Since the arrival of the 21st century, and particularly since the election of President Obama in 2008, there’s been a great deal of chatter about the dawning of a new, more diverse America that will reshape our society and culture.
You can see it walking through multilingual neighborhoods in New York or Washington, D.C., hearing a call to prayer at a mosque in Detroit or attending a college graduation ceremony in Atlanta, sitting in an audience dotted with black, Asian, Hispanic and Indian friends and families.
The cultural mix that is making America richer and more vibrant has largely not filtered into Pittsburgh and its environs. Of major metropolitan areas, this region persistently comes in at or near the bottom when it comes to diversity. According to the 2010 census, only 13 percent of the residents in this region were Hispanic or non-white. That number budged only slightly in the 30 years since the steel industry collapsed and Southwest Pennsylvania looked to rebuild its economy. On average, most other metropolitan regions have minority populations in the vicinity of 45 percent.
A front-page story in Monday’s edition of the Observer-Reporter suggested this, however slowly, could be changing. Both Washington & Jefferson College and California University of Pennsylvania have seen increasing numbers of Latino and Hispanic students enrolling at their institutions. At Cal U., it has risen by half over the last four years, and rose threefold at W&J over the last decade.
The increase is being credited to partnerships both schools established with high schools in localities with large Hispanic populations. Though one student, who hails from Houston, Texas, confessed to a little bit of culture shock upon admittance to W&J, we can hope he and other Hispanic and Latino students will stay here after they get their diplomas. If they feel welcome and find success here, it will encourage others to come and provide a spark to the region with their energy and entrepreneurship, just as waves of immigrants from Europe strengthened this area a century ago.
It could be a challenge, just as it is to keep foreign-born students who come to Washington County for an education, or those who enroll at the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon University. According to a blog post last year by Harold Miller, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon and heads the Future Strategies consulting firm, only 3.3 percent of residents in the region are foreign-born, compared with 6 percent in Cleveland, 10 percent in booming Charlotte, N.C., and 36 percent in Silicon Valley.
“If Pittsburgh wants its population to grow, attracting and retaining more minority residents isn’t an option, it’s a necessity,” according to Miller. The absence of diversity “will likely affect not just our population growth but also our job creation rate, since studies have shown that a high percentage of successful technology companies across the country have been started by immigrant entrepreneurs, so it’s ironic that today Pittsburgh has become one of the least diverse regions in the country, and it’s also likely that’s a significant reason why our job growth has also been much slower.”
Other cities and regions made more aggressive efforts to get students from other parts of the country and other points on the globe to settle in their neighborhoods once they get their sheepskin. They also engaged in more energetic efforts to lure minorities and make them feel welcome. It’s past time that we should follow suit.