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One of the Whitest States in America Wants More Minorities

At the Beech Street School, situated in the most racially diverse census tract of the state's largest city, principal Christine Martin has been unable to find any African-American teachers or support staff to hire.

By Todd Feathers

At the Beech Street School, situated in the most racially diverse census tract of the state's largest city, principal Christine Martin has been unable to find any African-American teachers or support staff to hire.

"Do I have a person of color who our children can look at and see themselves? No," she said. "It's an enormous challenge."

Eversource Energy's office here has had similar problems. One African-American engineer the company recruited from out of state several years ago couldn't find a social scene, or even a barbershop, where he felt comfortable closer than Boston, so he moved back to Texas, according to Paula Parnagian, the company's diversity and inclusion manager.

"That engineer was the first person I heard about, but I've heard from other people, 'Yeah, I'm having the same problem,'" she said, and the issue isn't just limited to African-Americans.

New Hampshire is the third-whitest state in the country (94 percent) following only its neighbors Vermont and Maine (both 95 percent), according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Demographic trends that changed the face of much of the country over the last century largely passed the region by, and now state officials, business leaders, and community activists see that reality as an existential threat.

With the country projected to become majority minority within the next 30 to 40 years, they fear New Hampshire could be left behind both economically and culturally.

"In New Hampshire, and actually all of northern New England, the number of whites in the state is only growing through migration" because the white residents are dying and leaving the state at a faster rate than they're giving birth, said Kenneth Johnson, a senior demographer at the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH. "In the long term, it will be an issue especially in these very white states. If the white population isn't producing enough children to offset the deaths, then the only way to grow is through minority populations."

On Thursday, representatives from dozens of organizations -- ranging from large employers and state agencies to nonprofits and the NAACP -- will convene at Eversource Energy's Manchester office to jumpstart what some participants believe will be the first large-scale effort to consciously diversify a state in New England, and perhaps the country.

"Prior to now, there has not been any specific driving force for people of color, doesn't matter which color, to move to New Hampshire. There has not been a reason to do so," said Rogers Johnson, a former state representative and the president of the Seacoast NAACP. "The reasons (for migration) in the past have been economic development, centered on large cities ... nobody of color thinks of Manchester, Burlington and Portland as a large city. There's not a social infrastructure in any of those states."

Many of the details have yet to be sorted out -- the group has not even chosen a name yet -- but some of the early organizers like Parnagian and Will Arvelo, director of the state's Division of Economic Development, envision a nonprofit with diverse funding sources that will organize both on-the-ground recruitment drives in other states and coordinate programs in New Hampshire to help minorities settle and feel welcome.

While the effort will likely also be geared toward attracting people who have been marginalized based on their gender, sexual orientation, religion, and physical disabilities, the data backing up the racial disparity, and opportunity for growth, in New Hampshire is particularly stark.

Nationwide, 17 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, 14 percent as African-American or black, and 6 percent as Asian. In New Hampshire, 3 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 2 percent are African-American or black, and 3 percent are Asian. Some residents identify with more than one race.

By percentage, Berlin is the blackest city in New Hampshire and the second blackest in northern New England, after Portland, Maine, Since 2009, the African-American population in the Coos County city of roughly 10,000 increased nearly 19-fold (to 541 in 2016). But the vast majority of that growth only came after a federal prison opened there in 2012. The U.S. Census Bureau counts prisoners where they are incarcerated, not where they are from.

The story of race in the Granite State is rife with seeming contradictions.

In a 2014 report, the Annie E. Casey Foundation ranked New Hampshire the second-best state in the country, behind Hawaii, in which to raise an African-American child. When the foundation repeated its survey for a 2017 report, New Hampshire was not ranked because there were not enough African-American children in the state to calculate some of the metrics.

And minorities often say they have better interactions with police officers in New Hampshire than in more diverse states, Johnson said. But at the same time, the last year has seen swastikas drawn at UNH's Durham campus and minority students there have reported being spit on. Last September in Claremont, teenagers shouting racial slurs threw bricks at a multi-racial boy, put a rope around his neck, and pushed him off a picnic table, his grandmother told the Valley News.

"I think there's still ways in which we need to realize that racism is really anti-social and harmful behavior," said Kabria Baumgartner, a professor of American studies at UNH, who chose to live in northern Massachusetts, rather than New Hampshire, in order to be closer to Boston's more diverse culture. "I feel that some of this is just about getting information ... There's more that can be done around education and around history. There's a history of people of color in New Hampshire that kind of gets forgotten."

Understanding and learning from that history could be vital to preserving the future.

"If we're going to be competitive internationally, and nationally as a state, we have to be more inclusive," said Arvelo, of the Division of Economic Development. "Businesses that are not prepared for this are going to be on the losing end, I believe, of the future economy."

Companies have already begun to feel the pinch. Eversource Energy is not the only business that has spent time and money recruiting high-skilled workers from other states only to see them leave because they can't find a community outside of work, Parnagian said.

And if the region's shrinking white population is not bolstered by minority residents it will not just be a problem for employers, according to demographer William Frey, of the Brookings Institution.

"The real reason why older white Americans need to be concerned about immigration and minorities is that these are the people who are going to be paying taxes and paying for their Medicare for the next 10 or 20 years," he said.

Organizers of the Granite State diversity push don't expect change to come quickly, but they believe they have the critical mass of support necessary to ensure a lasting commitment. They don't think it will be easy to convince minorities to uproot and move, but they think New Hampshire has enough going for it to sway the skeptical -- people just need to be invited.

"Yes, it's hard to be first, but once you break the mold it becomes easier for others," Johnson said. "And the one thing people of color know is that to be a trailblazer you have to sacrifice. And if you can sacrifice to be first, people coming behind -- your own children -- will have it better."

(c)2018 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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