Area's racial balance shifts
Within the next year, whites will no longer be the majority in Orange County.

Mirroring a national trend in which minorities are becoming the majority, the racial balance in Orange County is poised to shift. U.S. census figures out today show that in 2006, whites teetered at 50.2 percent of the county's population.

"We've seen it coming; we've expected it. We are becoming more cosmopolitan as a community in part because of that change," said Linda Chapin, a former Orange County mayor who now heads the Metropolitan Center for Regional Studies at the University of Central Florida. "Certainly in public life we have talked for over a decade about the advantages of diversity."

In Osceola County, the shift is well under way, with minorities making up 53 percent of the population. Just seven years ago, whites in Osceola composed 60 percent of the population. Now it joins five other Florida counties where no racial group claims a majority.

The figures released today show that nearly one in 10 of the nation's 3,141 counties has reached that demographic milestone.

While Osceola has seen an explosion in its Hispanic population, Orange County's shift has been more diverse. In Orange, the Hispanic population has grown rapidly and the black population has seen moderate growth. And while the number of white residents is not shrinking, the group has grown at a much slower pace.

More change projected

The Bureau of Economic and Business Research at the University of Florida estimates that Orange County will be 45.5 percent white in 2010 and 38.6 percent in 2020.

The Rev. Randolph Bracy Jr., president of the Orange branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said that when minorities become the majority, the rules of the game change.

"You cannot ignore the demographics," Bracy said. "If I'm an adroit white politician, you're going to have to find ways of interaction with people who you might not [have] heretofore interacted with."

Orange County Commissioner Mildred Fernandez said a shift in numbers has not equated to a shift in power, noting that no Hispanics sit on the Orange County School Board or Orlando City Council.

"That tells me we still have more work to do," Fernandez said. "You have the numbers, but what really gives you power is money and politics."

William Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, said cultural clashes are more common in communities that have experienced the change in a relatively short period of time. He cites cities and counties in the Midwest that experienced population declines and then an influx of immigrants, and Southern counties that went from majority white to majority black in short order.

That has not been the case with Orange County, where the racial shift has been gradual, he said.

The percentage of whites is decreasing across all Central Florida counties, but the shifts outside of Orange and Osceola are less dramatic. Brevard, Lake, Polk, Seminole and Volusia counties are still predominantly white, with growing Hispanic populations.

When George Rodon, Orange County's economic director, moved to the region in the 1970s, his head would turn when someone spoke Spanish. Now, it is commonplace. "It's a different Central Florida," he said.

The census figures out today are part of an annual release of population data and are based on estimates.

Heartland shifting as well

Nationally, the majority-minority shift hasn't occurred only in border or urbanized areas, said Robert Bernstein, a census spokesman. Counties passing this threshold have included Denver County, Colo., and Blaine, Mont. Kansas has three counties where minorities outnumbered whites, Bernstein said.