The Whitification of Oxford: A changing cultural landscape
Oxford and Lafayette County are getting whiter.
That can be challenging for the community, since diversity is a pillar of a strong foundation.
It’s not anybody’s fault, or the result of effort. Let’s get that out of the way quickly.
Neither, however, do the solutions lie at the fingertips of any single person, leader, or entity. It’s a challenge for us all, and it will take some time to rectify.
You haven’t read this story because the census can’t fully reveal what’s happened the past decade. But the facts are undeniable: Oxford is getting whiter, racially speaking, Consider the dynamics at work to better understand the shift slowly chipping away at diversity in the community.
Officially, Lafayette County – home to Oxford and Ole Miss – has only become slighter whiter in the past decade, judging by census data. From 2010 to 2016, Lafayette County’s white population increased by only half a percent (from 71.75 percent to 72.4 percent). African American population remained roughly the same, with just more than 1/10th of a percentage point increase (23.66 percent to 23.8 percent).
Within the Oxford city limits, the census shows an increase of more than 1,500 African American between the 2000 census and 2010 census, but that’s due largely to annexation. We have to look deep to more revealing factors: From 2000 to 2010 the number of housing units in Oxford nearly doubled yet owner occupancy remained below 40 percent.
In other words, while the city and county’s official race count has remained close to the same, with only slight increases in the white to African American ratios in the past two decades, the city and also the county face a decidedly different reality regarding who’s here day in, day out.
Oxford became a second and third-home boom town beginning initially in about 2003 and a second wave that started in about 2012. When we get the next official count on housing units in 2020, we will see that the biggest explosion is currently underway, and most of the second home buyers and renters are white.
Walk the downtown streets of old Oxford homes, for instance, and two, three and sometimes four in a row are occupied by part-time owners – people counted in the census data in other cities. They are typically University of Mississippi graduates from an era when the university did not have many minority students, meaning that most are white.
Similarly, the University of Mississippi has seen its Oxford campus enrollment increase by 50 percent since 2003, meaning that a majority of apartments built in this latest housing boom are filled by white students since the university is essentially 77 percent white.
We must be careful and clear regarding such conversations with the university, however, since it has in recent decades been the most positive influence on diversity in the community, aggressively making minority recruitment a top priority. But facts are facts, and particularly regarding the influx of mostly-white alumni buying second and third homes here, there’s no denying that the city and county are seeing a decided shift in how many white people are in the community on any given day.
The census, which has a lag factor, shows the change has been minor so far, but reality reveals that the shift is actually quite dramatic and quickly moving in the wrong direction. Oxford is growing at a double-digit rate and most new residents are white. We can expect the 2020 census to reveal that shift. But even without that, there’s a change underway, with more part-time white residents here in large numbers.
Where it hurts the most is in areas like Oxford’s Freedman Town, the residential district a few blocks from the town square where freed slaves settled more than a century ago, creating a cultural heartbeat of the city’s African American community. Over time, gentrification is reshaping the neighborhood, and many homes are now white-owned and many are non-owner-occupied rentals.
We’ve seen membership in Oxford’s downtown African-American churches decline to the point that some have had to merge while others have closed altogether. Meanwhile, white churches in every corner are executing new building plans, raising millions of dollars from flourishing attendance.
Our diversified strength has remained in our excellent public schools. Both Lafayette County and Oxford systems exemplify strong public education and are shining examples of how well-balanced student bodies learn and thrive together.
They maintain a strong cultural mix since it’s full-time residents that populate our schools, but even they are seeing a shift. Oxford schools, now among the largest in the state, had a 44 percent African American ratio in 2004 and that’s drifted to just more than 35 percent today. Lafayette schools had 29 percent African American students in 2004 and 26 percent today.
My best calculations, considering new residents, second homeowners and apartment dwellers suggest that on many given days Oxford is 90 percent or more white to 10 percent or less African American populated.
There is no easy solution to this shift, however, since the forces of change have resulted from a confluence of factors, including low-interest rates after the recession that allowed so many to buy second and third homes.
Ole Miss will continue to be a positive influence on our quest for diversity since it actively recruits students, faculty and staff of all races and genders who make the institution stronger. Also, our strong public schools also provide hope, especially if we can create opportunities for our brightest to ultimately make this home.
That’s why how our community shapes its fertilization for business and innovation for the future will have a lot to do with how we grow and go from here. Also, it may be time to look beyond Lafayette County to more regional partnerships that can result in jobs, opportunities, and relationships that could have longer-term benefit by sending a positive message.
Some things can’t be controlled, of course. But we should be aware, and willing to make an effort to keep our community diverse and therefore completely enriching into the future.
David Magee is Publisher of The Oxford Eagle. He can be reached at email@example.com.