It would be hard for any metropolitan area to be whiter than Pittsburgh.
It's so hard, in fact, that of the 100 largest metro areas in the United States, only one has a smaller share of blacks, Hispanics and Asians -- the Scranton-Wilkes Barre region of northeastern Pennsylvania.
A new Brookings Institution report released last week, examining 2010 census data on how Americans identified race and ethnicity, found that southwestern Pennsylvania is whiter even than the Amish country around Lancaster, the Mormon population center of Salt Lake City, Midwest agrarian capitals such as Des Moines, Iowa, and far more isolated places like Boise, Idaho.
It is not stunningly new data for this former melting pot -- findings from the 2000 census were much the same -- but what might be eye-opening is that the pace of change toward greater diversity is even slower here than for all those places above, as well as the rest of America.
The report called "The New Metro Minority Map," by demographer William Frey, found that the 87 percent white population of greater Pittsburgh -- Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties -- is exceeded only by Scranton's 89 percent. The report noted 8 percent of metro Pittsburgh's population identified themselves as black, 2 percent as Asian and 1 percent as Hispanic.
Pittsburgh nudged down only slightly during the decade from its 89 percent white share in 2000, whereas the smaller Scranton area shifted more dramatically from a 96 percent white population 10 years earlier.
Among similarly sized cities to which Pittsburgh is frequently compared, Cincinnati went from 85 percent white to 82, Cleveland from 75 percent to 72, Milwaukee from 74 percent to 69, and Baltimore from 66 percent to 60.
For those who might wonder why any of this would matter, the Pittsburgh region has continued to lose population while growth in virtually every other city has been fueled by the influx and birth rates of immigrants and other minorities.
The report found that non-whites and Hispanics (who can count themselves as either black or white on the census form) accounted for 98 percent of population growth in the 100 metro areas from 2000 to 2010. In 65 of those, whites' share of the overall population declined by at least 5 percentage points.
Mr. Frey said in an interview that Pittsburgh is bound to change like everyplace else -- it's just taking longer to get here.
"This is the wave of our demographic future in this country, and it's absolutely going to happen in Pittsburgh," he said. "The one thing Pittsburgh has the luxury of is knowing it can see this minority change is coming along, whereas in some places it's come very rapidly -- maybe too rapidly for populations to accept and assimilate. A place like Pittsburgh can prepare."
The migration responsible for such growth is typically fueled by job opportunities, particularly for people in their 20s and 30s who are the most mobile. While the Pittsburgh region's economy has done better than the rest of the country in the past few years, that was not the case for most of the 2000-10 period, or for prior decades since the steel industry's collapse began.
The lack of jobs to lure newcomers has given little chance to create the kind of base of migrants that would help attract others to follow in their wake. Even in Allegheny County, easily the most diverse of the metropolitan area's counties, Hispanics are still just 1.6 percent of the population despite 71 percent growth during the decade.
Larry Davis, dean of the University of Pittsburgh's School of Social Work, said one downside is the inertia that can come from such a stagnant population.
"It's the interface of cultures that creates energy and synergism for new ideas," he said. "If you value diversity, you realize that those places that have it have become more vibrant."
On the other hand, he said, the stability of Pittsburgh's population has been a strength in creating a bond between people and their communities. Newcomers might not have the same sense of pride and attachment.
Most migration to cities has come from outsiders sensing opportunities there, rather than locally organized efforts to attract them. Nonetheless, Pittsburgh community leaders created a private, nonprofit group, Vibrant Pittsburgh, which has worked on marketing the region for the past few years with a welcome message to the underrepresented, diverse populations.
Melanie Harrington, the organization's CEO, said the Brookings Institution report would not reflect the strides southwestern Pennsylvania has made in attracting migrants in the past few years.
"We have so many decades to overcome when we had significant out-migration of talent across all ethnic and racial groups," she said. "Once we put on the map the fact that opportunities are here ... then people will take another look, and we'll continue to see migration pick up. We just need to continue to hit it hard."
The full report, "The New Metro Minority Map," can be found at brookings.edu.
Gary Rotstein: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1255.