Archive for Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Changes are accelerating in Johnson County

July 9, 2008

As we waited for the fireworks Friday at Shawnee Mission Park, I had the occasion to reflect on how Johnson County has changed over the years.

The changes - many of them, anyway - were spread out before us, there in the park.

A few minutes after we selected our parking spot, a car pulled up and stopped a few feet away, disgorging several young men and two women who seemed to be speaking one of the African languages. Obviously they were recent immigrants from Somalia or Ethiopia or one of the other African nations.

They went across the road to join a group of family or friends. We heard cries of glee as they exchanged greetings. Hugs and handshakes all around.

The young men were throwing a football around a scene that could have been repeated in any park in America, I suppose. Some of them obviously were more familiar with the football than some of the others; a few of them had trouble catching it, and their passes were decidedly wobbly. Later on, they started kicking a soccer ball around and you could tell this was a far more familiar activity. They dribbled and passed with easy facility.

In the car on our other side, a Hispanic family finished up a picnic and arranged their lawn chairs to await the display. The children chattered happily as the darkness closed companionably around us.

A little traffic was still moving. Most seemed to be people looking for a place to watch the fireworks. Before the light failed, I noticed that several of the cars seemed to contain Asian families.

Johnson County has become a diverse place. It wasn't always so. The Johnson County of my youth (we moved to Overland Park in 1947, when development stopped at Antioch) was virtually all white, except for small enclaves in Merriam and Olathe.

The change came slowly, but has been accelerating of late.

According to the 2006 census estimates, 17.3 percent of the population of Johnson County was black, Hispanic, Asian or some racial category other than white. That is up from 12.9 percent in 2000.

The overall 2006 estimates are these: total population, 516,731, up from 451,086 in 2000; white, 456,584 (452,086 in 2000); Hispanic or Latino, 29,262 (17,957); black or African American, 19,505 (11,780); Asian, 20,000 (12,768).

Interestingly, two categories actually declined from 2000 to 2006. The number of American Indians or Alaska native fell from 1,481 to 1,261 over that period. The same thing happened to Native Hawaiians and other Pacific islanders, from 156 to 75. But those were anomalies, and their numbers were not great enough to affect the overall total.

According to the 2006 estimates, 42,785 residents of Johnson County were born in foreign countries. That number is up from 25,531 in 2000.

Again from the 2006 estimates, 51,130 Johnson County residents speak a language other than English at home. That number has also risen, from 34,221 in 2000.

The Census Bureau hasn't updated its tables yet with the 2007 projections, but there's no reason to believe that the trend already established won't continue.

The Johnson County of the future will look less and less like that of the past. Although this will undoubtedly pose some challenges, there's no reason to fear these changes. America has always been a melting pot, a place where people bring parts and pieces of many different cultures together and emerge as different people - Americans, that is - by the process. In the end, just the way that spices add to the flavor of a dish or that mixing different metal makes a stronger alloy, we'll be better off as a result.

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