Researcher studies 8 ethnic groups along Gulf Coast
BATON ROUGE, La. – Appreciating the cultural diversity of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico region could be key to understanding how the oil industry has affected society, according to LSU AgCenter sociologist Mark Schafer.
Schafer, along with LSU sociology professor Troy Blanchard and a team of social scientists, is studying how various demographic groups in the region have changed over the years. He said it is important to recognize the history of these groups as well as how they interact with one another. His study is funded by a U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and Research cooperative agreement and began in 2010 soon after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Schafer said much research has been done on environmental and economic effects of the oil industry, but the project’s goal is to determine the social impact on different communities and ethnic groups.
Schafer examined eight ethnic or racial groups — African-American, Cajun, Croatian, Latino, Native American, Vietnamese, other Asians and Creole — that have been influential in the development of cultures along the Gulf Coast, focusing on Louisiana.
Populations of some groups are diminishing while others, particularly Latinos and Asians, are increasing. "New destinations for demographic groups" have formed along the coast, thanks to job opportunities created by the growing oil industry, Schafer said.
New groups moving into the area could enhance Louisiana's vibrant culture but also cause existing communities to feel threatened. Louisiana has always been diverse, Schafer said, but the state's many ethnic and racial groups remain somewhat insulated from one another. It is common knowledge that several distinct cultures exist within Louisiana, but "we're more diverse than we realize," he said.
For example, many people may be unaware of smaller groups such as the Croatians and their contributions to society. Louisiana Croatians are declining in numbers, Schafer said. They historically have lived in communities south of New Orleans and specialized in the oyster industry, which has struggled in recent years.
There are numerous ethnic and racial categories in Louisiana, many of which have several subcategories and nuances. For example, Schafer pointed out there is a big difference between swamp Cajuns, prairie Cajuns and the Cajans of Alabama. The report on Creoles was challenging to write because the term “Creole” has multiple contested meanings that have varied over the years, he said.
All of these nuances help explain Louisiana's complex history.
"Louisiana is the way it is because of the mixture of different types of people," Schafer said. "Today we tend to draw the race line between black and white, but New Orleans historically had multiple racial categories."
People today could become accustomed to having multiple categories once again as Latino and Asian populations grow in the Gulf of Mexico region, Schafer said. Additionally, a growing proportion of Americans identify themselves as multiracial.
Schafer is still working on the final part of his study, which examines changes in the ethnic mix of the region and its ability to remain stable during catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina. Future research could focus on how economic and environmental changes affect demographic groups differently. Many cultures found along the Gulf Coast are deeply connected with the land because those people's way of life depends on it, he said.
All the publications except the one on Creoles are printed and available on the AgCenter’s website at www.LSUAgCenter.com. Go to Publications, Catalog, Research and Community. Each of the publications, which vary in length from eight to 20 pages, provides detailed information about the groups as well as a comprehensive bibliography.