Nicole Coker, a 23-year-old multiracial woman from Boston, moved to Chattanooga a year ago for opportunity.
Coker’s black father had moved back to his hometown here after living in Boston for years. Her mother’s ancestors come from Portugal and the Cape Verde islands off West Africa.
With a bachelor’s degree in health equality from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Coker took a job here as a program coordinator for the Urban League of Greater Chattanooga.
“I saw a lot of potential for growth, even though there wasn’t as much diversity as I’m used to,” Coker said.
But she may be seeing more diversity in the future.
While whites remain the dominant race in the county, U.S. census figures for Hamilton County show population growth rates were far greater among Hispanics, Asians, blacks and other races than whites over the last decade.
The white population grew 3 percent, compared to 8.8 percent for blacks, 31.2 percent for two or more races, 50 percent for Asians and 171 percent for Hispanics.
Inside Chattanooga, the white population grew only 0.9 percent since 2000 and the black population grew 3.8 percent. But the numbers for two or more races grew 24.6 percent, Asians were up 36.6 percent and Hispanics up 181 percent.
David Eichenthal, president and CEO of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, said the 2010 figures are the first time since 1980 that the city’s white population grew. The number of whites declined by 19.1 percent in the city from 1980 to 2000, he said.
“This is a remarkable story,” Eichenthal said. “It’s an across-the-board type of growth.”
Isaac Duncan is a part of that story. The artist, who calls himself Afro-Caribbean, moved to Chattanooga six years ago. Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., he hopped from Indiana to Michigan and Lexington, Ky., before ending up in Chattanooga.
He moved here for “economic reasons,” he said, and doesn’t see himself heading anywhere else because he loves Chattanooga.
“I know how far a dollar can be stretched,” he said. “Here you can stretch it far.”
Doug Bachtel, a demographer with the University of Georgia, said the rapid minority population growth is a trend throughout the Southeast. Historically, blacks and Hispanics have higher birth rates than whites, he said, and more minorities are moving into the area for job opportunities and a lower cost of living.
The rising number of minorities in the county coupled with the small growth of the white population inside Chattanooga is not surprising, he said.
“That’s from white flight and ‘bright flight,’” Bachtel said.
Many people believe the suburbs have better schools and lower crime rates, he said. That’s an inducement for educated and affluent minorities as well as whites. Meanwhile, he said, newer and poorer immigrants traditionally cluster in cities.Cleveland, Tenn., native Jason McKissic, chief operating officer for the Urban League, said he sees Chattanooga becoming more of a racial melting pot.
“If you walk around downtown, you hear a lot of different languages, see a lot of different cultures,” he said. “Just the change from the ’80s to now is mind-blowing.”
Urban League President and CEO Warren Logan said more companies are moving south and Northerners’ attitudes toward the South are changing for the better. Minorities come to Chattanooga from other places for the same reasons whites come here, he said.
“I think people are chasing opportunities,” Logan said.
Bachtel said much of the Asian population growth probably is due to an increasing number of immigrants from India.
Sheila Boyington is an India native who is vice president of ACT Inc., a company that administers the college ACT.
“A lot of this growth can be attributed to the growth of programming positions with companies like BlueCross, Unum and and TVA,” Boyington said in an email.
“With outsourcing not being everything that people expected, I believe that companies are deciding to bring people here. General growth in professionals also can account for this too — business people, doctors and engineers.”
Boyington, who serves on the board for the city’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, said there is a growing attitude in the city to make sure other cultures are valued and respected.
“We do have work to go in getting representation in elected officials, boards and leadership within business,” she said. “While that has improved some, we have a ways to go.”