The U.S. Census Bureau announced Wednesday that whites are no longer a majority in Orange County, where steady growth in Asian and Latino populations has dramatically changed a once-homogeneous suburban landscape.
It is a watershed, demographic and cultural experts say, that has been forecast for years. But the news still contrasts sharply with the region's image -- a stereotype kept alive by popular TV shows such as "The OC" and "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" that portray an affluent and largely white population living by the beach.
"Come to Santa Ana and watch the kids trudge back to their tenement housing," said Amin David, head of Los Amigos of Orange County, a nonprofit organization. "That's the kind of Orange County we have. It's not the sand dunes you see on TV."
Along with Orange County, Riverside and San Mateo counties also crossed the 50% minority threshold in July 2003, Wednesday's census report said. The three join 17 other California counties where non-Latino whites are less than half of the population. With the 2000 census, California became the first large state with a predominantly ethnic-minority population.
The population figures are estimates for July 1, 2003, based largely on birth, death and tax records. Of Orange County's 2.95 million residents, 1.49 million are minorities -- about 30,000 more than the non-Latino white population. In Riverside -- a county of 1.78 million people -- minorities now outnumber non-Latino whites by more than 50,000.
This moment has been forecast for years, said Deborah Diep, assistant director of the Center for Demographic Research at Cal State Fullerton.
In Orange County, Diep said, the shift is due largely to growing Latino and Asian populations that are significantly younger than the white population. In 2000, for example, the median age for Latinos was about 25. For non-Latino whites, it was 40.
"The Hispanic and Asian families are coming in with much higher fertility rates and are having many more children" at a rate that outpaces growth in the white population -- a factor that far outweighs migration into or out of the county, Diep said.
Census figures show that while Orange County's population grew 18% from 1990 to 2000, some minority populations grew much faster: Asians by 63% and Latinos by 55%.
The numbers play out across the county. In Santa Ana, a city with one of the country's highest concentrations of minorities, the Latino population grew by more than a third between 1990 and 2000 to top 250,000.
The Asian population has grown rapidly in such cities as Garden Grove -- up 81% over the decade -- that are part of Little Saigon, the world's largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam. Affluent Irvine also has seen rapid growth in its Asian population, up 167%.
Similar trends are seen in Riverside County, as more Asians and Latinos move inland from the coast in search of affordable housing, said Inland Empire economist John Husing.
Husing, Diep and other experts say they expect the minority populations in these and other counties to continue to grow. The days of "white flight" from the cities to the suburbs, they say, are largely over.
"What this is about is the changing face of suburbia from a white area to a multiracial one," said urban historian Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. "It is happening in other areas, but nowhere as dramatically as in Southern California and the Bay Area."
Experts may have seen it coming, but the shift toward so-called "majority-minority" counties and cities contrasts sharply with widely held notions of life in Southern California. The transition is perhaps most jarring in Orange County, which has held tight to its image of beaches and white faces.
MTV's "Laguna Beach," for example, claims to unveil "the real Orange County," with an all-white cast of high-schoolers from one of the county's wealthiest cities.
Victor Becerra, a sociologist and urban planner at UC Irvine, said the disconnect between reality and image poses dangers when it comes to addressing the needs of a changing population.
"You can run, but you can't hide" from demographic reality, he said. "The change is occurring, and all the ripple effects that come with it -- such as housing, education and economic development -- need to be mitigated in a way that prepares these counties to absorb newcomers in a positive way."
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Changing face of O.C.
Orange, Riverside and San Mateo counties have joined the ranks of those where non-Latino whites are no longer a majority of the population. Figures are estimates as of July 1, 2003.
*--* Total White pop.* Minority pop. County population Number percent Number percent Orange 2,957,766 1,464,439 49.5% 1,493,327 50.5% Riverside 1,782,650 864,412 48.5 918,238 51.5 San Mateo 697,456 340,262 48.8 357,194 51.2
Percentage of O.C. that is non-Latino white
The segment of Orange County's population that is non-Latino white dropped from 86% in 1970 to below 50% in July 2003.
Other California counties with minority populations above 50%
*--* Total 2003 % County population minority Imperial 149,232 82% Los Angeles 9,871,506 70 Merced 231,574 62 Monterey 414,449 62 Fresno 850,325 62 Alameda 1,461,030 61 Tulare 390,791 61 San Bernardino 1,859,678 60 Kings 138,564 59 Santa Clara 1,678,421 58 San Joaquin 632,760 57 San Francisco 751,682 56 San Benito 56,300 56 Madera 133,463 55 Colusa 19,678 54 Solano 412,336 54 Kern 713,087 53
Sources: Census Bureau, The Associated Press. Compiled by Lois Hooker
Times staff writers Seema Mehta and Jennifer Mena contributed to this report.