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What’s making the rural American West more diverse

Wyoming is the least populated state in the country, and one of the whitest. But that could be changing slowly. Since 2010, the state's African-American population has nearly doubled, a demographic shift that's taking place all over the West, and likely driven by job opportunities in oil boomtowns. Special correspondent Leigh Paterson of Inside Energy reports.

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  • Gwen Ifill:

    The oil boom in the Western part of the U.S. has changed not only the physical landscape, but the racial landscape too. Areas that have historically been home to few, if any, people of color are suddenly becoming more diverse.

    Leigh Paterson of Inside Energy, a public media reporting project, has the story on how that’s changing communities.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ray Stewart:

    You just kneed me in the face.

  • Girl:

    Sorry.

  • Leigh Paterson:

    As young man, Ray Stewart never thought in a million years he would end up in a remote Wyoming energy town playing with his daughter in the park. But then his parents moved to Gillette for work.

  • Ray Stewart:

    They told me about the opportunities as far as job and the community and everything, so I pretty much came running, literally.

  • Leigh Paterson:

    Running from Shreveport, Louisiana, five years ago

  • Steve Marsh:

    Ready, big guy? One, two, three.

  • Leigh Paterson:

    His friend Steve Marsh moved from Chicago in 2008. Both men say the transition from diverse urban areas to the rural West wasn’t easy.

  • Steve Marsh:

    I had a lot of people ask, can I touch your hair?

  • Ray Stewart:

    Yes, it happens a lot.

  • Steve Marsh:

    I have never seen a black person before. Can I touch your hair?

  • Leigh Paterson:

    They got awkward questions and plenty of stares. But when I asked if they had a tough time here because of their race:

  • Steve Marsh:

    Ignorance is everywhere. I have been here for quite awhile, so you learn to adjust and adapt. But I think it made me a stronger person for it, you know?

  • Leigh Paterson:, these two moved here for one reason:

    But like so many others to make money. And jobs in oil and gas pay pretty well.

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, so far this year, these workers nationally have made an average of around $30 an hour. In the aftermath of the recession, that kind of pay attracted workers of many different races and ethnicities to oil boomtowns out West.

    Wyoming is the least populated state in the country, and one of the whitest, but that could be slowly changing. Since 2010, the state’s African-American population has nearly doubled.

  • Wenlin Liu,

    Wyoming Economic Analysis Division: That’s Wyoming’s total population since 1870.

  • Leigh Paterson:

    Economist Wenlin Liu says Wyoming is not unique in the sharp growth of its overall African-American population. He’s seeing this new demographic shift all over the West.

  • Wenlin Liu:

    Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, there’s actually great increase.

  • Leigh Paterson:

    According to census data, between 2010 and 2014, these states actually had some of the fastest growing African-American populations in the entire country.

  • Wenlin Liu:

    I think one of the reasons, probably, has something to do with employment.

  • Leigh Paterson:

    Nowhere is that more true than in the oil and gas boom state of North Dakota. The unemployment rate here is just 2.9 percent. That’s the second lowest in the country.

    That’s partially thanks to the fracking-induced surge in shale oil production. Workers came from all over not just to work in energy, but also in the industries that sprang up to support it. The diversity of those workers is reflected in the student body at Watford City Elementary. This boomtown school has kids from around 20 different countries, and since 2010, the number of students has nearly tripled.

  • Selam Ahmed,

    Watford City Elementary: Not whoever. It’s however.

  • Leigh Paterson:

    Selam Ahmed teaches English-language learning.

  • Selam Ahmed:

    A majority of my kids, they speak only Spanish. I have some kids from Yemen. I have some kids from Kurdistan. I have some kids from Pakistan.

  • Leigh Paterson:

    Ahmed himself was an ELL student. He emigrated from Kurdistan to North Dakota in 1992.

  • Selam Ahmed:

    Here in Watford City, three years ago, I think it was mainly just the local people here. But ever since the oil boom, we have seen — I have seen from Mexico, from Honduras, from Asia.

  • Cassandra Longbrake,

    Watford City Elementary: Give me a hands-up if you know what you’re supposed to do.

  • Leigh Paterson:

    Cassandra Longbrake teaches second grade here. She says many of her students’ parents came here for work.

    But the plummeting price of oil has hit North Dakota hard. Those plentiful jobs are no longer a sure thing. So far in this year, the state has lost over 5,000 jobs in mining, oil and gas. That’s a 16 percent drop.

  • Cassandra Longbrake:

    There is still that revolving door that we see where people are coming in. The prices of oil are going down. They’re scared of their jobs, or maybe they are getting laid off, and they are starting to leave. I have had have a few students that have come, they have enrolled in school, and a week later, they’re gone.

  • Leigh Paterson:

    Living and working in a boom-and-bust economy can be difficult. But that doesn’t necessarily mean workers will leave.

    According to census data, over the last few years, the number of young African-American children in Wyoming has dramatically increased by over 40 percent. The number of white children has remained steady. And once you have kids, it’s harder to move.

  • Steve Marsh:

    I have my family, and I spend most of my time with them.

  • Ray Stewart:

    I like the community here. I like the jobs here. I met my wife here. Now that I’m here, this is home.

  • Leigh Paterson:

    Wyoming is now home to around 8,000 African-Americans. But due to the state’s low overall population, the effect of a relatively small number of newcomers can mean big changes.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Leigh Paterson in Gillette, Wyoming.

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