Adding Spice in a State The Melting Pot Missed
As business booms, Utah's image as a white, Mormon state is changing and diversity is slowly growing.
SALT LAKE CITY — Dan Thompson remembers walking into an upscale Salt Lake City elementary school and wondering how his children would fit in.
Like most of Utah, the class was a sea of white faces.
Dan's wife, Karen Chee Thompson, is a Pacific Islander from Hawaii. And while Dan is a Caucasian from Missouri, Karen says, "Our children ... would have definitely been in the minority."
But like a growing number of other diverse newcomers to this state long known for its racial and religious homogeneity, the Thompsons have found their own niche. Indeed, they reflect the subtle but significant cultural shift that is affecting everything here from state politics to restaurants.
"When I came here, I would say that the stereotypical description - very white, very LDS [Latter-day Saints], and very homogenous - was absolutely an accurate description of the Salt Lake area," says Deeda Seed, a Salt Lake City councilwoman who came to the state from Chicago in 1980. "Perhaps because of the economy, that has changed. Without doing much, our city is becoming diverse, and I think in our next census, we'll see a dramatic change."
Certainly, many point to the state's 3 percent unemployment and a 5.5 percent job growth rate as Utah's primary attraction. The booming economy has helped lure major national businesses, not to mention the 2002 Winter Olympics, to Salt Lake City. But while these ventures bring cash and prestige to the state, they also bring more people of different races and backgrounds - creating new tensions and challenges as Utah struggles to meet the demands of a changing population.
The Thompsons had to seek out diversity, to consciously plan for it in their lives. They found it - at least as far as education goes - at Beacon Heights public elementary school. The school's literature boasts "a diversity of cultures, languages, and religions."
Students speak 24 languages there, and almost half of them opted into Beacon Heights through a school-choice program. In Salt Lake City, it's become almost fashionable to seek out ethnic diversity; for those just arriving in Utah, it is almost a necessity.
"We have a lot of interest from out of state," says the Beacon Heights principal, Carol Lubomodrov. "Utah can be scary to people who don't know."
Despite recent in-migrations of Pacific Islanders, ethnicity in Utah is still scant. A few high-profile minorities such as Duane Bourdeaux, the only African-American to sit in the state legislature, help ease the all-white image, but the label has been slow to fade.
Utah's population remains less than 5 percent minority and even metropolitan Salt Lake City can count only 30 to 35 percent of its citizens as non-Mormon. This, coupled with a growing perception that Utah's incrementally increasing diversity has brought more crime, has been a concern for lawmakers. In fact, the Utah Legislature focused largely on gang crime and prison space in its 1997 session.
"People are afraid of change, and we're going to have to adapt," says Councilwoman Seed. "As a result of this fear, people are trying to attribute an increase in the crime rate to those other people who are moving in. I think it's a result of our economic growth."
In response, Mr. Bourdeaux, born and raised in Utah, created Colors of Success, a prevention-intervention program for children from kindergarten through 12th grade, to combat stereotypes and prevent crime.
Many agree that the perceptions about crime and ethnicity are largely a fear of the unknown.
"When people of color are seen in numbers of more than one or two, they are often times classified by authorities as gangs," says the Rev. France Davis, an African-American Baptist pastor. "We have a major educational task."
Others are are joining in.
Dr. Lubomodrov is about to start a Cultural Wall depicting diversity at the school, and Seed wants to increase the numbers of city library books available in languages other than English.
University of Utah economist Thayne Robson believes a lot of the acclimation will happen all on its own.
"Some companies that tried to transfer their people in here found that they'd refuse to come. But most of the people who did come in talked about how friendly the people are, and what a great place this is to live," he says.
It happened to the Thompsons.