Two NJ counties now rank among nation’s most diverse

New numbers show how state has grown racially, ethnically and where changes have taken place
Credit: joiseyshowa via Flickr
American parade Monmouth County

New data from the U.S. census paints an even more detailed picture of just how diverse New Jersey is. Already a state with one of the most racially and ethnically varied populations in the nation, New Jersey has some of the most diverse counties in America.

These graphics tell the story of how the Garden State has changed since 2010

Middlesex County ranks 20th and Essex 21st as the most diverse in the country, according to data released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau. Its America Counts state reports include diversity data for each county, which was not part of the bureau’s release two weeks ago of population counts, race and ethnicity, voting age and housing stock from the 2020 census.

Racial and ethnic diversity in New Jersey, which ranked sixth among the states, seventh if the District of Columbia is included, has broad implications for government and policymakers, and understanding the nuances of population is an important consideration in providing services and programs to residents.

“Language outreach, for example, is one area where programs need to improve, especially outside of English and Spanish,” said Peter Chen, who headed up a coalition of organizations that worked to boost public response to the census and is now with the progressive-leaning organization New Jersey Policy Perspective. “When thinking about issues ranging from vaccination outreach to tax preparation, simply putting up a flyer in English will not suffice. Diverse communities mean diverse strategies for outreach and communications, especially when building relationships with local community groups and members.”

Digging into diversity indexes

Five counties had diversity indexes of more than 70%, meaning if two people were chosen randomly in those counties, there would be more than a 7-in-10 chance that they would be of different races or ethnicities. The higher the index, and more diverse the population. Middlesex County had the highest index, 72.2%, up from 67% a decade earlier and jumping from fourth most diverse in 2010 to the top spot. Essex County‘s index was right behind, at 72.1%.

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Middlesex experienced double-digit growth in the state’s largest minority groups: 10% among Blacks, 30% among Hispanics and 32% among Asians. Middlesex has the largest population of Asians in the state and roughly a quarter of some 943,000 New Jerseyans of Asian descent lived in Middlesex last year, the census found. The county also has the sixth-largest population of Latinos.

Middlesex is also the home of three of the 10 most diverse municipalities in the state, according to an NJ Spotlight News analysis of census data. North Brunswick ranks second with an index of 76.1%, Carteret, fifth, and Piscataway, eighth. Jersey City had the highest diversity index; the likelihood of two residents being of different races or ethnicities was almost 77%.

The least diverse county was Cape May, with an index of 28.6%. There and in three other counties — Sussex, Ocean and Hunterdon — there is less than a 1-in-3 chance of two residents having different racial or ethnic backgrounds. These are also the counties with the largest proportions of the population identifying as non-Hispanic white, as high as 84% in Cape May. Still, all grew more diverse over the previous decade, with Sussex increasing the most — from 20.7% to 31.6%.

Looking beyond the numbers

But merely looking at the data in these broad categories hides the true picture of diversity in the state, Chen said. The proportion of the state that is white alone, including those who are of Hispanic ethnicity, equaled 55% in 2020, but the number who reported being white alone or in combination with another race was a higher 63.5%.

“Drilling down into the racial and ethnic categories is important to a fuller understanding of the diversity in New Jersey,” he said. “People’s racial identities are complex, and sometimes overly highlighting one or more statistics presents an incomplete picture … the counties of the state with lower diversity on the census index may nonetheless be home to many people who identify as nonwhite.”

Chen also cautioned that “diversity does not equal integration,” saying that counties such as Middlesex and Essex can still be heavily segregated. He said that in Essex, more than half of all residents live in areas the bureau calls block groups that typically have between 250 and 550 housing units, which are either 80% non-Hispanic white or 80% Hispanic or other races.

Finally, the data the census has put out so far still does not give a full picture of diversity; categories like Hispanic and Asian are very broad and mask the distinctions of the specific countries of origin of people who fall into those groups.

“Diversity within broad categories can often be masked or flattened,” Chen said. “Certainly New Jersey’s Bangladeshi population has similarities with its Korean population, but each population has distinct cultural values and social groups.”

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