Updated April 2009


Estimated population in 2005: 14.37 million

Ethnicity: Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, Cambodian, Bangladeshi, Thai, Pakistani, Hmong.

First language/s: Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Japanese, other Asian languages, English

Religion/s: Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism

‘Asian Pacific American' or ‘Asian American' are pan-ethnic terms designating the many communities of Asian immigrants and their descendants in the USA. 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 Pacific Americans are the second fastest growing group in the USA, having increased in number from 877,934 in 1960 to 7 million in 1990 and over 12 million in the 2000 Census count. Between 2004 and 2005 alone, the estimated number of Asian Americans has increased by 3 per cent, up from 13,956,004 to 14,376,658. This increase was due to immigration (182,126 people) and natural increase (226,286 people). Of the Asian American population in 2004, the largest ethnic group was the Chinese, numbering 2.8 million (23.4%), followed by Asian Indians, numbering 2.2 million (18.6%), 2.1 million Filipinos (17.8%), 1.3 million Vietnamese (10.5%), 1.2 million Koreans (10.3%) and 832,039 (6.9%) Japanese.

Census 2000 found that more than 50 per cent of Asian Americans do not consider English to be their first language, 79 per cent spoke a language other than English at home, and around 40 per cent spoke English ‘less than very well'. The proportion Asian Americans who spoke a language other than English at home ranged from 47 per cent for Japanese to over 90 per cent of Cambodians, Laotians, Pakistanis and Vietnamese

Although there are large Asian Pacific communities across the USA, the majority (49%) are located in the west, particularly Hawai'i (where they make 42.8% of the population) and California (12.1%). Asian Indians are concentrated in New York. Ninety per cent of all Asian Pacific groups live in large cities, mainly Honolulu, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, making them the most urban population in the USA.

Asian Pacific Americans are visible in all strata of American society, except perhaps the highest elites. Some live 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 Pacific communities. Apart from the Indochinese, they have high marriage rates, and most except the Japanese are youthful populations. Asian Pacific Americans are active in all occupations in the USA, 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. In 2002, wholesale and retail trade accounted for 47 per cent of all Asian-owned businesses. Nearly half (47%) of all Asian-owned firms were Chinese-owned (290,197) and Asian Indian-owned (231,179). Korean-owned firms were the third largest group at 158,031, followed by Vietnamese- (147,081), Filipino- (128,223) and Japanese-owned firms (86,863). 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.

Historical context

The longest-established Asian Pacific 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 labour, fishery workers and light industrial labour 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 Pacific 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 USA – 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 Pacific communities improved because their countries were allied with the USA. 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 Indochinese refugees after 1975. Before long over 40 per cent of new US immigrants were Asian Pacific applicants. Asian Pacific Americans became a majority-immigrant population, while for much of the century most Asians in the USA 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 has left Asians open to the vagaries of US refugee policy. Although the USA has sometimes been generous to refugees – for example, Vietnamese and Indochinese 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 ‘boat people' who were leapfrogging from China to Pacific islands to the USA. Hundreds were repatriated and several died in the process. Though the operation was legal (because neither Mexico nor Honduras is a signatory to the Geneva Convention on Refugees) it contradicted the spirit of the USA's international commitments and angered the Chinese American community. Several of those deported were known to have credible asylum claims. Like Latinos, Asian Pacific Americans have been subject to immigration department raids on their workplaces.

Political and socio-economic developments 

In the late 1960s, Asian Pacific 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 Pacific 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 Pacific Americans to campaign against bigotry and racist violence. Some of the backlash against increasing Asian Pacific 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 Pacific Americans are increasingly organizing in concert with other minority groups around immigration, racism, sexism, the environment and other issues. Asian Pacific organizations have also been formed to protest against misrepresentation and exclusion in media and the arts. Electoral representation is another issue. Although some Asian Pacific 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' politicization, this situation may change.

Today's image of Asian Pacific 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 Pacific Americans in 1999 was US $59,324, higher than the median family income US nationwide ($50,046). But there were wide gaps between different groups, with the median family income for Japanese ($70,849) and Asian Indians ($70,708) at one end of the scale, and for Hmong ($32,384) and Cambodian ($35,621) families at the other. Further, the family median income rate is deceptive because Asian Pacific American families tend to have more family members in the workforce than other groups. The per capita income of Asian Pacific Americans in 2001, of $24,277, was higher than that of the general US population ($22,851) but lower than the per capita income for whites ($26,134). The median earnings of both Asian American men and women ($40,650 and $31,049, respectively) were higher than those of men and women nationwide ($37,057 and $27,194, respectively), though there were wide gaps between earnings of men and women within each ethnic group. In 1999, the median earnings of Asian Indian men were $51,904, compared to $35,173 for women. Pakistani men earned $40,277, compared to $28,315 earned by Pakistani women. Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian and Japanese women earned more than Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian and Thai men.

Over 10 per cent of Asian Americans live below the poverty line, compared with 9 per cent of whites. There are large gaps within this group: as many as 22.5 per cent of Hmongs, Laotians and Cambodians, and 15.5 per cent of Koreans live below the poverty line, compared to 6.9 per cent of Filipinos, 8.2 per cent of Indian-Asians and 8.6 per cent of Japanese. Many poorer Asians – often Chinese, Thai or Indochinese illegals – work in urban sweatshops at below minimum wage. In 1995, for example, it was discovered that clothing companies were being supplied by a compound-style factory complex staffed by illegal Thai women secretly held as slaves. At the other end of the spectrum, a 2002 US Census Bureau survey of business owners found that the number of Asian-owned businesses grew 24 per cent between 1997 and 2002, approximately twice the national average for all businesses.

In 2000, the percentage of Asian Americans with less than high-school education was identical to that of the general US population at 19.6 per cent. But there were wide gaps between different Asian American groups, from a low of 8.9 per cent of Japanese to a high of 59.6 per cent of Hmongs with less than high school education. Similarly, while 44 per cent of Asian Americans had at least a bachelor's degree, compared to 24 per cent of the total US population, there were great disparities within Asian American ethnic groupings, from a high of 63.9 per cent of Asian Indians with at least a bachelor's degree to a low of 7.5 per cent of Hmongs and 7.7 per cent of Laotians.

Many Asian Pacific 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 Pacific students who have language troubles seldom receive bilingual education or remedial help, which is one reason they gravitate to scientific disciplines. A ‘glass ceiling' also seems to limit the earnings and promotion opportunities of Asian Pacific Americans in large companies; they hold less than 0.5 per cent of top management positions. Asians are also the targets of more bias-related harassment and violence than other urban minorities.

Current issues


The political participation of Asian Americans is increasing. In 2004, of the 6.3 million Asian Americans of voting age, 3.5 million were registered to vote, and 3 million turned out to vote. A growing number of Asian Americans also held public office. A 2006 Asian American Action Fund report found that in 2005, there were 555 Asian American elected officials, including two US senators, five US representatives, 64 state senators, 97 state representatives, three state governors, 19 city mayors, 123 city or county council members or other municipal elected officials, and 236 judges. But a survey by the Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund (AALDEF) noted that voting barriers were still in place, including institutional disenfranchisement and racially hostile voter intimidation. Asian candidates, too, were reported to suffer racial hostility. The FBI annual Hate Crime Statistics report found that of the 4,863 hate crimes based on racial bias reported in 2004, 252 (5.2%) were directed at Asian Americans.

A March 2008 report prepared jointly by New York University, the College Board and a commission of mostly Asian-American educators and community leaders, called into question the stereotype of the high achieving Asian-Pacific American student and warned that a homogeneous view masks real problems being experienced by this very diverse population group.

The report stresses that 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.

The report found that most of the bachelor’s degrees received by Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in 2003 were in business, management, social sciences or humanities and not in science, technology, engineering or math as is stereotypically perceived. Moreover although Asians earned 32 percent of the doctorate degrees in science related fields four of five degree recipients were international foreign students from Asia. and not Asian-Americans.

The report warned that 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.

The report also noted Asian-Americans are underrepresented in administrative jobs at colleges. Of the just over 4000 US college presidents Only 33, (fewer than 1 percent) are Asian-Pacific Americans compared to six percent for African Americans, while the overwhelming majority of college presidents (approx. 91%) were of Euro-American background.