Omaha - a Sprawling Tapestry of Diversity on the Plains

Omaha - a Sprawling Tapestry of Diversity on the Plains

Omaha, Nebraska

Omaha, Nebraska

Diversity is nothing new to Omaha; it's as common as the hard work of the immigrants who founded the city in 1854. Omaha has grown to be a center of banking, insurance and meat processing over the years based on that hard-working beginning. However, ethnic and race relations in the city have been difficult throughout the city's history, and Omaha continues to deal with various issues today.

Omaha, like all of Nebraska, was settled by immigrants. What makes Omaha different than some communities is that, over the years, it was settled by an exceptionally diverse mix of people. This was especially unusual because of Omaha's location in the center of the United States; it was easier to stay in cities closer to the coasts than to continue to travel inland. People of various religions and ethnicities, from Africa, Mexico and southern, northern and eastern Europe were included in the first 100 years of immigration; Asian, Latino and African immigrants and refugees have arrived in the last 50 years. Native Americans immigrated to Nebraska from other locations, as well.

Ethnic hostilities took place in the 1890s between the city's Catholics and the American Protective Association; a violent anti-Greek riot in 1909 dispersed Omaha's Greek population throughout the Midwest; and the lynching of an African-American by the name of Willie Brown in 1919 was another signpost of the depth of racism in Omaha at that time.

Confrontations occurred throughout history, including several notable events in the 1960s. North Omaha today struggles with poverty and violence, as well as the crisis of an achievement gap in black males, according to Trina Creighton, lecturer in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Creighton, a former crime reporter in Omaha, is conducting a research study and is producing both a manuscript and a documentary on that achievement gap. She hopes that awareness will curb what Creighton calls "the loss of a generation of young, black men."

Immigration in Omaha Today
According to Frank Partsch, retired editorial editor for the Omaha World-Herald, any discussion of immigration issues in Omaha is complex. "We are not talking about one group, or even a dozen groups," he said. Immigrants in Omaha can be professionals from Africa and Asia, political refugees from Bosnia, people in search of a better life, legally or illegally, from a host of Latin American countries. Immigrants are Jews from Russia, Muslims from the Balkans, tribe members from remote areas of South America, political refugees from Somalia and students from China, he explained.

At one time, Partsch said, the Omaha Public Schools identified more than two dozen linguistic groups among its student body - students whose first language was something other than English.

"With this vast diversity of the immigrant population comes a vast diversity of problems and issues.

"With this vast diversity of the immigrant population comes a vast diversity of problems and issues," Partsch said. Even among groups that might appear outwardly similar there are differences; Cubans and Salvadorans, for example, have vastly different histories and reasons for leaving their native land. Other differences separate Mexicans from Guatemalans.

In addition to being a city that continues to attract immigrants from many countries, Omaha is one of Nebraska's three federal refugee resettlement locations; the other two are Lincoln and Hastings. These three cities welcome people from many different countries, all in different stages of acculturation, language learning and job seeking. Refugees come to the U.S. under this country's legal protection from persecution; many have endured great physical and emotional suffering prior to coming to the U.S. Several organizations help refugees to re-settle in the United States; help immigrants when necessary; and help poor people meet their needs.

A'Jamal Byndon, Senior Director for Advocacy for Catholic Charities in Omaha, has spent 25 years with Catholic Charities, helping the disenfranchised population of Omaha.

"My job is to try to help low-income people - people who are at the bottom. I also try to bring people together from different sectors in Omaha and try to change structures," he said. "I try to get people who traditionally do not deal with the 'have-nots' to do more of that. The whole issue of being committed to a community, a state...I try to bring the world together," he said.

Byndon believes historical demographics indicate there is a caste system in this country. "I try to change structures so people are no longer locked into poverty and into their caste," he explained. He described himself as a "social justice person" who believes all people need to be more inclusive of others, not only in the areas of race and gender, but also of ideology. His mother was a social justice activist, he said, and her modeling helped lead him to his chosen career.

Byndon spent two years in the Peace Corps after he graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He met his wife there, and when he returned to the United States he decided to work with the poor. His experience in Africa was life-changing, he said, and formed the basis for his personal mission in dealing with the poor. "I cannot begin to describe to Nebraskans how sometimes strangers who had very little treated me as if I was one of their relatives," he said. He said he always remembers to treat the disenfranchised people of Omaha in the same way he was treated in Africa - as a valued guest.

Additionally, Byndon said it is critical that the voices are "at the table." In committee and board meetings and other interactions, he said, "we have to make sure the very people we are talking about are there - both sides of the continuum. We often balance our scale to folks who are like us, rather than not like us."

Byndon is aware of the many situations from which refugees and immigrants flee. "When you think in terms of people who come from a tortured past and experience, we should not be the ones who continue with that torture for them, either physically or psychologically," he said.

The Bible says to treat others as you would want them to treat you - "if we keep that in mind as we deal with people, how can we disrespect or denigrate them?"

Population and Perspective
Omaha's population alone is approaching 500,000, but its metropolitan area surpasses 800,000 and growing. The total population of Nebraska is about 1.8 million, according to the 2000 U.S. Census estimate for 2006, which is the most recent estimate. The eastern part of Nebraska is by far the most densely populated part of the state; the Sandhills and Panhandle regions are the most sparsely-populated. The distance from Omaha to Scottsbluff, for example, is 474 miles, while the distance from Omaha to Chicago is 468 miles.

Even though Scottsbluff and Omaha are in the same state, the culture, terrain, population and economy are in stark contrast to one another. Omaha is home to several Fortune 500 companies and is a center of banking, insurance and medicine. Its access to transportation, entertainment, health care and cultural activities rivals much larger cities. It can be easy to forget that Omaha lies within a largely-agricultural state - one that is #2 in cattle production in the whole country; one that helps to feed the world's hunger for food and fuel; one that competes with other communities and other states for health care providers in rural areas; one that struggles to maintain population in its rural communities. Driving is the chief means of traveling to Scottsbluff from Omaha; there is no commercial air service between the two communities. Some stakeholders in Scottsbluff say they have learned to rely on themselves and on one another in the smaller communities; they need each other. If a community wants to keep a grocery store, for instance, the community needs to shop there. In a larger city, if one store goes out of business, there's always another.

The rural residents of Nebraska are accustomed to driving to Lincoln and Omaha, though many of their trips to larger cities are to Denver and Cheyenne, which are hours closer. Their urban counterparts are much less likely to drive to the western part of the state. According to Steve Frederick, editor of the Scottsbluff Star-Herald, "the road does go both ways."

SDN Projects

Strategic Discussions for Nebraska: Food Scarcity

Opportunities for Nebraska, Volume Three: Food Scarcity is the third annual publication of Strategic Discussions for Nebraska, exploring the importance of University of Nebraska research on the way we live- and on the way the world lives. Read more>>

Strategic Discussions for Nebraska: Energy Climate and Sustainability

Opportunities for Nebraska, Volume Two: Energy, Climate and Sustainability is the second annual publication of Strategic Discussions for Nebraska that explores the impact and relevance of University of Nebraska research.

Watch and listen as experts tell the stories of research and innovation at the University of Nebraska- one of the top research universities in the United States. Read more>>

2010 Opportunities for Nebraska 
Opportunities for Nebraska is the first magazine in a series that showcases University of Nebraska-Lincoln research. The world population is expected to grow to nine billion by 2050 and this research will result in producing twice as much food with the same amount of land and water. Watch and listen as UNL experts tell the stories of research and innovation at one of the top research universities in the country!

Ord Community Study
UNL student researchers along with SDN conducted a major research project to study the ways Ord residents communicate about what is happening in the community.

Immigration in Nebraska
Published in June 2009, Nebraska's Economic Future includes a summary of findings; stories based on individual interviews; summaries of community conversations; and articles written specifically for this magazine. The articles represent varied geographical perspectives as well as perspectives on various parts of the state's economy.

Immigration in Nebraska
SDN published research on Immigration in Nebraska for the project's initial study in May 2008. We selected Scottsbluff, Lexington, Crete and Omaha and looked at the impact immigration has had on those communities.