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Blacks, whites build bridges after Katrina

Evacuees feeling accepted in an unfamiliar realm — Utah

As the man stepped off the airplane and looked out at the sea of faces gathered to welcome the survivors of Hurricane Katrina to Utah, he had only one comment: "It sure is white here."

The remark, made to a Utah Air National Guardsman, indicates the vast difference between Utah and Louisiana, the home state for nearly all of the 600 displaced residents who came to Utah seeking refuge from the storm's aftermath.

Ninety percent of Utah's 2.4 million residents are white, compared to 64 percent of Louisiana's population of 4.4 million.

Narrowed down even further, the numbers are much more striking: 67 percent of New Orleans residents are black, while only 1.9 percent of Salt Lake City's population is, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

And as the evacuees here move forward, starting their lives anew after losing everything to Katrina, it's inevitable that many will choose to stay in Utah. In fact, state officials, including Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., estimate that as many as one half could put down roots here. Which raises the question: What kind of cultural impact will the new residents have on the state?

"I think it means that Utah is going to be more culturally diverse, and I think we're going to be able to raise our level of understanding and acceptance of all people," said Michael Styles, director of the state's Office of Black Affairs.

"It's not a black thing, it's not a white thing. It's just how we connect to people in need and show love to everybody," he said. "The evacuees have already felt that. They're so appreciative of all the Utahns. We've seen bridges built between black and white that I've just been amazed at, and it's gratifying. It's truly gratifying."

The tragedy of Katrina has allowed Utahns to interact differently with the evacuees, who are overwhelmingly African-American, than they would have in other circumstances, psychologist Lauren Weitzman says.

"It feels like it breaks down a barrier that is often there in everyday life around prejudice. We're having the opportunity to see folks as fellow human beings to whom we're reaching out in a time of need," said Weitzman, director of the University of Utah counseling center.

Utah residents flooded a hurricane relief hotline set up by the state following the announcement that Utah would welcome up to 2,000 evacuees. Callers offered money and goods, and many extended an invitation for evacuees to stay in their homes.

Weitzman is hopeful that the spirit of giving and acceptance will continue as the evacuees who choose to stay in Utah integrate into their chosen communities.

"I guess my fear is, when things start to settle back into normal, then they're going to encounter the racism that I think is just so present at this point in time in our culture," she said.

There will be challenges, Styles says, particularly as the young evacuees enroll in schools throughout the Wasatch Front.

"There's going to have to be a lot of learning there, because I'm sure the kids have not been exposed to many African-Americans, just as many of the evacuee children haven't been exposed to many white people," he said.

But those issues can be overcome, Styles says. "People say Utah has this kind of stereotype about them because we're a very homogeneous society. What people fail to realize is, we're also a very inclusive society."

Historically, the infusion of a new culture is nothing new to Utah, says W. Paul Reeve, assistant professor of history at the University of Utah. The state was originally inhabited by American Indian tribes, a cultural dynamic that was changed by Latter-day Saint pioneers. Later, the transcontinental railroad and the growth of mining introduced new ethnic groups to the state.

"To me, I see the story of Utah history, other cultures coming together," Reeve said. "And I'm hopeful that at this stage in our history, we're open-minded enough to be accepting, and it seems to me that that's what is happening."

Hurricane Katrina has provided Utah with a unique opportunity to expand its cultural base, but it also gives the nation a chance to address much larger social questions, Weitzman says.

"It's one of these opportunities that this tragedy has given us as Americans to look at things like racism and classism squarely in the eye," she said.

Those most devastated by the storm were often low-income and minority Gulf Coast residents with no means to escape.

"One of the lessons we've got to take from Katrina is just the simple fact that when you have a natural disaster, the folks who are going to have the hardest time surviving that disaster, or who may not survive at all, are the poor people," said Judi Hilman of the anti-poverty research organization Utah Issues.

The increased focus on these issues in the aftermath of the storm could be a catalyst for improved social systems across the country, as well as in Utah, she says.

"In that respect, I see their presence here as a godsend, because for a long time we've needed to modernize our social services and make them relevant to people from different cultural backgrounds," Hilman said. "If this is what it takes to do that, we are quite frankly lucky to have them living among us.

"The beauty of that is, it's not just us helping them in this one-way street. They can help us, and we need the help."


E-mail: awelling@desnews.com