Hamilton County became more diverse over the past decade, with the share of non-white residents rising from 29% in 2010 to nearly 32% last year.
The Chattanooga area remained less racially diverse than the United States as a whole in 2020, but an influx and growth in the local Hispanic population and increases in Asian Americans and other ethnic groups still nearly doubled the county's diversity index. That index measures the probability that two people chosen at random will be from different racial and ethnic groups.
The 2020 census figures released last week showed that most of the minority population gains in Hamilton County came from those identifying themselves as Hispanic, a number that jumped by nearly 81% over the past decade, and from those who identified themselves as of more than one race.
The number of people identifying themselves as only black or African-American in both Chattanooga and Hamilton County declined from 2010 to 2020, according to new census data. The number of black residents in Hamilton County counted in the 2020 census was down by 3,504 people from the 2010 census count, dropping to 63,979 people or 17.5% of all residents.
The 5.2% drop in the black population in Hamilton County reduced the share of the county's population counted as African-American or black from the 20.1% level in 2010.
In Chattanooga, the number of self-identified black residents also declined from the 2010 to 2020 census by about 5.8%. But overall, the non-white share of Chattanooga's population still rose from 41 to 44 percent of all residents.
Census officials said the decline in specific racial identifications in the new data may be largely because of people more accurately reflecting their multi-racial backgrounds and not necessarily a decline in the overall black population in an area.
"As the country has grown, we have continued to evolve in how we measure the race and ethnicity of the people who live here," said Nicholas Jones, director and senior advisor for race and ethnicity research and outreach at the Census Bureau. "The improvements we made to the 2020 Census yield a more accurate portrait of how people self-identify in response to two separate questions on Hispanic origin and race, revealing that the U.S. population is much more multiracial and more diverse than what we measured in the past."
Racial change in Hamilton County
The 2020 census showed overall population gains in both the city of Chattanooga and Hamilton County with the biggest share of that growth among those identifying as Hispanic.
Total - 366,207, up 8.8% from 2010
White only - 249,939 residents, up by 3.2% from 2010. Whites comprise 68.3% of the total population.
Black only - 63,979, down 5.2% from 2010. Blacks comprise 17.5% of the total population
Hispanic Latino - 27,075, up 80.6% from 2010, Hispanics comprise 7.4% of the total population
Racial change in the city of Chattanooga
Total - 181,099 residents, up 13,455, or 8%
White only: 101,585, down by 3% from 2010. Whites comprise 56% of the total population
Black only: 52,690, down 5.8% from 2010. Blacks comprise 29.1% of the total population.
Hispanic Latino: 16,581, up 3.9% from 2010. Hispanics comprise 9.1% of the total population
Source: U.S. Bureau of Census
Jones said the number of people who identified as being in two or more races more than tripled from 2010 to 2020 across the country as a whole. Meanwhile, the white-only population nationwide declined by 8.6% since 2010, the first such decade-long loss in the number of white Americans who do not identify with other racial and ethnic groups.
In Hamilton County, the white-only population did grow by 3.2% over the past decade, but that was only half the 8% growth rate for the population as a whole in the county. In Chattanooga, the white-identified population declined by 3% from 2010 to 2020, according to census figures.
The population growth rate has slowed over time with more women waiting longer to have children and the average size of families shrinking from levels in the past. The overall U.S. population grew 7.4% from 2010 to 2020, the slowest growth rate since the Great Depression.
"If not for Hispanics, Asians, people of two or more races, those are the only groups underage that are growing," said William Frey, a senior fellow at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program. "A lot of these young minorities are important for our future growth, not only for the child population but for our future labor force."
Past census data has shown growth in the U.S. driven by immigration, but over the past decade, new arrivals from overseas slowed and then virtually disappeared during the pandemic. Instead, birth rates are driving the change: Hispanic and Asian women's share of births has grown this century while it has declined for white women.
Among those identifying as black only in Hamilton County, 82.4% live in the city of Chattanooga, even though slightly less than half of all residents in Hamilton County live in Chattanooga. Suburban cities in Hamilton County, such as Lookout Mountain, Sale Creek, Walden and Ridgeside, counted 13 or fewer black residents within their city limits.
Hamilton County's growth in the Hispanic population was more than triple the national rate from 2010 to 2020. The Hispanic or Latino population comprised the biggest major category of population gains nationwide, rising 23% in the past decade to a total of 62.1 million nationwide in 2020.
Nationwide, the 2020 census counted 40% of all Americans as non-white last year.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6340.
Racial mix of area suburbs
White only: 15,143, or 68.3% of all residents
Black only: 2,991, or 13.5% of all residents
White only: 11,973, or 91.6% of all residents
Black only: 140, or 1.1% of all residents
White only: 9,660, or 81.2% of all residents
Black only: 799, or 6.7% of all residents
White only: 8,466, or 76.2% of all residents
Black only: 846, or 7.6% of all residents
White only: 8,206, or 92.7% of all residents
Asian only: 118, or 1.3% of all residents
Black only: 54, or 0.6% of all residents
White only: 2,797, or 92.6% of all residents
Black only: 13, or 0.4% of all residents
White only: 1,947, or 94.6%
Black only: 13, or 0.6% of all residents
White only: 1,798, or 90.8% or all residents
Black only: 10, or 0.5% of all residents
White only: 400, or 89.7% of all residents
Black only: 9, or 2% of all residents
Source: U.S. Bureau of Census