“Census data: Rockford may lose spot as Illinois’ 3rd biggest city” warned the headline in the online edition of the February 16 issue of the Rockford Register Star, announcing the initial release of data from the 2010 Census.

Ten years ago, when the data from the last census was released, Rockford, with a population of 150,115, was still Illinois’s second-largest city.  A few years later, Aurora, once a significant city in its own right but now little more than an extension of Chicago, paid for a special census to rip the title away from Rockford.

At the time, some criticized Rockford’s city council for not paying for such a survey here, to keep Aurora down in third place.  We now know it would have been a monumental waste of money: Aurora today stands at a population of 197,899, compared with Rockford’s 152,871, a mere 1.84 percent increase since 2000.

Does it really matter whether Rockford is number three in the state?  Being number two never seemed to help the city, at least in terms of political pull in Springfield or even public recognition.  Rockford lies 70 miles northwest of downtown Chicago, straight up Interstate 90, yet even those Chicagoans who pass by it on the way to summer weekends in Wisconsin are likely to ask, “Where is Rockford?” when you tell them where you live.

So I couldn’t care less whether Rockford stays in third place or slips to fourth or fifth—a likely prospect in the next ten years, since numbers four and five are Joliet and Naperville, cities that, like Aurora, have been swallowed up by the sprawl of Chicago.  More important are the changes that have been occurring in the composition of Rockford’s population—changes that will alter the character of the city.

From 1990 to 2000, Rockford’s population grew by 10,689, and 94 percent of that growth was attributable to the rise in the Hispanic population, from 5,210 to 15,278, a 193-percent increase.  From 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic population of Rockford grew a mere 57.6 percent, to 24,085.  The black population rose to 31,359 from 26,072 in 2000, a 20.3-percent increase; but some of those counted as black are also counted as Hispanic, under federal rules which classify anyone of “Hispanic origin” as Hispanic.

The real story is to be found in white flight, a problem in Rockford for the past 40 years, but one which reached epidemic proportions between 2000 and 2010, as the white population declined by nine percent.  There are 9,786 fewer whites inside the city boundaries of Rockford than there were ten years ago, with the Hispanic population taking up most of the slack.

In that, Rockford is simply a funhouse mirror of the state at large.  Rob Paral, a Chicago-based demographer, told the Associated Press that “The state essentially owes its demographic sustainability to Latinos, Asians and immigrants.”  The Hispanic population of Illinois increased by 32.5 percent, from 1.53 million to 2.03 million, while the white population fell to 8.42 million, a decline of 3 percent.  The increase in the Hispanic population more than accounts for the entire increase in the state’s population, from 12.4 million in 2000 to 12.8 million in 2010.

Here in Rockford, officials puzzled over one oddity in the census numbers.  As the Register Star noted, “As of July [2010], the government estimated Rockford had 157,280 people.”  What happened to the other 4,500?

Joel Cowen, a demographer for the University of Illinois College of Medicine, speculates that some Hispanics may have recently left Rockford to return to Mexico “because of the anti-immigration sentiment [nationwide] as well as the economy.”  That suggests two things: For most of the decade, the growth of the Hispanic population in Rockford was higher than the 2010 Census indicates; and the Hispanics who have left Rockford were those who wanted to work—which doesn’t bode well for a city suffering from one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

Rockford remains approximately 65 percent white, 21 percent black, and 15.8 percent Hispanic, but at these rates of change, the city could become majority-minority in 20 years’ time—and perhaps considerably sooner, if the rate of white flight continues to rise.  Of course, Rockford has gone through demographic transformation in the past.  Founded by Yankees and reinforced by Scots, the city was remade by Swedes and, later, Italians, while Germans quietly increased their numbers to become the largest ethnic group in Rockford, as they are in the country as a whole.

Each of those transformations, however, was accompanied by ethnic strife, which still simmers today, especially between Swedes and Italians.  Just as the appellation “white” glosses over very real differences, “Hispanic” says less about the consequences of the future ethnic composition of Rockford than it may appear to at first glance.