How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

What is a multiracial city? Southern California has a growing number of them

Photo by Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

Outside a mini-mall in Alhambra, Calif., October 2010

What is a multiracial city? According to researchers at the University of Southern California, these are cities that "have significant populations of at least two and as many as four major racial groups." And Southern California has loads of them, many more than two decades ago.

A new report out today from USC finds that over the past 20 years throughout the region, the percentage of cities fitting this definition of multiracial has been steadily on the rise.

While just over half the cities in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties could be considered multiracial in 1990, more than 61 percent of the cities in the region are now home to two or more of the major racial groups identified in the study: white, black, Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander.

Some of the highlights:


  • There are ten cities that had a balance of all four groups in 2010, the two largest being Los Angeles and Long Beach.

  • Major racial shifts have occurred in Orange County: In 1990, only two cities in that county could be considered home to three major groups; now there are a dozen, including the cities of Anaheim, Brea and Placentia, where the Asian/Pacific Islander population has grown, and La Palma, which has become home to more Latinos.

  • The overall multiracial winner among the counties? Riverside County, where 21 of the county's 26 incorporated cities fit the multiracial definition.


More from the report, which distinguishes between different kinds of racial balance in cities. By its definition, a multiracial city "does not require an equal proportional share but a significant share," the report reads. Some examples of these:
One-Way Cities. These are cities where one group constitutes a majority and no other group accounts for at least 20% of the population. Examples include Malibu (88.5% white); Huntington Park (97.1% Latino); Cerritos (63.7% Asian); Santa Ana (78.3% Latino); and Ojai (78.0% white). All counties have one-way cities throughout Southern California.

Two-Way Cities. We define “two-way” multiracial cities as those where there are two population groups that each account for at least 20% of the population. Examples include Alhambra, Compton, Palmdale, Irvine, San Juan Capistrano, Riverside, Redlands, and Ventura. Two-way cities are prevalent throughout the five-county region.

Three-Way Cities. These cities have three significant population groups, with the smallest accounting for at least 15% of the total population. A lower threshold for determining the third largest group is appropriate considering that Asians and blacks each comprise less than 15% of the region’s population. Three-way cities include Glendale, Lancaster, Lomita, Torrance, Anaheim, Moreno Valley, and Chino Hills; most are in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Four-Way Cities. These are the most racially balanced with significant populations of all four groups. We define “four-way” cities as follows: the fourth largest group is at least 8% of the population with the largest group comprising no more than 55% of the population; the second- and third-largest groups exceed 8% of the population but have no other limits. Examples include Los Angeles, Long Beach, Pasadena, Loma Linda, and Rancho Cucamonga. The only four-way cities in the five-county region are in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.


But because cities' demographics continue to shift, their racial balance remains in flux. From a press release quoting the report's lead author Dowell Myers, a professor of urban planning and demography at USC:
“Right now, we’re at a sweet spot for racial balance in Southern California,” Myers said. “Decline in the white population and growth among Latinos or Asians only increases racial balance up to a point. Some cities have already started to lose their balance.”

Examples of shifting demographics working in the opposite direction, i.e. making cities less racially balanced, are cities like Azusa, Downey, Lawndale, Cerritos and Walnut, where a single group that was once a minority now comprises the majority. For example, Azusa, Downey and Lawndale now have majority Latino populations (at least 61 percent); in Cerritos and Walnut, Asian/Pacific Islander residents now make up at least 63 percent of the population.

The shifting racial balance of Southern California cities and neighborhoods has been at the center of numerous stories in the last year, from the political power battles in once majority-black, now majority-Latino cities like Lynwood and Compton to the recently dashed hopes that Korean Americans have long held for better municipal representation in Los Angeles. And on the flip side, as some neighborhoods gentrify and minorities are pushed out, this shifting balance is also evident in the socioeconomic changes taking place in neighborhoods like Echo Park, a once-Latino neighborhood which the 2010 census showed becoming increasingly white.

The complete USC report can be downloaded here.

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