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Helmut Schmidt, Published October 14 2009

New faces of North Dakota

George Ley was busy ringing up customers on Tuesday at the cash register in his Asian and American Market in Fargo.

The faces, a mix of red, black, brown, yellow and white, reflect the increasing ethnic and racial diversity seen in Fargo and across North Dakota.

“It’s different from 20 years ago. We’re seeing a lot of minorities from all over,” said Ley, who came from Cambodia 23 years ago.

Africa, Asia, India, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines: the latest bunch is from Bhutan, he said.

“It increases almost every month,” he said.

What Ley sees daily is backed up by the numbers.

North Dakota’s minority population grew more than 20 percent between 2000 and 2008, U.S. Census Bureau figures show.

That influx has increased ethnic diversity, nearly halted the state’s population decline and boosts the work force, said Richard Rathge, director of the State Data Center at North Dakota State University.

North Dakota posted a 21.4 percent increase – 9,727 people – in its ethnic minority population, the Census estimates.

Minorities totaled 55,209, or 8.6 percent of the state’s population of 641,481, as of July 1, 2008, Rathge said.

The growth of minority populations almost fully offsets a 1.8 percent drop in an aging white population, Rathge said. Overall, the population dipped 0.1 percent between 2000 and 2008, Census figures show.

For many, the attraction is jobs brought by the strength of the state’s economy, Rathge said.

Cedric Allbritton is a barber at Skill Cutz Barber Shop in Fargo. The shop is popular among metro-area African Americans, some of whom used to travel to the Twin Cities to get their hair cut properly.

“I came up here for a better cost of living,” said Allbritton, who moved to Fargo from Minneapolis.

Allbritton likes the safety and slower pace of life in the area. He’s also impressed by the schooling and day care his two sons receive.

Wilguens “Will” Dort, one of the shop’s owners, came from Haiti 13 years ago.

“Life back home? There wasn’t much of a life there,” Dort said.

“Fargo is a very safe, a good place. A quiet place. The cost of living is low,” Dort said while finishing a trim on a customer. “It’s a good place to raise a family.”

Rathge said there has been population growth in rural counties, particularly in the western oil patch, that had been struggling.

American Indians, the state’s largest minority population, grew by 4,226 people from 2000 to 2008, an increase of 13.4 percent, Census figures show.

The black population grew by 2,799 people, or 67.3 percent; the Asian population grew by 1,183 people, or 30.2 percent; and the number of people of multiple ethnicities grew by 1,519, or 25.4 percent.

The Hispanic population, which includes a mixture of ethnicities, grew by 5,441 people, or 69.9 percent, between 2000 and 2008.

While there are challenges to increased diversity, there are also big pluses, Rathge said. The state needs workers to fill jobs, and the rest of us can enjoy a richer social tapestry, he said.

“Across the board, It’s great news,” Rathge said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583