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Houston's Growing Ethnic Diversity - 2002-09-17

The fourth largest city in the United States, Houston, Texas, has become a true melting pot of ethnic and racial groups. There are sometimes frictions between various groups there, but the city of five million has become known as a tolerant place.

Vietnamese is the primary language spoken in the markets and shops just east of Houston's downtown. This mostly Asian neighborhood is one of two places in Houston called "Chinatown." There are also Chinese here, but even many of them came here from Vietnam, after the communist takeover of that nation in the mid-1970s. Houston now has the second-largest Vietnamese community in the nation after southern California.

Grocery store worker Joseph Lee is an ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, who came here with his family in 1979. He says many Asians went initially to California, but that they now see Houston as more attractive because of its affordability and its job offerings.

"In California now, people think the rent is too high. The jobs are too hard to find," he said. "Now, in Houston, the jobs are easy [to find], and more people are opening businesses. So, they like to come to Houston right now."

Mr. Lee says Asians have also found acceptance in Houston. He says the Asian restaurants near downtown draw people from all ethnic groups every day. "People like to eat the Chinese and Vietnamese food - all kinds of people: black, Mexican, white people, Indian people, all kinds of people," he said.

Houstonians brag about the varied cuisine found in their city, and they tend to celebrate the presence of so many different ethnic groups. Local museum exhibits and festivals provide a showcase for people from other countries, as well as the black and Mexican-American communities that have roots in this city going back more than a century.

John Williams, who covers politics for the Houston Chronicle newspaper, says that, while Houston is in some respects an old southern city, it is also a city with a window on the world, because of its port on the Gulf of Mexico.

"I think a lot of port cities tend to be tolerant, where you have people from all over the world," he said. "Houston has always had Czechs, Germans, Hispanics, Anglos and Irish, up into the beginning of the 20th century. Now you have Indians and Pakistanis, Lebanese and Caribbean people, and people from all over, Nigeria, South America and Asia. If there is a melting pot, Houston reflects that."

Mr. Williams says this relaxed attitude about race and ethnicity is reflected in the city's politics.

"Last year, Houston had the first mayoral race between a Hispanic and a black in the whole country," he said. "In that race, you did not see the white voters saying, 'Oh my God, we are in trouble.' White voters kind of split up, two-thirds for one and one third for the other, just like they would in any other race."

The Houston journalist says another example of Houston's relaxed racial scene came in 1992, when the acquittal of police officers accused of beating a black man named Rodney King in Los Angeles led to riots in most big U.S. cities.

"There was a domino [effect] of rioting all over the country that started in south-central Los Angeles and spread to virtually every other big city in the country, and nothing happened in Houston," Mr. Williams said. "It is a city where, by and large, there is a live and let [live] attitude here."

In fact, Houston has not had a race riot since 1914. John Williams credits city officials and the leadership of various ethnic communities, who, he says, communicate well with one another, and work things out when there are problems.

The city still faces many challenges, many of them stemming from its rapid growth. As ethnic minorities and blacks have filled much of the inner city, whites have tended to move to outer suburbs - a trend that has also been witnessed in other U.S. urban centers. Only 12 percent of the students in Houston's public schools are white. Around 54 percent are Hispanic, and that population, as well as the Asian population, is growing. The increase in these ethnic groups has also put a strain on some city services and has required additional language training for police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel.

Houston has seen more change in the past 20 years than some cities have seen in the past 50 years, and it is expected to grow by another two million people within the next 20 years. Whether the city can maintain its current racial harmony will depend to a great extent on how well its leaders manage the growth.