Gloria J. Timmons of Nashua hugs her grandson, Jordan Thompson, during an inaugural Nashua Celebrates Black History Month event held at the Arlington Street Community Center in February 2019. Jordan Thompson, the founder of Black Lives Matter Nashua, organized the event.
When Gloria Timmons first moved from Connecticut to NH three decades ago, seeing a face that looked like hers felt like an event.
“In 1990, I used to run across the street if I saw another Black person and say, ‘Hi, my name is Gloria Timmons, how long have you been here, where’d you come from?’ and that sort of thing,” she recalls.
At the time, racial and ethnic minorities made up just 2.7% of the state’s population, historical census data show, making the Granite State one of the whitest in the nation. Even as the country has rapidly become more diverse, it’s a title NH still holds, following behind only West Virginia, Vermont and Maine.
But that’s not to say nothing has changed—between 2000 and 2018, the number of people of color in NH roughly doubled, according to a research brief by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of NH, growing from 61,600 residents to about 136,000. Non-Hispanic whites now make up about 89.8% of the state’s population, compared to about 95% at the start of the millennium, according to 2019 census estimates.
For Timmons, who has served as president of the Greater Nashua Area NAACP and sits on the Nashua Board of Education, it’s no longer a surprise to see another Black face when walking down the street.
“I don’t (run across the street) any longer, because I’d be doing it all day now,” she says.
Nashua, a city of 90,000 along the Massachusetts border, is one of the most diverse communities in the state, with growing Asian (8%), Hispanic (13%) and Black (4%) populations. The city is about 73% non-Hispanic whites, which shows greater diversity than the state’s largest city of Manchester, with a 77% white population.
Drive north, however and the state generally keeps getting whiter and whiter. Coos County in NH’s North Country, which has about a third of Nashua’s total population, is still 95% white.
Even as diversity has grown, the state’s reputation as “lily-white” persists. And amid nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality—and a pandemic that is disproportionately impacting people of color—the conflict has moved to the forefront in NH.
In Manchester, two city aldermen prompted outcry last summer after publishing racist posts about Black Lives Matter protests on social media. Around the same time, the state’s three Democratic executive councilors, including then-gubernatorial candidate Andru Volinsky, were accused of “structural political racism” after they failed to schedule a hearing on the nomination of former Congressional candidate Eddie Edwards, who is Black, to a state position. Then, at a September Senate candidate debate leading up to the primary election, New Hampshire Republican candidates Corky Messner and Don Bolduc denied the existence of systemic racism in the United States.
Meanwhile, people of color remain underrepresented across NH’s public institutions and say they still face discrimination, at times feeling like outsiders in their own communities.
“Every single person (of color) that I know here has been subject to racism in this state. It’s subtle sometimes, but it’s there,” Timmons says. “And we know it instantly, because we’ve heard it all our lives.”
As the state continues to change, Granite Staters are faced with a question: What does New Hampshire really look like—and who gets to belong here?
A Changing Makeup
Like other states in northern New England, NH has experienced decreasing population gains over time due to an aging populace and migration out of the state. However, more recently, between July 2019 and July 2020, the state saw the largest percentage population increase of any state in New England, according to the Carsey School at UNH.
Ken Johnson, a senior demographer at Carsey, saysd the bulk of the recent growth is due to migration into the state. Between 2000 and 2018, the growth of minority populations accounted for about two-thirds of the overall population increase in NH, he points out.
That’s largely because the state’s white population is much older than its minority population. As of 2018, 19.4% of white residents were over age 65, compared to 6.7% of nonwhite residents, while about 15.5% of the state’s children belonged to a minority population. In Manchester and Nashua, that figure increases to about 30% of children, Johnson says.
“Right now in New Hampshire, more whites are dying than being born, so even just raw, the basis of that kind of change, the number of whites in the state is not growing very much,” Johnson says. “And because the minority population is younger, it will grow as a share of the population over time.”
Hispanic or Latino residents make up the largest portion of the state’stotal minority population at 4%, according to 2019 census estimates, followed by Asian residents at 3% and Black or African American residents at 1.8%. About 2% of Granite Staters are Native American, multiracial or another race.
According to Johnson, roughly half of NH’s racial and ethnic minorities reside in Hillsborough County, which includes both Nashua and Manchester, and much of the overall population growth in the state is related to urban sprawl from Boston. He noted that most people who migrate to New Hampshire come from other states—about 23% of residents were born in Massachusetts—while roughly 6% of residents were born in other countries.
The southern tier of the state is not the only area where diversity is increasing, however. According to 2019 estimates from the American Community Survey, about 90% of Portsmouth residents are now non-Hispanic whites, compared to about 94% in 2010. In Concord, the non-Hispanic white population has shifted from 94% in 2010 to 88% in 2019.
Emily Walton, an associate sociology professor and race scholar at Dartmouth College, has studied the demographic makeup of the Upper Valley and interviewed nonwhite residents in the area about their experiences.
She says that Lebanon, where Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center is located, has seen a notable demographic shift, from 97% white in 2000 to about 87% white in 2010. Census estimates from 2019 indicate that non-Hispanic whites now make up roughly 85% of the city’s population.
The area draws skilled workers of color thanks in part to the hospital and the college, Walton says. But many of the residents she spoke with for her research said they often felt overlooked or ignored in their communities, treated more as “accepted guests” than as friends and neighbors. Others felt hyper-visible and recounted being asked constantly where they’re from, even if they had lived in the area for years or decades.
Keene resident Ritu Budakoti understands those feelings of isolation. After moving to the Monadnock Region from India with her family in 2012 for work, Budakoti says she initially found it difficult to meet people. The apartment building where her family lived felt less than welcoming—she often received questions about why she hadn’t stayed in her country, and felt she was treated differently when it came to building rules and policies.
It wasn’t until founding the Keene India Association with several friends that Budakoti began to feel like she was becoming a part of the broader community, she says. Meeting one person led to meeting another, and soon she was forming connections with people of all backgrounds and becoming involved in other Monadnock Region organizations.
“We said, okay, we are going to actually help build our roots so our kids learn about our own culture, we can come together, celebrate our heritage here and provide them with the roots (to) connect them,” she says of the group, which organizes cultural and educational events. “But at the same time, through this effort we can reach out to a bigger community and share our culture with them.”
Budakoti notes that it took being proactive to feel at home in NH. If she hadn’t made a significant effort to become more involved in the community, she said, she likely would have remained isolated. That’s part of the reason she makes it a point to offer support and advice to Indian families considering moving to the area, who often reach out through the association’s Facebook page.
Ritu Budakoti, middle school science teacher in Keene. (Photo by Allegra Boverman)
Not all new residents have a network to tap into, and a chilly reception from white Granite Staters can cause people of color to reconsider making their home here, Walton says.
Her project surveyed white residents of the Upper Valley about their opinions on the area’s demographic shift and their expectations of newcomers, which revealed a belief that immigrants and people of color should “play by the rules” of the local culture, she says. This desire for nonwhite residents to assimilate—by learning English or by not “disturbing the peace” with protests, for example—causes some people of color to view New Hampshire as a temporary home rather than a permanent one.
“What’s happening in the communities is whites that live here feel threatened about their status as they see people of color coming in, and it’s kind of a threat to what has always been accepted,” Walton explains. “Kind of like, yes, we will welcome you, as long as you act a certain way.”
The survey responses indicate that white residents may also feel threatened by the presence of people of color because it forces them to acknowledge their white privilege. Some white residents may believe that racism is not a problem here because there is limited diversity here, Walton said.
“As long as there are no people of color here, it’s like, ‘I’m a good person, I’m not racist, it’s just that I’ve never had any experience with diversity.’ But when it’s kind of in your face, you have to sort of figure out where you stand with it,” she says. “There’s this soul-searching that seems to be kind of happening for the local population.”
Eva Castillo remembers feeling like she was the only person advocating for immigrant rights when she first moved to NH three decades ago. But the Manchester resident, who came to the United States from Venezuela, says that as the number of immigrants in the state has increased, so has awareness of the challenges they face.
Though she loves living here, she hasn’t found the state to be particularly welcoming. She has hope for the future, however—thanks to the state’s small size, activists have easy access to NH’s political leaders, Castillo says, and she feels like Latino residents now have more of a voice than before.
“For the 30 years that I’ve been here I’ve seen so many people deported and so many families destroyed right under your noses, but nobody was paying attention,” said Castillo, who leads the N.H. Alliance of Immigrants and Refugees. “But now people are paying attention, and that makes a big difference.”
Eva Castillo of NH Alliance of Immigrants and Refugee
Still, there is a lot of work to be done. Timmons recounted the recent call the Nashua NAACP received from a 70-year-old Black woman who was devastated and scared after being stopped by a police officer for allegedly rolling through a stop sign. It was clear to Timmons immediately that the woman had been profiled, she says.
When it comes to policing, Timmons called for more accountability and transparency at the state level, noting that Nashua has had some success with community conversations on policing organized by local groups in partnership with the police department. But above all, she says state leaders need to come to terms with the fact that racism is still a problem here.
This is especially critical as NH rolls out the coronavirus vaccine and attempts to reach Black communities whose trust in the medical system has been broken by a long history of discrimination and exploitation.
“They have not acknowledged that systemic racism is alive and well in the state, and you have to acknowledge it,” Timmons says. “And if you don’t acknowledge it, (people of color are) going to think that they’re going to be treated the same way they’ve always been treated: Unfairly.”
Budakoti notes that though many who immigrate to the state are highly-educated, skilled laborers, she and her family have also borne the brunt of unfair stereotypes, with some Granite Staters assuming they don’t speak English or that they are in need of charity.
Research shows that immigrants are vital to the country’s economy regardless of their educational or socioeconomic standing. As of 2018, immigrants without a college degree accounted for 36% of the country’s farming, fishing and forestry workers, 36% of building and grounds cleaning and maintenance workers, 27% of hotel workers, and 21% of home health care industry workers, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
“I think we need to change the narrative of how we see and perceive immigrants,” Budakoti says. “Because not all immigrants are on the receiving end — they’re actually contributing more so in our economy and our community. And we need to understand that. It’s not about the white people giving help every single time.”
New Hampshire’s economy relies on that skilled labor as the number of young people in the state who have professional and educational credentials declines, Walton said.
“The economy depends on racial and ethnic minorities being able to move in and establish themselves and want to stay here,” Walton says. “And so, policy-wise, we really need to figure out how to make our communities more equitable and welcoming and inclusive for people that don’t traditionally seem like they would belong.”
That can start symbolically, she says, with communities voicing their support for diversity and for residents of color through local resolutions or ordinances. Several municipalities have approved such measures in recent years, including Keene, Dover and Portsmouth.
Beyond these symbolic acts, Walton says it’s about white people recognizing that diverse communities hold economic and cultural value. To that end, she noted that she’s currently working on a project called Humans of the Upper Valley, which will share stories of residents of all races living in the area to highlight their common humanity.
For their part, advocates and activists on the ground are looking forward.
“We’re not going to go back to the way it used to be,” Castillo says, “to have people (who are) just defenders of Europeans.”
This article is part of a year-long project exploring race and equity in NH produced by the partners of The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.