Utah is on the brink of a population explosion, as people come looking for better jobs, safer neighborhoods, beautiful surroundings.
But most of the people who will migrate to the state will be racially and ethnically diverse. So, Utahns had better learn to appreciate the beauty each culture will bring to their communities. Because it's coming, and soon.That's a warning from one of the country's top demographers, in town for President Clinton's Initiative on Race round-table discussion at the Wyndham Hotel in Salt Lake City Thursday.
The initiative, called "One America: Conversations That Bring Us Together," featured local and national leaders who gathered for a round-table discussion. They, along with hundreds of audience participants, discussed a number of issues surrounding race relations in Utah.
"It's pretty clear that Utah is in the first stages of pretty dramatic change in population growth," said Leo Estrada, demographer and associate professor at the UCLA School of Public Policy.
The white population in Utah is going to continue to grow faster than most other states in the nation, gaining almost 700,000 over the next 30 years, Estrada said. But that's just the beginning. The largest influx of people will be minorities, he said.
"The population of Asians, African Americans and American Indians will all double in that same 30 years. Latinos will triple in numbers. These are stark realities we are dealing with."
Whereas Utah is the 34th largest state, it ranks ninth in population growth, Estrada said. And that growth is expected to continue - even increase - into the next millennium.
Estrada's studies tell him that Utahns have started down the road of what he calls "demographic denial."
"If people in Utah continue this path, it will lead first to demographic denial, where they deny change is even happening. Then comes demographic devaluing, where they dismiss and devalue the diversity around them. Then demographic distancing, where things and people just do not apply to you. Finally, demographic defensiveness, where responses are that of confrontation, where tensions are exacerbated."
Though many cities around the nation have experienced the same resistance to racial diversity, Estrada said Utah is somewhat of an anomaly.
Thanks primarily to the missionary program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, many thousands of people gain valuable exposure to different cultures and people. And for the most part they assimilate well, Estrada said.
"I've traveled to Latin America and have seen the young people do very well in the new cultures. They learn the language, they learn to love the people. It's really something rare, for people to have that kind of exposure."
But curiously, upon their return, Estrada said many people retreat into familiar patterns of separation and isolation. They don't volunteer to share their language skills or cultural knowledge to build a bridge between communities.
That, he said, is an area where Utahns could have an advantage over other states, if they would only take advantage of it.
"The foundation is there. I'm just not sure why that appreciation for other cultures and languages doesn't translate better into their lives here."
Estrada remains hopeful that Utah can build a strong, unified community base. It's never too late, he said. But, if people wait too long, the challenge will only become greater.
"Here, the numbers of ethnic populations are still so small, and yet the resistance is strong. That leads me to believe that either there is great intolerance, or people are uncomfortable with change. And that's what I tend to think about Utah - it's not the deep-seated racism as much as it is a resistance to change."
Though some resistance is natural, Estrada said it's possible to grow a community to appreciate its diversity. It's a matter of priorities, he said.
"It can happen. It's a matter of getting people to say `this is important to us.' But it can happen."
The goal of the meeting, like the other meetings held throughout the country over the last year, is for diverse communities to come together and begin an open-ended, open-minded dialogue - one that will continue even after the president's initiative moves on.