Alternative names: Asian-Pacific-Americans, various specific names e.g. Chinese-Americans, Korean-Americans etc.
Location: all-USA, concentration on west coast
Population: about 6.5 million
% of population: 2.7%
Religion: various
Language: English, various Asian languages

“Asian-American” and more recently “Asian-Pacific-American” are the generic terms used to describe the various communities within the USA which have their ethnic origins in Asia. Apart from their immigrant Asian origins and a common experience of discrimination (which however does vary considerably in time, place and intensity between communities) the various communities differ in language, religion, culture and their experiences in the USA.

Some Asian-American communities have long been established in the USA, especially Chinese and Japanese immigrants, many of whom came at the end of the nineteenth and beginnings of the twentieth centuries, mainly as manual labourers to the west coast and Hawaii. But the repeal of racially biased immigration legislation in 1965, together with a large-scale intake of Indo-Chinese refugees from 1975, significantly altered both the numbers and ethnic profile of Asian-Americans. According to the 1980 census 21% of Asian-Americans were of Chinese origin, 20% were Filipino, 15% Japanese, 12% Vietnamese, 11% Korean, 10% Asian-Indian and the remainder from elsewhere in Asia. Over the past decade the proportions have altered and the largest group is now Filipino rather than Chinese while the numbers of Vietnamese and Koreans are greater than those of Japanese.

Collectively Asian-Americans are the fastest growing group of the American population. Forty per cent of the USA’s annual intake of 600,000 immigrants comes from Asia and Pacific island countries. Half of all Indo-Chinese refugees are in the USA and there are continuing refugee resettlement and family reunion programmes which will result in an intake of over 30,000 per year for several more years. Although Asian-Americans are found throughout the USA, half the Asian-American population today lives in California or Hawaii.

Asian-Americans are often described as a “model minority” — educated, hard working, unassertive. Asian-Americans do appear to have some of these characteristics. The 1980 census found that Asian-American families had a median income of $23,600 compared to $20,800 for white families. This figure reflected higher Asian levels of education and professional qualifications and higher household work participation rates. Both indigenous Asian communities and immigrants are more likely to have had a graduate education than other groups and to encourage their children to do well educationally.

Yet these figures also hide disparities. Chinese-Americans, Japanese-Americans and Asian-Indian-Americans do better than average in education and income; Korean-Americans and Filipino-Americans also do better than average but not so well as the other three groups; while the Indo-Chinese have generally done poorly. Korean-Americans have tended to work in small family businesses, often inner-city grocery stores, but the next generation is likely to be more oriented towards the professions. Filipino-American immigrants, despite an education in English and experience of American culture, tend to be employed in manual and service jobs. In both the Korean and Filipino communities, women outnumber men, which is a factor in their lower average earnings.

The first group of Vietnamese refugees in 1975 have generally done well educationally and in business. Later refugees, mostly farmers, fishermen and small traders, have lacked the language, skills and capital to reach the same levels. Probably the worst off are the smaller communities of Hmong (Hill Tribe people) from Laos and Cambodian refugees.

Asian-Americans face varying levels of discrimination. There have been sporadic violent attacks on different groups, particularly from economically depressed whites or blacks who see low-wage unskilled Asians as economic competition. On a different level there is alleged to be a “glass ceiling” which limits the earnings and promotion opportunities of Asian-Americans in large companies. While Asian-Americans have done well in professions such as medicine, engineering or computing, there are few in the top echelons of management or government. Most recently there have been allegations that some universities and colleges are attempting to limit their intakes of Asian students.

(See also Japanese-Americans)