Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in 2021.
Asian Americans are often labeled as a singular group, but the fastest growing population in the US is far from a monolith — and their complex history and cultures are often glossed over.
While they have been in America since the nation’s infancy, Asian Americans continue being harmed by stereotypes like the “model minority” as well as racial violence. Much of the recent anti-Asian bias is a result of many people being ignorant of the group’s history in the country and xenophobic messaging around the Covid-19 pandemic, experts and lawmakers say.
Here’s a look at how diverse Asians in America are and why we can’t speak about them as a single block.
They trace their roots to dozens of countries
The term “Asian American” is an umbrella term for dozens of ethnic groups of Asian descent. It was first used in 1968 by University of California Berkeley graduate students as the name of an organization aimed at uniting Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Filipino Americans, among others to fight for political and social action.
An estimated 22 million Asian Americans live in the US, making up nearly 7% of the total population, US Census data shows. Those who self-identify as Chinese, Indian or Filipino ancestry make up the three largest Asian groups in the US, but no one ethnicity makes up a majority.
For decades, Asians were grouped together with Pacific Islanders by government officials and advocates. Currently, there’s an estimated 1.6 million Pacific Islanders living in the US, including many who identify as Native Hawaiian, Samoan and Guamanian or Chamorro.
About a third of Asians in the US live in California
Most Asians live around big cities in four states – California, New York, Texas and Hawaii – but for the most part, these cities are not home to a single ethnic group.
About a third of all Asians in the US live in California, where there’s a large Chinese population in Los Angeles County along with Filipino, Korean, Japanese and Indian communities. Meanwhile, the Asians in Texas are Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Pakistani.
The Asian diaspora across the country is as diverse as the reasons that led people to migrate to the US.
There are approximately 309,000 Hmong people in the US. The largest share is in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where many settled as refugees in the 1970s.
In southern states like Louisiana and Mississippi, Vietnamese people make up the largest share of the Asian population. They resettled in the area following the Vietnam War.
They have the greatest income divide among racial and ethnic groups
Economically, Asian Americans are the most divided racial or ethnic group in the US, a Pew Research study found. High-income Asian Americans near the top of the income ladder earn 10.7 times as much as those on the opposite end of the income spectrum.
While Asian Americans have the highest education levels compared to Black, Hispanic and White people, their economic and education levels are very diverse. Some hold white collar jobs and others work in low-wage service sectors. For example, they represent 57% of 449,000 “miscellaneous personal appearance workers,” a category that mainly includes nail salons, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The highest earning Asians among those with a college degree and over 25 years old are Indian and Taiwanese, with a median household income of more than $100,000 per year. Meanwhile, the median household income for Burmese and Nepalese people is under $46,000 and $63,000, respectively.
“I think one of the biggest things that we wish people would see is that unfortunately our communities are struggling as much as many other low-income communities are,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asian Resource Center. “Because of the stereotype that all Asian Americans are doing well, those struggles are made invisible.”
Dinh said the income disparities are driven by numerous factors, including how Asians arrived in the US and the challenges that already existed in the communities where they settled.
“Folks like my parents who left as both people from Vietnam, left with nothing more than the shirts on their back so that today I could be free versus someone who might be from another country who immigrated with a master’s degree for their own countries,” Dinh said.
They are key players in the immigration debate
While some Asian Americans have been in the US for generations, others have come over the years under different circumstances, including refugees and asylees.
An estimated two-thirds of Asian Americans and one-sixth of Pacific Islanders were born outside the country, according to Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC.
Asians comprise a significant portion of immigrants in the US but they are often overlooked in the debate over immigration reform. Of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US, 1.5 million people are from Asia, according to the Migration Policy Institute. That’s about 13% of the total undocumented population in the US.
There are thousands of Asians who are undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children, a group often described as Dreamers. Tereza Lee, a Brazilian-born South Korean pianist, has been credited for inspiring Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin to co-sponsor in 2001 the proposed DREAM Act, which offered legal status in return for attending college or joining the military.
They hold about 3% of seats in Congress
Asian Americans are mostly underrepresented in elected office across the US, despite having some gains in recent years.
There are 18 members of Congress who identify as part of the AAPI community, making up about 3% of the seats. The lack of AAPI diversity in top roles in President Joe Biden’s administration has also come under scrutiny.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, who is the first Asian American elected to that office, says the AAPI representation in public service at all levels is “unacceptably low.”
“There are many more members of Congress than when I was a kid. We have the first AAPI Vice President in the history of our country in Kamala Harris but still our voice is not sufficient and in many ways Asian Americans are still invisible in our public life,” Tong told CNN.
AAPI elected officials, Tong says, are committed to serve even if they often face stereotypes and are among the few people of color in the room.
“People still have a hard time seeing and conceiving Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as good elected officials,” he said.
Voter turnout among Asian Americans hit an all-time high in the 2020 presidential election and recent events like the surge of anti-Asian attacks and state voter suppression efforts will keep voters motivated to participate, said Christine Chen, co-founder and executive director of the civic engagement group APIAVote.
While the largest Asian populations lean Democratic, Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel became the first Republican Korean American women to ever serve in Congress after they unseated one-term Democrats in southern California.