It’s been joked that a century ago here around the Columbia River estuary, racial diversity consisted of whiter shades of pale — bickering Scandinavian tribes kept in check by smug native-born Americans with British roots.
This north-eurocentric view always obscured a more interesting dynamic in which many Chinook-Clatsop people forged new paths to survival and success. Some migrant Chinese, Japanese and Filipino cannery workers put down roots. Fishing, logging and international commerce brought infusions of other folks from the wider world.
In the past two or three decades, the big story here and elsewhere is the growing presence of residents with Hispanic ethnicity. Also notable in the 2020 census are those who embrace having two or more racial components. In both these cases, there are compelling observations to make about Clatsop and Pacific counties, which together comprise the lower Columbia’s increasingly unified labor, housing and cultural centerpiece.
• The two counties tallied an official Hispanic population of 6,044 in 2020, a gain of about 1,500 and 34% more than 10 years earlier. If they all lived in the same place, Hispanic people would comprise the fourth-largest Columbia estuary town, after Astoria and Seaside and nearly tied with Warrenton.
• There were 5,554 people who said they are mixed race in the two counties in 2020, more than tripling from a decade earlier. Although some moved here in the 10 years, a majority are longer-term residents who don’t believe a complicated genealogy ought to be a source of shame — a remarkable and welcome reform from decades ago. It’s worth noting many geneticists now question the very concept of race, finding virtually no difference between all humans at the most fundamental level.
• Our area is definitely diversifying — but while our burgeoning Hispanic population is newsworthy, our official results differ from our respective states and many other Pacific Northwest counties. In Pacific County, the 10-year Hispanic growth rate of about 31% compares to 40% in Washington as a whole. Clatsop’s 35.6% Hispanic expansion outpaced Oregon’s 30.8%, but was far behind the 54.5% in neighboring Columbia County. All of these numbers may be undercounts, with undocumented residents often preferring to remain invisible to official attention.
• A look at the finer details of the 2020 census reveals enormous variation in how diversity is shifting within the counties. Availability of housing, proximity to work and an array of other factors influence where we all live.
Two Long Beach Peninsula census tracts — the far northern third and a segment between Long Beach and Klipsan Beach — each experienced 10-year Hispanic population growth rates above 90%. Only Ocean Park and Nahcotta saw declines in Hispanic population — though it should be noted their overall Hispanic numbers remained comparatively low in both 2020 and 2010.
In Clatsop County, the Hispanic population declined in two of the 11 census tracts — eastern Astoria and the county’s southwest quadrant. Growth rates in the other nine were as much as 100% in census tract 9506 — the area just inland from the Clatsop Plains.
• In the two counties, only South Bend has a Hispanic population component barely above 20%. South Bend is also the most racially diverse community in our area, with an overall minority population of 27.4%. Seaside comes close with a Hispanic population of about 17% and an overall minority share of about 26%. Despite diversification, Pacific County remains 79.6% non-Hispanic white and Clatsop is 81.6%. The respective percentages in Washington and Oregon are 63.8 and 71.7. The U.S. has a non-Hispanic white population of 57.8%, down from 60.4% in 2010.
• In sheer numbers, our area’s communities with the most Hispanic residents are Seaside (815), the Raymond census tract (612) and Warrenton-Hammond (469).
Some may read all these numbers about differences and regret that our nation doesn’t instead focus more on unity. Getting past any real or perceived divisions and working together toward a future that works well for all Americans should indeed be a top priority for each of us. Part of reaching that goal entails better understanding exactly who we are.
Just as we now celebrate our region’s historical ethnic and racial components with events like the Astoria Scandinavian Midsummer Festival and Naselle’s Finnish-American Folk Festival, our vibrant and resilient Hispanic heritage deserves its own. We are so fortunate to have a diverse range of Mexican, Central American and perhaps even a few South Americans as neighbors. They are integral to our economic success and bring with them a host of worthy traditions and delicious culinary treats.
Diversity, merging into a profound sense of underlying national pride and unity, remains key to America’s past and future.