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Asians are fastest-growing racial group in increasingly diverse Utah

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SALT LAKE CITY — When Clement Chow, 36, was looking for a place to land after completing his postdoctorate in genetics at Cornell University, he hesitated at the thought of Utah.

Chow knew little about the Beehive State. He was concerned about whether his family would fit in in a state that is heavily white and heavily LDS. And he didn’t know a soul.

But drawn by a job offer as an assistant professor in the University of Utah's well-regarded genetics program, and pleasantly surprised by the variety of restaurants and grocery stores catering to the Asian population, he and his wife, Candace, moved along with their two young children in late 2015.

"After my visit, all I had were positive things to say about Salt Lake City," Chow said. "It was a fairly easy decision once I came out here."

Utah, and the rest of the nation, is seeing a growing wave of diversity, according to U.S. Census Bureau data released Thursday — and nobody is growing faster than the Asian and multiracial populations.

According to the census release, the Asian and multiracial populations in Utah both grew by 6 percent between 2015 and 2016 — faster than any other racial or ethnic group.

More than 1 in 5 Utahns is now a racial or ethnic minority, according to the census data — including more than 1 in 4 Utahns under the age of 18.

"These trends are cumulative and ongoing and irreversible," said Pam Perlich, director of demographic research at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. "The great wave of diversity that is our youth will become the great wave of diversity that is our adults, and then our old folks. It's the new Utah."

Perlich said the growth of the Asian community in Utah is due mostly to an influx of often highly educated immigrants from Asia to the U.S.

Utah's economic engine is "creating all of these positions where people need to be highly educated and highly talented and inventive," Perlich said. "We're at this point that Utah is in a global competition for talent, and that pathway between us and the folks in Asia has opened up."

Although the Chows grew up in the U.S., they illustrate the story of previous generations of immigrants who came from Asia and have raised families here, Perlich said.

The growth in the number of multiracial Utahns, on the other hand, is due largely to births, she said.

Of the 61,000 Utahns who are biracial or multiracial, more than half are under the age of 18, according to the census data.

Over the past six years, the Asian population in Utah has jumped by 34 percent, according to census information. The number of multiracial Utahns grew by 31 percent.

The non-Hispanic white population showed the slowest growth of 8 percent, while the Hispanic population grew by 17 percent.

The figures can be surprising given the national debate over immigration from Latin America, but it confirms other data showing that Latino population growth in the U.S. has slowed since the recession.

"The economy that's being reconstituted now is different than the economy prior to the Great Recession, and we're seeing more and more jobs requiring higher education," Perlich said.

That includes budding economic sectors in Utah like biomedicine, computing and tech, she said.

In terms of raw numbers, the Asian and multiracial communities in Utah remain small. Together they account for just 4 percent of the population, whereas Hispanic residents make up 14 percent of the population and non-Hispanic white residents make up 79 percent of the population.

Candace Chow, a 36-year-old postdoctoral research associate at the University of Utah, said she is still preparing their two children — Emery, 5, and Micah, 2 — to grow up in a neighborhood where they are minorities.

"I think we will have to have a lot of conversations around what it means to be Chinese and Asian-American and support (Emery) in that way," she said.

She also expressed hope that the diversity of Utah's population is being represented in local government and other institutions.

"It's not enough to have a Chinese New Year festival celebration or luau," Candace Chow said. "It really has to be at the structural level, so that's why I'm glad to see so many representatives at the state level who are from more diverse backgrounds.”

In particular, the Chows said they were encouraged by the recent election of Utah’s first Chinese-American lawmaker, Rep. Karen Kwan, D-Murray.

Census data now shows that 21 percent of Utah residents — about 537,500 people — are racial or ethnic minorities.

San Juan County, where Utah’s portion of the Navajo Nation Reservation is located, has the highest percentage of minorities — 57 percent. Salt Lake County and Weber County have the next highest percentage of minorities — 28 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

The census data likely underestimates Utah's diversity due to outdated racial and ethnic categories, according to Perlich. For example, the census does not have a category for people of Middle Eastern or Northern African descent — something that many are looking to change.

The release, which covered changes in age, sex, race and ethnicity between July 2015 and July 2016, also found that Utah continues to have the lowest median age in the U.S. of 30.8 years.

That number has increased along with the rest of the nation, which is aging.