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“Boom Town”

Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal featured an excellent review of “Boom Town,” a 310-page look at life in Northwest Arkansas that was written by Marjorie Rosen and published by the Chicago Review Press.

The subtitle of the book is “how Wal-Mart transformed an all-American town into an international community.”

The amazing story of the economic, social and cultural transformation of Northwest Arkansas needs to be told, but reviewer Jay Greene has some problems with how Rosen went about telling that story. Greene, often a target of Max Brantley over on his Arkansas Blog, is a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. The Journal also notes that he is the faculty adviser to Hillel, the Jewish student organization on the Fayetteville campus.

Greene seems to believe that Rosen entered the project with a preconceived notion and didn’t let the facts get in the way of telling the story she wanted to tell. Rosen writes of the “cold stark fear — at least among a segment of the white Christian majority, which sees its comfortable, all-white way of life fading.”

That’s not, however, the reality that Greene has found living in Northwest Arkansas. Greene is an expert in the areas of school choice, high school graduation rates and accountability. He has appeared on numerous national television and radio programs to discuss education reform. Greene, who received his bachelor’s degree from Tufts University and his doctorate from Harvard University, previously taught at the University of Texas and the University of Houston.

Greene writes: “Ms. Rosen seems to expect that there should be especially severe problems with the acceptance of diverse newscomers in a geographical area that is, as she repeatedly puts it, ’emphatically Christian.’ Instead, she finds that people of faith have an easy time understanding and accepting one another, including people who belong to different religious traditions, because they share a respect for religious belief. This type of tolerance is common in semi-rural Northwest Arkansas but is not so common, one suspects, in the media and political centers that dot the coasts.”

The December issue of Northwest Arkansas CitiScapes monthly magazine is one of those “best of” issues that have become a staple of local and regional magazines. When asked the “very best thing about Northwest Arkansas,” readers rated “the people” first. The runner-up was the natural beauty of the region.

Indeed, I’ve long believed that one of the reasons for Northwest Arkansas’ economic success is the way its people not only accepted but also welcomed those who came from elsewhere (i.e. Yankees) to work for Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, J.B. Hunt and the many vendors in the region. In an earlier post, I discussed how Northwest Arkansas is not really in the South, the Midwest or the Southwest. In a way, it’s its own region.

Greene points out that there really are two narratives in the book — “one shows the ease with which well-educated African-American, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu newcomers have been accepted by local residents; the other shows the difficulties that low-skilled Hispanics have experienced, many of whom were attracted to the region by jobs at Tyson’s chicken-processing plants. Ms Rosen tries hard but can’t comfortably combine the two into a single narrative about how white, rural Christians react to diversity.”

When it comes to talking about how native Arkansans accept outsiders, there’s probably a much more interesting story to tell in a place like Green Forest with its influx of low-income Hispanics than in Bentonville with its influx of well-educated outsiders.

Greene notes that big businesses like Wal-Mart and Tyson understand that the knowledge-based economy of this century requires they hire the best employees possible regardless of race or religion. He writes: “The only color they see is green. Social integration has gone smoothly because local residents, assisted by religiously backed norms of politeness, have been generally welcoming.”

If there’s resistance to change, it has come instead from some of the politicans in Northwest Arkansas. Greene says the book tells of politicians who “try to pit low-income whites against Hispanics. Clearly, they would rather be king of the Lilliputians than share a larger empire with the area’s newer residents.”

I’ve long believed that the quality of elected officials from the region has too often failed to match the economic growth of Northwest Arkansas. I have some good friends who have been elected in Northwest Arkansas and represented their constituents well. But there have also been the demagogues. Without painting with too broad a brush, it would not be entirely unfair to say that Republican politicians from Northwest Arkansas have been to Hispanic newcomers in this century what Democratic polticians from the Delta were to blacks in the previous century.

As I noted in a column in last Saturday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, allowing the immigrant bashers to dominate the conversation will ensure a lack of two-party competition in Arkansas for years to come. It will keep the GOP from recruiting the kind of young voters who were attracted by Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. It already takes a leap of faith for a young person to go against the political norm in a heavily Democratic state such as Arkansas. If the kind of angry, aging voters whose shrill voices too often dominate local talk radio are identified as the face of Republicanism in this state, these young voters surely will go elsewhere.

So the real story of Northwest Arkansas might be this: Most people in the region have been accepting of newcomers. That acceptance helped spark an economic boom. Now, it’s time for all of the region’s elected officials to catch up with their constituents rather than reacting to the loud but small group of sad, angry people who spend their days calling radio stations, writing letters to the editor and wishing for a past that never was.

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