Depending on where you go in Anchorage, you could be standing in some of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country. But, the level of Anchorage’s diversity and effects of that diversity aren’t always clear.
Chad Farrell is a demographer and chair of UAA’s sociology department. Farrell’s research has determined there is a great deal of diversity in Anchorage, despite not having the same type of diversity as the United States.
“In some ways, for example our African American population, our Latino population, in percentage terms, is quite a bit smaller than the nation as a whole. So in that sense, we’re kind of less diverse than the nation as a whole,” Farrell said. “But then you take the indigenous population, you take the Asian/Pacific Islander population, those groups are much larger here than in the nation as a whole.”
Farrell said a large population shift has been occurring since the 90s where Native groups transitioned from rural areas to the city. He also said that being a Western state, Alaska is more likely to have higher Asian and Pacific Islander populations due to close proximity to those areas.
In his work, Farrell has shown Anchorage has the three most ethno-racially diverse neighborhoods in the country, the top being the Mountain View area. And Anchorage’s schools show the city to be a cultural melting pot with the top 26 most diverse public schools in the country — in the Anchorage district.
Farrell said lots of local attention has been focused on those numbers, and misconceptions sometimes arise where people assume that Anchorage is the most diverse city in the country. Anchorage actually ranks in the top 15th percentile for diversity in the nation overall — so it’s still pretty high nationally speaking, but it’s not among the most diverse in the country.
Farrell said the most diverse cities have what demographers call “no majority” populations, like New York City or Oakland, CA, where no singular ethnic group makes up more than 50 percent of the population.
“Now these are truly diverse communities, and we are not a no majority community,” Farrell said.
Farrell said that even though Anchorage boasts some of the most diverse areas in the country, the differences between America’s most diverse areas area pretty marginal.
“If you parachuted into any of these super diverse neighborhoods or super diverse schools, you wouldn’t be able to tell that one had a diversity index of 96.8 and one had a lower diversity index of 95. You would know you were in an extremely diverse environment.”
Farrell says having high diversity numbers doesn’t necessarily reflect a high treatment of all diverse groups. He notes certain groups are still economically disparaged and even in diverse communities there are levels of ethnic segregation.
“Whether we’re talking about in the economy, or schools, in our justice system, in our healthcare system, whatever sorts of institutions we’re talking about, they’re all being affected by this increasing racial and ethnic diversity,” Farrell said. “So I think this is one of the crucial questions that our nation faces: How are we going to navigate this trend?”
Farrell said that these diversity numbers are often a baseline for communities and aren’t always indicative of how communities interact with each other. Anchorage activist Kokayi Nosakhere agrees. He’s the community coordinator for Anchorage’s NAACP branch. He uses a different definition for diversity.
“I don’t know if we’ve reached a level of diversity,” Nosakhere said. “We’ve reached a level of integration, but I don’t know about diversity yet.”
Nosakhere doesn’t think simply having different groups of people living in one neighborhood necessarily reflects a diverse population. In his opinion, having interactions between those different groups of people is what makes an area diverse.
“What I think will go to the next level which is beyond the acknowledgement scientifically, that we numerically have these people in our community, is the sharing at the interpersonal level of world views,” Nosakhere said.
There are steps that members of the community are taking to share cultures inter-personally, and Nosakhere said that is the direction to go for diversity in communities.
“When we happen to find an organization like Catholic Social Services that’ll do Refugee Day, and you’ll start seeing the song dance and clothing differences of expression — all up on stage — we’re having an expression of that diversity,” Nosakhere explained.
With so many different groups in Anchorage, there remain more opportunities for these expressions of real, community diversity — even in a city that shows numerical diversity.