The Numbers Tell a Story

Especially during election season, American politicians like to accuse each other of backing ideas and policies that are “outside the mainstream.” But what really characterizes that mainstream? And does it change over time? The video documentary “America by the Numbers: Clarkston, Georgia” makes the case that there is a “new mainstream”—one that is wider, more inclusive and will continue to affect our political process.Maria Hinojosa and her crew use numbers to help tell the story of Clarkston. By itself, the demographic data is useful because it’s concrete. It shows us how much our nation has changed in just the last few decades. But with its focus on Clarkston, the documentary puts those numbers in a context that makes them real to us. The numbers now tell a story.
Grade Level


Students will:

  • Understand the role of statistics in telling a larger story
  • Respond in writing to sets of data
  • Understand numbers in various contexts
  • Listen to and share information
  • Explore various points of view
Essential Questions
  • What role do statistics have in forming a narrative?
  • How does context allow us to understand the importance of numbers?
  • How do points of view change our reactions to data?

Guided-Viewing Questions

As you watch the documentary, consider and take notes on the following questions. (Note: These questions are included on the accompanying handout.)

  • According to trend tracker Guy Garcia, what are some of the identifying factors of a “new mainstream”?
  • Where in America are demographic changes taking place?
  • Over the last decade, what region has seen the largest multicultural growth?
  • How does the response to the most recent demographic changes in Clarkston, Ga., mirror its history?
  • What is the demographic makeup of Clarkston’s leadership? What percentage of the population voted it into office?
  • How have residents such as Bill and Karen Mehlinger and Graham Thomas responded to their changing community?
  • How does the film characterize the political views of the Dhakal family?
  • How might changing American demographics affect the 2012 election?


Data in Context

1. After you’ve seen the documentary, respond to each data statement on the board. Use a sticky note to write your response to it.
(Note: Write the following data statements, one at a time, on a classroom white board:
     o 1 in 3 U.S. residents is multicultural.
     o Sixty-six percent of those who voted for President Barack Obama were 18 to 29 years old.
     o From 2000 to 2010, 6,568,865 immigrants became naturalized U.S. citizens. After writing each statement, allow students time to write responses before moving on to the next.)

2. Choose a classroom partner and, together, use your three sticky notes to share your personal responses to the sets of data. Listen carefully to your partner and respect her point of view. Then, post your sticky notes on the board next to the data statement.

3. Now, work as a class to study all of your responses to the data. Discuss what you’ve learned. (Note: Help students to recognize whether their responses include:

  • Comparison with other numbers
  • Prior historical knowledge
  • Prior geographic knowledge
  • Personal experiences
  • Quotes from other people
  • Suggestions for action

Students should find that they have put numbers in context to make them more meaningful. This is the basis of telling a story using numbers. It also is how the producers of “America by the Numbers” made demographic data more interesting and relevant to viewers.)

Point of View

1. In “America by the Numbers,” the residents of Clarkston, Ga., communicate various points of view on the demographics that now partly define their small town. In pairs or small groups, review this data:

  • In 1980, Clarkston’s residents were 97 percent American-born
  • In 1990, the town was 37 percent white
  • In 2010, the town was less than 14 percent white
  • Refugees own 85 percent of the town’s businesses
  • One-quarter of the town’s residents live below the poverty line

2. Now, choose one of the following quotes from the video. Within your group, discuss that person’s relationship with Clarkston, their understanding of its present and their hopes for its future. (Note: Provide students with the handout that includes these quotes.)

“I’m probably a racist or redneck or something … I just see [change] destroying what we had planned to happen here. You wonder sometimes if I’ve got any buddies any more that think the way I do.” — longtime resident Graham Thomas

“Half of the citizens that used to be here have moved out of Clarkston. Our refugee community is the majority. And how are you going to survive without them?” — Mayor Emanuel Ransom

“We went to different little Asian stores. [My Vietnamese checker] helped me decide what would sell, what her mama bought at the other stores, what her grandma bought. Eventually, we were finding the products they wanted and business started to climb.” — Thriftown grocery owner Bill Mehlinger

“The people who are in the political power, they just believe that immigrants are here to drain the resource(s) of the county. They’re not looking [at] the other side—that we work hard, we are buying foreclosed homes, we are revitalizing the economy of this county.” — Omar Shekhey, leader in Clarkston’s Somali community

“People in America think democracy is given to them: ‘Oh, I don’t need to vote!’ But for us, it’s so important because we are doing it for the first time. (When I cast my first ballot), that’s the time that I will feel that I belong to a nation—that I’m helping the development of a nation.” — Birendra Dhakal, a refugee from Bhutan

3. As a class, share your reflections on these points of view. Is each viewpoint understandable? How do these people differ in their responses to Clarkston’s potential opportunity? What do you predict for Clarkston’s future?

4. Finally, discuss how these personal statements add to the statistical data the documentary provides about Clarkston. How do they flesh out the story of Clarkston?

Careful Examination

Organize a debate, write a one-act play, or create a photo or art collage around the following quote from trend tracker Guy Garcia:

“Whites should only be afraid of becoming a minority if it’s within the old definition of what a minority means—marginalized, left out, disenfranchised. The new American mainstream is inclusive. Everybody is welcome to the new mainstream.”

Common Core State Standards

CCSS: R.1, R.10, W.1, W.2, W.9, SL.1, SL.2, SL.3, SL.4, L.1, L.2