Counties See Minorities Become the New Majority

Immigrants who were once attracted to big cities like New York and Los Angeles are instead heading to the suburbs. Zala Siddiqui, living in Chicago's suburbs, and Narsi Narasimhan, from the Atlanta area, tell their stories.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, we're going to talk about Karl Rove's farewell to the Capitol, a kid's camp where they aren't looking for a friend in Jesus, and the pluses and minuses of being a high-profile mom.

But first, on this program, we've been talking a lot about the way immigration continues to change the American landscape - today, the suburbs. The American suburbs used to be anything but diverse, but census data released last week reveal how that's changing.

Minority groups are now the majority in one in 10 counties across the U.S. Their imprint can be seen in everything from ethnic restaurants, to places of worship, to bilingual storefronts. But how does this diversity feel to the people living it every day?

Here to offer a window into their own communities are Zala Siddiqui and Narsi Narasimhan. Zala is a member of the Pakistani community in Palatine, a northern suburb of Chicago. She joins us from WBEZ Chicago. And Narsi is a member of the Pan-Asian community in Buford, a northern suburb of Atlanta. He joins us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Welcome to the program.

Ms. ZALA SIDDIQUI (Resident, Chicago): Thank you.

Professor NARSI NARASIMHAN (Information Technology, Georgia Tech College of Management): Thank you. It's my pleasure to join you.

MARTIN: And Zala, if you would start. You moved here about 20 years ago, first to Chicago and then to the suburbs. What made you choose the suburbs?

Ms. SIDDIQUI: Yeah, we came here in 1987, and we came to Palatine because my husband's sister was residing there. And I came here with three kids, and my husband was already here living with her.

MARTIN: What changes have you noticed since you have been there?

Ms. SIDDIQUI: There have been many, many changes. I think people, as a Pakistani community, they're getting more organized. They have more ethnic food stores here. They have more restaurants here which offer Pakistani food and services and groceries. The places of worship, they are more organized. They offer other services beside, you know, just the prayers and other things. Also, I see a lot of attention has been paid to bilingual education in school districts in the suburbs. And the funny thing is that we can see Pakistani and Indian movies in the movie theater regularly, which is really a luxury.

MARTIN: Oh, really? So you should to have to get the videos?

Ms. SIDDIQUI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. SIDDIQUI: Definitely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Narsi, what about you? You also, as I understand it, moved to the United States about 20 years ago. Why did you choose the place you live now as the place to settle?

Prof. NARASIMHAN: Well, I came to USA in 1984 as a graduate student. I did my Ph.D. from University of Texas at Dallas, and then Georgia Tech gave me a job as a professor. So I came to Atlanta as a professor in 1988.

MARTIN: Is that the story for many of your neighbors, is that they also came here for education and then decided to make their home there? Is that what happened?

Prof. NARASIMHAN: I think Indian community migration, if you look at it, you can slice it into three different ways. Quite a few people come for higher education, but there are quite a few who come from Africa, especially, for - directly for business. But I'll say, certainly in higher education, there are quite a few who come for higher studies here.

MARTIN: You both, I think, have lived in areas that once were a majority white. And, Narsi, if you would start, what was the experience like for you? Did you feel like a pioneer? Did you feel like a minority when you first moved?

Prof. NARASIMHAN: Yes, I did. And not only that, even though the population has grown - Indian community, especially during the '90s, luckily for us in Atlanta, the Emory University has an excellent Asian studies program. So we did have some sort of oasis of cultural experiences, if you want to call, both in terms of university departments offering some seminars and movies and special screenings and things like that.

Now the change I'm seeing is more of mainstream itself is hungry for (unintelligible) or Indian-related stuff, especially on the business side. Anybody who writes anything about India, usually a trade, the book is a bestseller - anybody who writes about Diaspora's second generation's issues. In fact, as you know, people even - publishers even pay advance for writing a book like that.

MARTIN: Zala, you mentioned that you can even, you know, go to a movie theater now and see movies in Hindi or in Urdu. Do you feel like a member of the majority now in your community, or do you still feel like a minority?

Ms. SIDDIQUI: I think I'm getting more assimilated into the main culture and so are my children. Because I think whatever the dominant culture is, somehow you do, you know, integrate yourself there. I think that I still consider myself a minority, but not as much as I used to when I first came here.

MARTIN: And, Narsi, do you feel that in your community, I don't know who's the - what's the dominant group? Is it people from India, south Asian descent?

Prof. NARASIMHAN: Yes. If you look at the inter-Asian population, the Asian-American community in Atlanta, I'll say that, certainly, Korean-Americans as well as Indian-Americans vie for the number one spot. In fact, in Gwinnett County, which is kind of turning into a minority-majority situation, that 52 percent of majority-minority total, the number one minority is, in fact, Asian Indians, even more than Hispanics, so to speak. (unintelligible)

MARTIN: And is that interesting? Is that funny? Does it feel…

Prof. NARASIMHAN: Yeah, it does. It does.

MARTIN: …odd or…

Prof. NARASIMHAN: In terms of number of population, I would say that there are maybe more Hispanics, but in terms of number of registered workers, it is more Indian-Americans.

MARTIN: So now you're the man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. NARASIMHAN: But in another five years, it'll be - the Hispanic workers will be dominant, and elected officials are paying attention to Hispanics because of that.

MARTIN: I'm wondering if that engenders any different feelings about the way you relate to the community.

Prof. NARASIMHAN: I think it is more than the number or percentage. It is the attitude of the individuals that's marked as a major factor. I'll say that there are a lot of second generation Indian-Americans who are feeling very much part of the mainstream American culture. And they do internship with congressman, senators and things for that. So people are thinking high…

MARTIN: What…

Prof. NARASIMHAN: …like Bobby Gentle(ph) in Louisiana, for example, (unintelligible).

MARTIN: That was going to be my last question to both of you. Now we're in an election year, and many people are excited about the fact that you have a woman running a credible campaign for president, a Latino-American and an African-American all running credible campaigns for the presidency. And I wonder if you - by the next election, do you envision the time when someone of Asian descent would be in that position? Narsi?

Prof. NARASIMHAN: It will be based on the merit of the individual rather than more of a category ethnic minority, I would think.

MARTIN: Well, of course, but I would think that all those candidates would say the same is true of them as well.

Prof. NARASIMHAN: Yes, definitely, definitely. Nationally speaking, Indian-Americans are probably less than three million people, and there is no way you can run as an Indian-American seeking Indian-American votes. Moreover, even if there was majority, still, you want to get coalition and get everybody's buy in.

MARTIN: Sure. And, Zala, what about you?

Ms. SIDDIQUI: Actually, not in near future, to be honest. I really don't see anybody from a Pakistani Muslim background running for these positions, but I'm still hopeful. Maybe in the future, you know, maybe far future we will see somebody.

MARTIN: Zala Siddiqui joined us from WBEZ in Chicago, and Narsi Narasimhan joined us from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Ms. SIDDIQUI: Thank you for having us.

Prof. NARASIMHAN: Thank you.

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