Social Psychologist Stephen L. Klineberg on the Changing Face of Houston and America

On June 14, 2012, Stephen L. Klineberg, social psychologist and Co-Director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, visited American Studies Leipzig as part of the Fulbright lecture series. Houston, Texas is one of Leipzig’s sister cities.1

Professor Klineberg, who has been co-directing the Kinder Houston Area Survey for thirty-one years, talked about socio-demographic developments in the  Houston area and its implications for the US in the twenty-first century.

Panoramic view of the Houston skyline.
Panoramic view of the Houston skyline. By Hequals2henry (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) , via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panoramic_Houston_skyline.jpg
For most of the twentieth century, the primary source of wealth for the Houston area has been its geographic nearness to the oil fields of East Texas. According to Klineberg, in the twenty-first century, Houston will transition into a center of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and information technology industries.

If this is to become a reality, Houston needs to lure the best and the brightest into its centers of academic research, and develop ways to turn new knowledge into profitable ventures. In order to succeed in the emerging knowledge economy, the city needs to become attractive for an international mobile elite that could—at least in theory—live anywhere in the world. In this context, quality of life issues are taking on a central role for the economic success of the city as a whole.

Geography and Demographic Developments

With merely one third of LA’s urban density, Houston is the most spread-out city in the US. Harris County, TX covers a land area of 1,703.48 mi² (4,411.99 km²) is the fifth largest metroplex in the US and the third most populous county, inhabited by around 4 million people. It is a city of automobiles, open spaces, and suburbs. The latter are largely the result of the post-World War Two baby boom.

By 2035, the population of the Houston area is estimated to grow to around eight million inhabitants.2

But despite the reliance on cars, mass transit by other means has become increasingly important. Since 2004, Houston has a light rail line, the METRORail, covering 7.5-mile (12.1 km) and catering to approximately 34,000 daily commuters, something that has long been a common sight in European cities.

In the last decades, living in the city, as opposed to suburbia, has become more attractive. Surveys have traced the growing popularity of smaller homes closer to the city centers, where the workplace and other infrastructure is within walking distance.3

Demographics, Klineberg holds, is the key cause for this development. Today, less than one third of all households has children living at home.

All of this constitutes a trend towards “walkable urbanism.”

New Immigration, Ethnic Diversity, and the Face of Twenty-First Century America

Historically, Houston has essentially been a bi-racial Southern city. But today, it is the most culturally diverse metropolitan center in the US. In 2010, Houston’s population was 40.8% Hispanic, 33% Anglo, 18.4% Black, and 7.7% Asian.4

Race and ethnicity 2010: Houston By Eric Fischer  [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Race and ethnicity 2010: Houston By Eric Fischer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0). Maps of racial and ethnic divisions in US cities, inspired by Bill Rankin’s map of Chicago, updated for Census 2010. Red is White, Blue is Black, Green is Asian, Orange is Hispanic, Yellow is Other, and each dot is 25 residents. Data from Census 2010. Base map © OpenStreetMap, CC-BY-SA. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Race_and_ethnicity_2010-_Houston.png
The new immigration from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean has prevented population loss in Houston, which has been a problem in other major US cities.

In some ways, Houston today hints at the future of the US in general. By 2045, so the U.S. Census Bureau estimates, a majority of the population will be of non-European descent.5

Professor Klineberg is optimistic about the prospects of the US population dealing with this fact. Looking at Houston, with its great ethnic diversity, he points out that anti-immigrant sentiment is less pronounced here than in other places in America.

Much of this optimism stems from what Klineberg calls the “psychology of inevitability.” While the American population as a whole is aging and today’s seniors—the Baby Boomers—are mostly Anglo (or non-Hispanic white), younger generations of Americans are disproportionately non-Anglo. Furthermore, there has also been a significant increase in interracial marriages over the last decades.6 Younger Americans today are better attuned to the reality of a more ethnically diverse society than their parents or grandparents. In Klineberg’s view, the major fault line of the twenty-first century will therefore not be race but economic class.

The Knowledge Economy, Higher Education, and Inequality

In the twenty-first century, education will be the key to prosperity. The effects of globalization, automation, and government inaction have led to a decline in manufacturing jobs and put the American working and middle classes under increasing pressure.7

In the knowledge economy, both in Houston, Texas, and the US as a whole, access to higher education is therefore the crucial factor for long-term economic well-being of citizens.

Here is American Studies Leipzig’s video interview with Stephen L. Klineberg:

  1. Aktivitäten und Projekte – Partnerstadt Houston (USA). Stadt Leipzig. http://www.leipzig.de/de/business/wistandort/international/partnerst/houston/02513.shtml
  2. Houston-Galveston Area Council 2035 Regional Growth Forecast. http://www.h-gac.com/community/socioeconomic/forecasts/archive/2035.aspx
  3. Smaller homes, urban lifestyles attractive to new homebuyers: ULI. Housing Wire. March 21, 2012. http://www.housingwire.com/news/smaller-homes-urban-lifestyles-attractive-new-homebuyers-uli
  4. Harris County, Texas, 2010. State & County QuickFacts. U.S. Census Bureau. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/48/48201.html. See also the Wikipedia page on Demographics of Houston.
  5. U.S. Population Projections. U.S. Census Bureau. http://www.census.gov/population/www/projections/index.html
  6. Jordan, Miriam. “More Marriages Cross Race, Ethnicity Lines.” Wall Street Journal 17 Feb. 2012. Web. 15 June 2012. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204880404577226981780914906.html
  7. Noah, Timothy. The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It. Bloomsbury, 2012.; Pierson, Paul, and Jacob S. Hacker. Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer–and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class. Simon & Schuster, 2010.