A generation ago, this Atlanta suburb was 95 percent white and rural with one little African-American neighborhood that was known as “colored town.’’ But after a tidal wave of Hispanic and Asian immigrants who were attracted to Norcross by cheap housing and proximity to a booming job market, white people now make up less than 20 percent of the population in Norcross and surrounding neighborhoods. It’s a shift so rapid that many of the longtime residents feel utterly disconnected from the place where they raised their children.
“It’s not that much anger, but you don’t feel comfortable knowing that all this is around you,” said Billy Weathers, 79, who has lived in the area for his whole life and doesn’t speak a lick of Spanish.
Many say they feel isolated in their own hometown, pushed to change their ways, to assimilate to the new arrivals instead of the other way around. They resent the shift, even knowing it’s nobody’s fault, really. And they have mostly kept their feelings to themselves. Who, they wonder, would listen to folks like us, anyway?
“There used to be a place where we could go out to eat to get southern cooking,” said Billy’s wife, JoAnn Weathers, 79. “Well there’s no more southerners left here. . . . They came from other countries and completely changed our lives.”
It’s an attitude that many in the elites of both parties are quick to dismiss as out-of-date, wrongheaded, and frankly kind of embarrassing. It sounds like racial prejudice, and sometimes is. But to simply ignore or belittle this sense of loss and isolation is to close your eyes and ears to nativist sentiments that predated Trump’s rise, and even if he loses, aren’t going away. The demographic tide all but guarantees it.
The number of Hispanics in Georgia nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, bringing their total to roughly 9 percent of the state’s population. That’s still a smaller proportion than in the nation, where the Hispanic population reached a record 55 million in 2014 — 17.4 percent of the country’s overall population, according to Census data.
But in this part of Georgia, the pace of change has been breathtaking.
Norcross, once a sleepy bedroom community of about 3,000 people living on winding roads, attracted waves upon waves of these newcomers.
Part of the attraction was the cheap housing. Part of it was the easy access to interstate highways and the jobs in Atlanta. But also, once the area had a beachhead of immigrants, more came to live near family or acquaintances, according to Mary Odem, an associate professor at Emory University who has studied the immigrant influx in Georgia.
Now roughly 16,000 people live within the Norcross city limits, and about 40 percent are Hispanic. In 1980, only 23 people in the city were foreign-born.
This kind of population change, if sustained throughout the Atlanta area, will vastly improve the odds of Democrats running for office in Georgia.
Bell, like many others interviewed, said he distinguishes between immigrants who are making an effort to fit into the existing culture and those who he thinks aren’t trying to assimilate. The Vietnamese and the Koreans, he said, are at least keeping to themselves.
“The Latinos just throw it in your face. They’re here for the money. They don’t want to be American,” Bell said. “They don’t care about America.”
He listed big changes that he’s noticed: More renters in the neighborhood who seem to him to care little about the upkeep of their property, single-family houses that he says are filled with multiple families, garbage bins overflowing and litter in the streets.