Sean Callebs, CNN, May 22, 2009
U.S. communities are changing complexion as ethnic diversity grows in the American heartland.
Though not new in California, Arizona, Texas or Florida, the change of demographics is a bit more surprising in southwest Kansas.
Finney County, Kansas, is one of six counties across the nation that became majority-minority between 2007 and 2008, the U.S. Census Bureau recently announced. The agency defines majority-minority as a county where more than half the population is made up of a group that is not single-race, non-Hispanic white.
Nearly 10 percent (309) of the nation’s 3,142 counties were majority-minority as of July 1, 2008.
“It’s just another melting pot you know,” Cruz [Tim Cruz, former mayor of Garden City, largest city in Finney County] says. “It makes it nice to have those different cultures. And sure they’re different–we have to understand what they celebrate and why they do it.”
In the last couple of decades, massive meatpacking plants in Garden City have drawn workers from Southeast Asia and Somalia.
You can smell the major industry of Garden City before you actually reach it and the stockyards that feed the meatpacking plants have their own unmistakable odor.
At the Alta Brown Elementary School, the native language of about half of the 409 students is something other than English.
Cruz’s wife of 26 years, Penny Cruz, teaches English as a second language there. In one class, she leads four kids in a card game of “Go Fish” to help them grasp their new language. Five-year-old Robert is from Burma and has only been in the country a few months. His grasp of English at this stage is mostly mimicry. If the teacher says, “Robert,” he’ll smile broadly and repeat his name.
Penny Cruz says the town is getting more and more diverse, adding, “I think we all blend together and get along. There are ups and downs but for the most part I think we’re all pretty accepting of whoever comes into our community and into our classrooms.”
But not all of Finney County’s some 41,000 residents are thrilled by the increasing cultural diversity.
The day before public schools let out for the summer, teenagers of all colors were skateboarding, tossing a football, and kicking around a ball in Finney Park. Teacher Linda Turner admits while she’s cooking hamburgers for the kids that she’s heard some complaints about the area’s newest residents.
But much of the United States is looking more like Garden City. New census figures show more than one-third of the people in the United States are non-white and a staggering 47 percent of the population under the age of 5 are a minority.
This Midwest enclave, home to hamburgers and hot dogs, is giving way to Vietnamese pho, or Mexican tacos.
Police Chief James Hawkins admits communication with some residents can be a problem for his officers. Hawkins, a 25-year veteran of the force, has nine Hispanic officers on a staff of 58. Not enough he says, but he’s trying to add more diversity.
“We catch them trying to tell their kids they don’t need to go to college because this is a good life,” Cruz says. “We have to help educate them saying, ‘No, there is even a better life than doing this and your kids can get to do that.’ ”
Cruz seems most pleased that his sleepy small town, is just that, and not rife with racial and ethnic tension and violence.