In the Deep South? Houston and That Map from ‘Business Insider’

This originally appeared as a standalone post by Adrian Ozuna. It has been reposted with permission.

Last week I saw an article from Business Insider making the rounds online – about the nature of the United States, and the eleven nations that really comprise the USA. I can’t speak to any other region, but we can examine Houston for how it no longer fits into the ‘Deep South’ model. It did at one point, but I think we can use the Rice Kinder Institute Houston survey of the last several years to truly witness the evolution of the city from Deep South to Other. The Houston Region doesn’t fit Woodward’s description of  ‘Deep South’, and it hasn’t since about 1980. What is emerging is a region that has a variety of cultural roots.

Let’s Look at the Maps

Here (below) is the map of “the eleven nations of North America” from Colin Woodward’s book. In this map, Houston sits inside the western arm of the nation of “Deep South”. In Woodward’s classification, the nation of “Deep South” is characterized by “a rigid social structure and opposition to government regulation.”

Colin Woodward, American Nations Today
The American Nations Today, from Colin Woodward and Tufts/Brian Stauffer

But let’s also look at the current state of the nation in terms of ethnic/racial mixing. The next map simply highlights each county’s status based on the percentage of white and not-white persons living there. (I regret that I don’t recall where I found this map – alas, the hazards of saving interesting maps as I come across them!) In this map, the population of a county shown in dark blue is over 80% white. Medium blue indicates 75-79%. Red indicates that white people make up less than 50% of the county population.

Map: American Counties, by Majority Racial Group. The population of a county shown in dark blue is over 80% white. Medium blue indicates 75-79%. Red indicates that white people make up less than 50% of the county population.
The population of a county shown in dark blue is over 80% white. Medium blue indicates 75-79%. Red indicates that white people make up less than 50% of the county population.

The third map, from the Austin-based cartographer Philip Kearney, shows a further detail of each county’s diversity, or, which ethnic groups combine to be two thirds of the county’s population. Zooming in to see Texas, you’ll see that Fort Bend County shows a true mix – requiring Blacks, Hispanics, and Whites to reach that 66% threshold – while Harris County needs only Hispanics and Whites to meet that number.

These two maps are but snapshots of the changes occurring even now. States are existing political structures, but large mega regions of urban zone populations are developing that gloss over those internal borders. This map, first created by the Regional Plan Association in 2008, illustrates eleven metropolitan areas that are growing into “megaregions”. Houston is the only city to sit in two mega regions – the Texas Triangle and the Gulf Coast region.

This map, created by the Regional Plan Association in 2008, illustrates eleven metropolitan areas that are growing into megaregions. Shared here under CC-BY-SA-3.0.

According to Woodrow’s map (above), Texas as a whole contains three different nations within its bounds: El Norte, Greater Appalachia, and Deep South. (I would add that Katrina in 2005 moved a portion of New France into the Houston Metro area as permanent transplants.) Add in global immigration impacts to the region and you get a growing Asian influence as well. So why would he argue away the diversity of the Houston – Texas’s largest metro area – by lumping us into a monochromatic “Deep South” region?

Energy, Medicine, and the Census since 1950

Trade and Commerce are the hallmarks of the Houston Metro region. The Port of Houston creates over $330 billion in annual economic activity for the state and drives the local economy. This helped give rise to the petrochemical complexes that dominate the trade sector for Houston. Houston became known as the Energy Capitol of the World. The Texas Medical Center was created in the 1940’s which has grown into a massive complex of hospitals, schools, research facilities, and clinics. It employs over 100,000 people.

The combination of two sectors created a massive influx of migration to the region. Looking at the 1950 US Census: Chicago (2), Philadelphia (3), Detroit (5), Baltimore (6), Cleveland (7), St Louis (8), Washington DC (9), and Boston (10) all hit their peak population. In 1950, Houston was not even in the Top Ten cities by size. The next six decennial Census datasets tell a story of growth: 

  • Houston joined the Top Ten in 1960 at number 7 with a population of 938,219. It can be noted that this Census picked up population drops for the major cities and heralded the rise of the suburbs.
  • The 1970 Census had Houston move up one slot and become the first city in Texas to pass the million resident mark with a population of 1,232,802. Dallas joined the Top Ten that Census.
  • 1980 had Houston move to the Top Five with a population of 1,595,138. (Of note, this is the last Census with Chicago as the second largest city in the nation.)
  • The 1990 Census had Houston move to the fourth largest city with a population of 1,630,553. This was after the big economic bust of the 80’s the region experienced. This Census saw San Antonio join the Top Ten.
  • The 2000 Census had Houston at 1,953,631, and the 2010 Census had Houston at 2,099,451.

Part of the slowdown in the last few decades, I think, can be attributed to the lack of City annexation. There are lots of large neighborhoods that are just outside city limits, but they haven’t been added to the city itself. (That is a separate discussion.) 

However, the Census numbers presented for the city don’t do full justice to the region. In the 2010 census, the region was 5,920,416, making it the fifth largest Metropolitan Statistical Area. As of 2018, the Census Bureau estimates the region at 6,997,384 (of which Houston is 2,325,502). 

The current make-up of the city is Hispanic 43.7%, Black 25.7%, Whites 25.6%, and Asian 6.0%. Given just that data point, the Houston Region doesn’t fit Woodward’s description of  ‘Deep South’, and it hasn’t since about 1980. What is emerging is a region that has a variety of cultural roots.

What About Politics? 

But changes in population do not reflect changes in political power instantly. Generations have to age and come to power. Voting strength and coalitions have to be tested and formed. Old power structures that could be associated with the ‘Deep South’ lingered in many cases, but are slowly being replaced at the City and County level.

Urbanism and the rise of mass media may be eroding regional differences, but that is beyond my ability to conclude. However, the influx of new residents, by the millions, has changed the character of this region. I suspect in regions that are older and have longer term populations, their identity maybe more firmly rooted. For Houston, its identity is evolving as well as its civic nature. I’d see the Kinder Institute research for that though.

This is the launching point for the continued conversation about how to deal with complex problems the City and Region face. Change can be challenging and this region is changing rapidly. Imagine Houston in 1980 and look at Houston on the cusp of 2020. Forty years is more than a generation and the region looks nothing like it did.

Houston may have been Deep South, but that was before it became a major metropolitan center and a World City. That has challenges of its own. 

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