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Illinois Issues
Archive2001-Present: Scroll Down or Use Search1975-2001: Click Here

Editor's Notebook: Illinois is changing. That may be a difficult reality for some to accept

Peggy Boyer Long
WUIS/Illinois Issues

The picture of the mosque shown on the network news that terrible week of September 11 looked familiar. And for good reason. Just last summer, Illinois Issues featured the Mosque Foundation in the southwest suburban community of Bridgeview, part of the magazine’s ongoing series of assessments on social and cultural shifts in our state. 

Now, unfortunately, the world was taking our measure, too. NBC showed a carload of kids driving past the Bridgeview mosque, shouting and waving an American flag. Alongside this image was another: a young Illinois mother, wearing head covering as required by her Islamic faith, on a sidewalk with her children. Out of fear for their safety, it seems, Muslim mothers like her were choosing to keep their children home from school. 

Maureen Foertsch McKinney, who reported and wrote the magazine’s in-depth look at Middle Eastern immigration in the southwest suburban region (see “Hotdogs and hummus,” June, page 14), says the truth is that many Arab Americans come to this country so that they can protect their children from violence in their homelands. 

In the televised report, one Arab American noted that she has been here some 18 years now. What she didn’t say is that, most likely, this is longer than those flag-waving kids have been alive.

McKinney documented the tensions in previously all-white communities. “The suburbs to the southwest of Chicago,” she wrote, “have never been known for eagerness to embrace diversity. Nevertheless, diversity is beginning to embrace them.” 

This may be a difficult reality for some. Our country has been a majority-white culture throughout most of its history. But the nation is changing. So is Illinois. It’s happening on a religious level, on a cultural level and on a racial level. And, not coincidentally, on a political level. 

There is no question Islam is a growing religion in Illinois. And no question that the Arab population is growing in the southwest suburbs. In fact, that region accounts for almost a third of metropolitan Chicago’s approximately 150,000-strong Arab community, the nation’s third-largest. 

This state’s Asian population is increasing, too. Stephanie Zimmermann writes in “Naperville, meet Asia” (see page 22) that the DuPage County community’s Asian and Pacific Islander population was 1,179 in 1980 and 4,133 in 1990. In 2000, when Asians were counted separately from Pacific Islanders, Zimmermann writes, “there were a whopping 12,380 Asians in Naperville, or about 9.6 percent of the total population.”

Naperville School District 203 counts among its students Indians, Pakistanis, Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Indonesians, Cambodians, Thais, Vietnamese and Laotians. “The world is changing,” Miriam Yeung, the district’s curriculum coordinator for the English as a Second Language Program, told Zimmermann.

Indeed, it is. Beardstown has added Spanish-speaking teachers to serve that downstate community’s growing Hispanic population. Lisa Kernek wrote last month that the town experienced a nearly 2,000 percent increase in its Hispanic population between 1990 and 2000, the steepest rise in the state, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures (see “Growing pains,” September, page 21).

What’s striking is that Beardstown is far from any major urban area. That is precisely the theme Dave McKinney develops in this month’s cover story, “The new immigrants,” which begins on page 16. An increasing number of immigrant families are sidestepping urban neighborhoods altogether. They’re settling instead in the smaller communities that dot the state. That means diversity is spreading throughout Illinois.

And, as we read in the columns on pages 6, 41 and 42, the reality of these social and cultural shifts will be reflected in the state’s political makeup.

Immigrants are not on the periphery of who we are. They are Illinois. 


Illinois Issues, October 2001

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