. Multiracial identities, captured in census data since 2000, complicate studies of diversity. Here the researchers’ decisions to group all Latinos into one group irrespective of race and combine those with multiracial identities along with all other races (Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander) resulted in lower diversity index scores than could have been obtained through a different treatment of those with combined ethnicity/racial and multiracial identities. These limitations are relatively minor, however, as the overall trends showing increasing county-level diversification enhance our understanding sociodemographic change in the Gulf of Mexico Region.

Diversification presents both challenges and opportunities for individuals, communities, industries and governments. Individuals with diverse identities affect broader social, economic and environmental processes. Diversification expands the linkages between the Gulf of Mexico region and an increasingly globalized and interdependent world.

Mark J. Schafer is an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness; Tasia Mehzabin and Huizhen Niu are graduate students in that department.

(This article was published in the Winter 2015 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

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