The American Experience in 2016

This post was prompted by a suggestion in comments from a regular commenter that I look at this post at Five Thirty Eight by Jed Jolko which points out that the United States is no longer a country of white people living in small towns or the country:

Earlier this week, Jim VandeHei, a former executive editor of Politico, wrote an op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal accusing the Washington political establishment of being out of touch with “normal America.”

“Normal America is right that Establishment America has grown fat, lazy, conventional and deserving of radical disruption,” he wrote, citing his regular visits to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Lincoln, Maine, as his credentials of normality.

It’s a familiar accusation in a year in which most presidential candidates are trying to pretend they have nothing to do with the coastal elite, and after one — Ted Cruz — spent weeks attacking “New York values.” Even PBS, a standard-bearer of the media elite, recently featured a quiz designed to assess in-touchness with “mainstream American culture” with questions about fishing, pickup trucks and living in a small town.

But that sense that the normal America is out there somewhere in a hamlet where they can’t pronounce “Acela” is misplaced. In fact, it’s not in a small town at all.

Read the whole thing.

I don’t believe that his methodology is useful or helpful for a simple reason: the variations in demographics and residence in the United States are not distributed uniformly throughout the country.

It’s true that the United States is no longer as white as it used to be and that more people live in metropolitan areas. Just about 50% of Americans live in the largest 48 metropolitan areas. That also means that about 50% of Americans don’t live in the largest 48 metropolitan areas.

However, when you begin to dive into the details the picture that emerges is much more complex. Let’s look at the statistics. According to the Census Bureau about an eighth of Americans are black, a sixth are Hispanic, and three-quarters are white.

If that’s what America looks like, a lot of the cities in those 48 don’t look like America. The metropolitan areas of San Francisco, Phoenix, Riverside, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, Portland, San Antonio, Pittsburgh, Sacramento, San Jose, and Salt Lake City have been 3% (Portland) and 8% (Pittsburgh) black population. Other major metropolitan areas have black populations considerably larger than the national level. Hispanic population is similar. Most of the major metropolitan areas have considerably fewer than the national percentage while the others have many more.

Just as the United States doesn’t look like small town early 20th century America it doesn’t look like Brooklyn (or Chicago), either.

I would tell a very different story about the United States today. I think that from an experiential standpoint what the country “looks like” depends on who you are. I think that most whites in the United States experience life as about 85% white, 5% black, 10% Hispanic, and the rest Asian, Pacific Islander, etc. while blacks experience life as about 50% black, 45% white, and 5% everything else. Both groups estimate the numbers of the racial and ethnic demographic groups incorrectly, typically overestimating the proportions of blacks and Hispanics.

I also think that most Americans either live in small towns or suburbs which are effectively small towns but that’s a subject for another post.

The graphic above illustrates the white percentage by state. If you mouseover a state, it will show you the percentage.

30 comments… add one
  • Moosebreath Link

    “That also means that about 50% of Americans don’t live in the largest 48 metropolitan areas.”

    And if you bring the number up to 100 metropolitan areas, far more than 50% of Americans live there (probably over 60%). Which do you think metropolitan areas 49-100 resemble more, metropolitan areas 1-48 or the rest of the country?

    “Both groups estimate the numbers of the racial and ethnic demographic groups incorrectly, typically overestimating the proportions of blacks and Hispanics.”

    I suspect that whites underestimate blacks and Hispanics, not overestimate them.

    “I also think that most Americans either live in small towns or suburbs which are effectively small towns but that’s a subject for another post.”

    I’ll disagree. Most suburbs are areas which have amenities which tie into the nearby urban area’s and far higher population densities than the small towns. For example, Pennsylvania’s county with the third highest population (after Philadelphia and Allegheny (Pittsburgh)) is Montgomery, in the Philadelphia suburbs, not Erie or Dauphin (Harrisburg) or Lackawanna (Scranton). And the part of Montgomery County with the highest population is Lower Merion (much of Philadelphia’s Main Line), not the old mill-town and county seat, Norristown.

  • I suspect that whites underestimate blacks and Hispanics, not overestimate them.

    That’s not borne out by the evidence.

    Which do you think metropolitan areas 49-100 resemble more, metropolitan areas 1-48 or the rest of the country?

    I think that after you get out of the twenty or so largest cities in the U. S. the “metropolitan areas” are a lot more like a cluster of small towns than they are like New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago (even Los Angeles is more like a cluster of small towns than Chicago or New York is but that’s another subject).

    The 100th largest metropolitan area is the Spokane metropolitan area. It has about a half million people in it spread out over 60 square miles. Spokane proper has about 200,000 people in it. That ain’t Gotham.

  • PD Shaw Link

    If you expand to the top 150 metropolitan areas, then you’ve got Oshkosh, which I thought was an odd companion to Lincoln, Maine. Having been to both (OK, within a few miles of Lincoln to be honest), the former is a cluster of manufacturing cities stretching along the Fox river on the way to Green Bay, and the latter is a small town that impedes armies of logging trucks speeding through the vast expanse of haunted woods.

  • Moosebreath Link

    Interesting on the perception by whites of black population.

    “The 100th largest metropolitan area is the Spokane metropolitan area. It has about a half million people in it spread out over 60 square miles. Spokane proper has about 200,000 people in it. That ain’t Gotham.”

    It’s also not Lincoln, Maine. It’s a place which is big enough to have multiple arts districts and live theaters, a symphony orchestra and a jazz orchestra, multiple art museums and a science museum. There’s a big difference in life experiences there than in a rural area.

  • michael reynolds Link

    I’m still not sure I understand your point.

    This statistical analysis was done as a counter to the mythology of America as a nation of small town folk. Are you suggesting that this analysis is inferior in some way to the clearly wrong nostalgic view?

    Americans live in or near cities. Suburbs are not small towns, they are housing developments that happen to be outside the legal limits of cities upon which they depend. There is no north shore without Chicago. There is no Marin without San Francisco, no Long Island without New York City, no Fairfax or Montgomery County without Washington,DC. I like Tiburon, but if San Francisco and Silicon Valley disappeared, we’d be bankrupt and depopulated inside of a week.

    I think this guy with his notion of an America as a series of city states is closer to right: (and I apologize because I can’t figure out how to link to the specific map)

    This is why I keep harping on the anachronism of states. States are meaningless abstractions. Delaware is Philadelphia. Philadelphia is real, the word expresses something meaningful. Delaware is nothing. A number of vast, politically over-represented states are essentially meaningless. What the hell is Wyoming? Or North Dakota? They’re nothing but squares drawn on a map, less useful, less meaningful than something Mr. Sykes and Mr. Picot might have come up with. And these rotten borough states weigh far, far too heavily on American politics.

    We saw Ted Cruz reap the rewards of his snide, “New York values,” line, but he can almost be forgiven since it is an article of faith (on the right at least) that the “real America” is some lily-white one-stop-light town in the middle of a corn field. It isn’t. The US is the Acela corridor, LA, the Bay Area, the Texas triangle and Chicago. They dominate our economy and our culture, and yet are pilloried or ignored and generally under-represented.

  • PD Shaw Link

    If the New Haven MSA is the most normal place in America, how odd to title your article “‘Normal America’ Is Not A Small Town Of White People” when your most normal America area is a relatively small majority-minority city (pop. 130,000), surrounded by towns of white people.

  • Moosebreath Link


    “Delaware is Philadelphia. Philadelphia is real, the word expresses something meaningful. Delaware is nothing.”

    To be somewhat more precise, even people from Delaware divide their state, typically by the Chesapeake & Delaware canal. The part north of it has 80+% of the people (and would have a greater percentage except the state government and the only significant military facility are in Dover) and is part of the Philly metro area. The part south of the canal is referred to, even by natives, as “sLower Delaware”, and is vastly different in culture and experiences.

  • Ben Johannson Link

    Best part of this primary has been watching Silver get his face smashed into the pavement. The fate of liberal technocrats. . .

  • PD Shaw Link

    I think ultimately the problem with the analysis is that directly or indirectly it is simply about race. It only considers “age, education and race/ethnicity,” and while I’m not sure of the exact methodology, age and education vary by race/ethnicity. He is too chicken to list the least American cities, but he mentions a few:

    “McAllen-Edinburg-Mission and El Paso, both in Texas, both of which are younger, less educated and more Latino [88.3% and 78.2% respectfully] than the U.S. overall, and Honolulu, where Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders together are the majority [54.9%].”

    Other probable “Least American” cities:

    Albany, GA (pop. 120,822; 51% black)
    August, GA (pop. 477,441; 34.4% black)
    Columbus, GA (pop. 274,624; 40.4% black)
    Fayetteville, NC (pop. 302,963; 34.9% black)
    Florence, SC (pop. 125,761; 39.3% black)
    Goldsboro, NC (pop. 113,329; 33% black)
    Greenville, NC (pop. 133,798; 33.6% black)
    Jackson, MS (pop. 440,801; 45.6% black)
    Macon, GA (pop. 322,549; 37.5% black)
    Memphis, TN (pop. 1,135,614; 43.4% black)
    Monroe, LA (pop. 147,250; 33.6% black)
    Montgomery, AL (pop. 333,055; 38.9% black)
    New Orleans, LA (pop. 1,337,726; 37.5% black)
    Pine Bluff, AR (pop. 84,278; 49.6% black)
    Rocky Mount, NC (pop. 143,026; 43.1% black)
    Savannah, GA (pop. 293,000; 34.9% black)
    Shreveport, LA (pop. 392,302; 37.4% black)
    Sumter, SC (pop. 104,646; 46.7% black)
    Tallahassee, FL (pop. 284,539; 33.6% black)

    These are the MSAs with the highest percentage of blacks according to the 2000 Census. In stands to reason that if 12.3% of Americans are black, it’s just as easy, if not easier, to be “less American” by being more black, as being more white.

    Also, with the exceptions of Memphis and New Orleans these are relatively small metropolitan areas. So when he concludes the smaller metros are the least like America, at least part of that pattern is formed by the small metros of the black belt.

  • jimbino Link

    What also doesn’t “look like Amerika” are the populations of visitors to state and national parks and forests and the populations of our public universities.

    Apple, Facebook and Google worker populations also don’t “look like Amerika,” but our deprived minorities at least aren’t forced to contribute taxes to support them.

  • PD Shaw Link

    Racial segregation in the most American cities over 500,000 (1st being most segregated under Frey analysis):

    1 New Haven-Milford, CT (#29)
    2 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL (#50)
    3 Hartford-West Hartford-East Hartford, CT (#24)
    4 Oklahoma City, OK (#67)
    5 Springfield, MA (#22)
    6 Milwaukee-Waukesha-West Allis, WI (#1)
    7 Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI (#3)
    8 Wichita, KS (#44)
    9 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD (#9)
    10 Kansas City, MO-KS (#39)

    The least segregated metro over 500,000 is ranked #102 (Provo, Utah, which the writer mocks as looking like 1950s America). So basically, real America, at least in the North, is about white flight and segregation.

  • steve Link

    I live in a semi-rural area, next to a small town. I often work in a small town. I moved around growing up, but lived in small towns. I have lived in the suburbs of a large city (Philadelphia, Tampa, San Antonio). They (suburbs and small towns) don’t seem all that much alike. In the suburbs of a large city you have many of the amenities of the city, but better parking and less public transportation. You drive into the city pretty often (or train or whatever) for sports, food culture. You might know your neighbors, but probably don’t.

    In a true small town, you usually know your neighbors. You have more churches and people tend to be culturally conservative, more careful about outsiders but more friendly. You can drive to a big city for entertainment, but you seldom do. Lots of other stuff but the two seem pretty different to me.


  • Jan Link

    I basically agree with Steve’s comments, except regarding smaller towns normally being more conservative. I think such a pattern depends on it”s geographic location – midwestern burg’s being perhaps more conservative, but in N. CA rural coastal regions they’re all in for Bernie!

  • steve Link

    jan-That is why I specified more culturally conservative. They might vote for Bernie because they don’t like free trade, but most of them won’t know much about micro-aggressions or safe spaces.


  • PD Shaw Link

    @steve, sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name. Sometimes you don’t.

  • Andy Link

    ” Which do you think metropolitan areas 49-100 resemble more, metropolitan areas 1-48 or the rest of the country?”

    I tend to just areas by traffic. I think there is a huge traffic difference between the first 50 and the second.

    More seriously, using MSA list on Wikipedia, here are the areas where I’ve actually lived:

    DC Beltway – #6
    San Diego, CA – #17
    Denver, CO – #19 (hometown)
    San Antonio, TX – #25
    Dayton, OH – #72
    Titusville-Palm Bay FL – #95 (where I live now)
    Boulder CO – #156
    Anacortes-Mt Vernon, WA – #317

    Using the loose categories of Urban/Suburban/Rural, I’d say the top four on my list all have that “big city” feel with a core downtown and a ring of suburbs and smaller cities/towns absorbed by the sprawl. They have a lot urban areas. Moving down, Dayton, at #72, is typical (IMO) of a medium-sized mid-western city – it has small urban core, a downtown with some high rises and a ring of suburbs and absorbed towns. All the others do not have much urban at all and are essentially composed of smaller towns that have grown together into one big suburb surrounded by rural areas. This is particularly the case for where I live now. It has a population of over 500k but there are no real urban areas, no core, no downtown, etc. It’s a collection of small florida towns that gradually merged and grew into one continuous mass.

    Personally, I don’t see much difference between here and living in a city suburb except for the traffic and access to big-city amenities. All over the country, suburban living is surprisingly similar.

    Anacortes-Mt Vernon is the only area that had a rural small-town feeling – everything else was pretty much like a suburb except DC, where I lived in a denser area. I loved it there – it was the only area where there was a real sense of community.

    Anyway, I would put breakpoints based on the relative urban/suburban/rural ratios. In the bigger cities you have a choice to live in an urban or suburban area. Around 75 seems to be the sweet spot where you can have urban, suburban and rural areas all within a 30-45 minute drive. After that the urban areas start dropping off and the choice majority suburban until about #250 or so (I spent some time in Terre Haute, Indiana (#240) and Grand Junction, CO (#279) and those, IMO, start to have more of that “small town” feel to them with a lot of rural areas.

    Anyway, that’s all just my own, unscientific observations.

  • Andy Link

    Ugh, I need to spend more time proofreading my comments. First, “just” should be “judge” in the first sentence. Second, when I say “I loved it there” I mean Anacortes-Mt. Vernon, NOT DC. I hated DC.

  • Andy Link

    BTW, the county I live in now is ranked 1st in hispanic-white equality and 4th in overall racial equality. The Urban Institute’s comparative map tool is kind of cool:

  • PD Shaw Link

    @Andy, an MSA is just as much an abstraction as anything. The definition: “Metropolitan Statistical Areas have at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more population, plus adjacent territory that has a high degree of social and economic integration with the core as measured by commuting ties.”

    The Anacortes-Mt Vernon MSA has two cores, Mt. Vernon (pop. 31,743) and Anacortes (pop. 15,778), located 16 miles apart with miles of farm fields in between. They must have counted Burlington (pop. 8,338) across the river from Mt Vernon to get to 50,000. Really feels like cheating. The total population for the MSA is 116,90, so about half of the people living there don’t live in a city.

    New Haven (pop. 130,000) and Milford (pop. 52,759) are the core cities of the New Haven-Miford, CT MSA (pop. 859,470), is a lot more skewed. A lot of people live in smaller New England style towns.

    Just by looking at numbers, I think one would compare MSAs by total population, how many core cities it has, what is the population of the core city, and what is the core city’s density.

  • Andy Link


    I agree about the limitations of MSA’s but I’m not sure there is a better comparative measure. For part of my time there I actually lived in Coupeville, which is outside of the Mt Vernon MSA, but a part of the Oak Harbor “Micropolitan Statistical Area.”

  • PD Shaw Link

    @Andy, I think the MSA concept is good for economic issues, it gives a good idea of how many consumers can be reached by a business, how many employees are available. Its probably a good indicator of how many cultural amenities (museums and entertainment) can be supported.

    I don’t think its good for cultural issues, and doubt “commuting ties” have much to do with “social integration.” Part of commuting is social disintegration.

    And MSAs aren’t helpful for the author’s premise. His most American MSA is New Haven, an area where most people live in small towns full of white people.

  • PD Shaw Link

    BTW/ that PBS quiz is the one I believe Andy made a bunch of us take a few years ago. I don’t think it was about small town America, as much as having ever lived in a neighborhood where most people didn’t go to college, or recognizing military insignia, or knowing what Branson is.

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