As Asian woman passed me by today. She was the first Asian I remember seeing since I returned to Idaho. My wife is Asian, so that’s a misperception (when I look at my wife I don’t think of her ethnicity). Seeing this Asian woman in an Idaho store reminded me of how long it’s been since I’ve stayed in a place with so few minorities. When I grew up in North Idaho, I thought nothing of the fact that my high school did not have any minority students. Not even Hispanics, many of whom live in Washington State. The only family of minority descent that I knew as a kid was an African American family living in the area. They loved living in Idaho despite being the only African American family in a 15-20 mile radius. Even today, North Idaho is still a very Caucasian place. Southern Idaho, particularly Boise, the state capital and largest city, is more diverse. Most recent Idaho transplants are Caucasian, and most hail from Southern California and the Bay Area.
Idaho, especially North Idaho, has been unfairly labeled a racist place, largely because of stories about the Aryan Nations white supremists who made their home in Hayden Lake, Idaho, and the presence of controversial residents such as Bo Gritz and Mark Fuhrman. In fact, Idaho is home to an eclectic group of people in spite of an underrepresentation of minority groups. Despite its socio-demographic reputation, I believe that Idahoans are extremely friendly people and that minorities would find Idahoans generally tolerant of all ethnic groups. Minorities may find it difficult to obtain necessities to help them maintain their own cultural identities (such as finding good kimchi), but I believe that they would be warmly welcomed by locals if they moved to Idaho. Idaho’s minorities groups have strongly influenced Idaho’s history. In fact, during the 1860’s Idaho had more ethnic Chinese living within its territory than Americans, Chinese who came to mine for gold. Moscow, Idaho was named by Russian settlers, Coeur d’Alene by French trappers. Garden City, a Boise suburb, was originally settled by Chinese farmers. Over 1,000 students, or one in eleven students at the University of Idaho are of minority descent. Each year the university hosts the prestigious Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival, one of the country’s largest university music festivals. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tribe stands as one of the most famous Native Americans in American history and one of my favorite historical figures.
Interestingly, Californians actually face more opposition in Idaho than minorities do. Thousands of Californians have relocated to Idaho in recent years, sending housing prices and property taxes through the roof. Pristine rural areas have given way to wall-to-wall subdivisions. Lakes once open for recreation have become ponds for the wealthy. Californians who made a lot of money from good jobs and real estate have cashed in and relocated to Idaho for a cheaper, more comfortable lifestyle. Many came to retire here. Unfortunately, most do not bring good jobs with them, leaving the locals to work service sector jobs that don’t pay enough to sustain an ample lifestyle. I have had more conversations about real estate, taxes, and Californians since I returned to Idaho than I have ever had. The story I hear is the same–the influx of wealthy outsiders (mostly Californians) is making life difficult for the locals. If you move to Idaho, it is better not to announce that you made a boatload of money in Southern California and are looking for a $2 million mansion to buy on the water. You’re likely to get an earful.