Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Ethnicity: Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Cambodian, Bangladeshi, Thai, Pakistani, Hmong
First language/s: Bengali, Chinese, Filipino, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Urdu, Vietnamese, other Asian languages, English
Religion/s: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism
‘Asian American’ is a pan-ethnic terms designating the many communities of Asian immigrants and their descendants in the United States (US). These terms have arisen in response to the common discrimination and immigrant experiences the different communities share, although specific group designations, such as ‘Korean American’, are also used. Asian Americans are the second fastest growing group in the US, having increased in number from 877,934 in 1960 to 7 million in 1990 and over 12 million in the 2000 Census count. According to the 2010 Census, their numbers stood at almost 14.7 million. This increase is due to immigration and natural increase. The largest ethnic groups included Chinese 3.3 million (4 million when including those in combination with other races), Filipinos 2.6 million (3.4 million when in combination with other races), Indian 2.8 million (3.2 million in combination with other races), Vietnamese 1.5 million (1.7 million in combination with other races), Korean 1.4 million (1.7 million in combination with other races) and Japanese 763,000 (1.4 million in combination with other races).
Although there are large Asian communities across the US, most are located in the west, particularly Hawai’i and California. Asian Indians are concentrated in New York. The large majority of all Asian groups live in large cities, mainly Honolulu, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, making them the most urban population in the US.
Asian Americans are visible in all strata of American society, except perhaps the highest elites. Some have traditionally lived in enclaves, for example New York and San Francisco’s ‘Chinatowns’ or Los Angeles’ ‘Little Tokyo’, although Koreans, Indians and Japanese tend to be more dispersed than other Asian communities. Most except Japanese have relatively youthful populations. Asian Americans are active in all occupations in the US, usually with average or better rates of employment. Koreans run many convenience stores in large cities, and have entered medicine in large numbers. Asian Indians are prominent in academia, technical professions and the grocery and motel businesses. Many Japanese Americans work in sales and management. The Chinese and Filipino populations are split between the skilled professions and low-wage manual labour and service jobs, though many Chinese now also work in small businesses. The first group of Vietnamese refugees in 1975 have generally done well educationally and in business. Later refugees, mostly farmers, fishers and small traders, have lacked the language, skills and capital to reach the same levels. Probably the worst off are the smaller communities from Samoa, Laos and Cambodia. It should however be said that these patterns are shifting with subsequent generations, as well as due to the impact of external forces, such as gentrification which has affected traditional Asian neighbourhoods to varying degrees in cities across the US.
The disparities are reflected in a range of indicators, such as language proficiency. While 2015 data showed that 7 in 10 Asians in the US aged 5 and older speak English proficiently, this changes drastically among Asian subgroups: while most Japanese (84 per cent), Filipinos (82 per cent) and Indians (80 per cent) speak English proficiently, levels are much lower among other groups such as Bhutanese (27 per cent) and Burmese (28 per cent), both of which have proportionately very large foreign-born populations.
The longest-established Asian-American communities are Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Asian Indian, with the first two predominant. The first wave of immigrants came in the 1840s, when young men from China, Japan and the Philippines were recruited as cheap manual labour on the west coast and in Hawai’i. Chinese and Filipinos worked on sugar plantations in Hawai’i, and all three groups worked as miners, railroad workers, agricultural labourers, fishery workers and light industrial labourers in California and the north-west. Many went on to run small businesses and their own farms, until they were prohibited from owning land by the Alien Land Act of 1913.
Early Asian Americans faced slander, exploitative working conditions, segregation laws and political disenfranchisement. When the need for extra workers receded, bills like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Asian exclusionary zone legislation of 1917 cut off immigration from China and India. The Filipino and Japanese-American populations continued to grow, however, and despite discrimination many achieved a modest prosperity over the next several decades.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Japanese Americans – even citizens with deep family roots in the US – became suspect as spies or saboteurs. There was no substance to these charges, yet Japanese-American communities of the western states were subjected to an internment order in February 1942 and moved to prison camps in the interior. Conditions in the camps were harsh, with a total of 110,000-120,000 people interned, two-thirds of them US citizens. In December 1944 the Supreme Court belatedly ruled internment unconstitutional, and most detainees were released in 1945, although the camps were not closed until early 1946.
While Japanese Americans suffered greatly during the war, the position of other Asian communities improved because their countries were allied with the US. The virulent racism of earlier decades abated somewhat, paving the way for a 1965 revision of immigration law that led to a massive intake of Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees after 1975. Before long over 40 per cent of new US immigrants were Asian applicants. Asian Americans became a majority-immigrant population, while for much of the century most Asians in the US had been born there. By 1990, there was near parity between numbers of Filipino Americans and Chinese Americans (with larger numbers from Hong Kong and Taiwan than in the past), with Indochinese, Korean and Asian Indian groups gradually overtaking the Japanese in numbers and youthfulness.
Increasing immigration left Asians open to the vagaries of US refugee policy. Although the US has sometimes been generous to refugees – for example, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asians after 1975, and Chinese students who had been involved in Tiananmen Square – the Clinton administration in 1993 enlisted Mexican and Honduran officials in a campaign to intercept Chinese who were leapfrogging from China to Pacific islands to the US. Many were fleeing China’s notorious population control policies. Hundreds were repatriated and several died in the process. Though the operation was legal (because neither Mexico nor Honduras is a signatory to the UN Convention relating to the status of refugees) it contradicted the spirit of the US’s international commitments and angered the Chinese-American community. Several of those deported were known to have credible asylum claims. Like Latinos, Asian Americans were subject to immigration department raids on their workplaces.
Political and socio-economic developments
In the late 1960s, Asian Americans became involved in the civil rights and student movements. This generation formed professional organizations, community service agencies and political interest groups that fought for bilingual education, Asian Studies programmes in universities, multilingual voting ballots and better working conditions in the garment and restaurant sectors where poorer Asians worked.
The other major issue was Japanese Americans’ fight for redress for internment. Though some compensation had been given to victims of internment after the war, and over the next decade all the normal rights of citizenship were restored to Japanese Americans, they felt that the racism and injustice of the action had never been fully recognized. They formed political organizations, lobbied, filed court cases and appealed to public sympathy for decades. In August 1988, Congress and President Ronald Reagan offered a formal apology and US$20,000 per person to each of the 60,000 surviving internees – about US$1.25 billion in all.
The murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man, in a Detroit bar in 1982 has become the archetypal case of violence against Asian Americans. His assailants were white auto workers who took Chin for Japanese, accused Chin’s ‘people’ of destroying the American auto industry and beat him to death with a baseball bat. They were sentenced to probation and a fine. This case, along with later attacks by gangs and individuals against Asians, rallied Asian Americans to campaign against bigotry and racist violence.
Some of the backlash against increasing Asian-American visibility has come from other minorities. The Los Angeles riots and controversies in New York in the early 1990s illustrated that resentment against Korean storekeepers and other Asian business people – expressed in attacks on and boycotts of Asian businesses by African-American and Latino consumers – had become commonplace.
To counter the misunderstanding that leads to violence, Asian Americans increasingly organized in concert with other minority groups around immigration, racism, sexism, the environment and other issues. Asian organizations were also formed to protest against misrepresentation and exclusion in media and the arts. Electoral representation is another issue. Although some Asian-American politicians in the north-west have triumphed at state and local levels (especially in Hawai’i), only the Japanese have fared well in the Senate and Congress. With increasing numbers and ‘Pan-Asian’ community mobilization, this situation may change.
Today’s image of Asian Americans as an educationally and economically successful ‘model minority’ is usually explained in cultural terms – a high premium put on education by Asian families, a strong family-based work ethic, powerful group support networks and so on. While these images are based in reality, they distort the truth. The median family income for Asian Americans was US$83,456 in 2017, higher than the median family income for all US households (USD$60,336 in the same year). But there were wide gaps between different groups, with the median family income for certain sub-groups such as Asian Indians and Japanese Americans significantly higher while other communities such as Hmong and Cambodians significantly lower than the national average. Further, the family median income rate is deceptive because Asian-American families tend to have more family members in the workforce than other groups. Chinese, Filipino, Indian and Japanese women tend to earn more than Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian and Thai men.
Similarly, while poverty levels are lower among Asian Americans (12.1 per cent in 2015, compared to a national average of 15.1 per cent) – there are large gaps within this group: while poverty levels among Filipinos (7.5 per cent), Indians (7.5 per cent) and Japanese (8.4 per cent) are even lower, they are disproportionately high for other communities such as Hmong (28.3 per cent), Bhutanese (33.3 per cent) and Burmese (35 per cent). Many poorer Asians – often Chinese, Thai or Southeast Asian undocumented migrants – work in urban sweatshops at below minimum wage.
Many Asian Americans object to the image of a ‘model minority’, which seems positive, but denies their diversity and tends to pit Asians against other minorities. Even to the extent that the stereotype is accurate, it comes at the price of high pressure and long hours of study or work that may lead to depression and anxiety, especially for young people. The success myth also implies that Asians do not experience disadvantage and discrimination, which is patently untrue. For example, Asians are admitted to higher education at a lower rate than whites with the same qualifications, and when they graduate they are paid less than whites with the same education. Asian students who have language troubles seldom receive bilingual education or remedial help, which is one reason why they gravitate to scientific disciplines. A ‘glass ceiling’ also seems to limit the earnings and promotion opportunities of Asian Americans in large companies; they hold only a tiny fraction of top management positions.
Research on the educational outcomes of Asian-Pacific American students has called into question the stereotype of the high achieving Asian-Pacific American student and suggests that a homogeneous view masks real problems being experienced by this very diverse population group. The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of Asian Americans, like those of other Americans, tend to match the income and educational level of their parents: consequently, while most Pakistanis and Indians have at least a bachelor’s degree, most of the nation’s Hmong and Cambodian adults have never finished high school. Perceptions of supposed-overachievement can have an adverse affect since lumping together all Asian groups masks the poverty and academic difficulties of some subgroups and with the trend away from affirmative-action policies, holds all Asian-Pacific Americans to much higher admission standards at the most selective colleges.
While the political participation of Asian Americans is increasing, voting barriers are still in place, including institutional disenfranchisement and racially hostile voter intimidation. Asian candidates, too, have reported suffering racial hostility.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in