Demographics, Asian American

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Author: Ken Whalen
Editor: Lan Dong
Date: 2016
Asian American Culture: From Anime to Tiger Moms
Publisher: ABC-Clio
Series: Cultures of the American Mosaic
Document Type: Topic overview
Pages: 9
Content Level: (Level 5)

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Page 246

Demographics, Asian American

Demographic characteristics of Asian Americans depend on how the particular institution or organization conducting population surveys define them. Every decade since 1790, the U.S. Census Bureau has collected, analyzed, and represented statistical information on the composition of people living in the United States. The reports published by the Census Bureau are the most cited, comprehensive, and reliable source of information on U.S. population metrics. Other organizations such as the Pew Research Center and the United Nations Statistics Division also conduct population surveys. While relying on the Census Bureau’s methodological guidelines and its findings, these organizations Page 247  |  Top of Articlesupplement the Census Bureau’s findings with other kinds of demographic information. Here, what is most significant about the guidelines followed by the Census Bureau are the ever-changing classification schemes that since the survey’s inception have determined individuals’ race, color, ethnicity, and/or nationality and therefore who is an Asian American and what the group’s demographic characteristics are. All figures cited in this essay are from U.S. Census Bureau data.

The census’s classification of individuals according to physiological features, geographical origins, or cultural customs has always been controversial, as a few highlights within the historical record will suggest. Racial profiling of Asian immigrants began in the late 19th century, when all East Asians were labeled Chinese with a capital “C” in the questionnaire. Later Chinese and Japanese people, the largest populations of Asians in the United States at the time, were categorized as distinct groups. During the early 20th century, “Hin” for Hindu, “Kor” for Korean, and “Fil” for Filipino were shorthand additions to the question on color or race. Soon after, the Census Bureau removed the word “color” from the racial question as well as Hindu and Korean from the answer choices. By the mid-20th century, the racial question became one of national origin; it was later revised and its categories reduced to Asian American and U.S. Asian of all ages regardless of national status, including U.S. citizenship. People from the regions of South, Central, and Southwest Asia were classified as white. In the most recent U.S. census (2010), there are several options in the race category because the Census Bureau assumes that race categories include both racial and national-origin groups. The classification scheme for Asian Americans is as follows: Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and other Asian, with a space to print race (e.g., Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, and Cambodian).

Since the late 18th century, the U.S. federal government and state governments have enacted legislation that has affected the demographic characteristics of Asian Americans. Much of this policy has been directed at Asians and applied to specific subgroups within this population during particular periods in U.S. history. Perhaps the most significant laws, or at least those that have had a major impact on the number of Asians in the United States at any given time, are as follows: the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), the Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson-Reed Act), the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (the McCarran-Walter Act), and the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965.

Government legislation and classification schemes have helped shape contemporary Asian American demographic patterns and trends. Perhaps the most fundamental of these is population size. In the 21st century, the Asian Page 248  |  Top of ArticleAmerican population has become the fastest growing of all racial/ethnic groups, more so than the other fast-growing group, Latinos. The pace that leads to this phenomenon was set in the 1950s, when the annual rate of growth was 15,000 persons per year. During the decade of the 1960s it grew to 43,000 per year and during the 1970s swelled to 160,000. By the 1980s, 274,000 Asians were entering the country every year. In 2010, Asian Americans made up almost 6 percent of the U.S. population; in 1965 the share was 1 percent in 2010, three-quarters were foreign born. Most lived along the U.S. Pacific Rim and Hawai‘i and preferred to live in urban areas and amid the general population.

Chinese Americans

With a population of 4,010,114, Chinese Americans are the largest subgroup of Asian Americans in the United States and represent almost a quarter of that group’s population. The Chinese began arriving on the shores of North America around the mid-19th century. The major impetus was the California Gold Rush that began in 1848 and lasted until 1855. The next pull came with the construction of the transcontinental railroad, which began in 1862 and took about seven years to complete. In 1865, 3,000 Chinese were on the Central Pacific payroll; that number increased to 12,000 by 1867. The Chinese moved on to other occupations once the trains began to roll, but their presence on what must have been considered Euro-American soil began to irk the government and its constituents. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur.

The government repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, but a quota was fixed at 105 visas per year. Then the government passed the Soldier Brides Acts in 1947, which temporarily lifted restrictions on immigration to the United States of Asian spouses of American soldiers and their children. The creation of the communist state of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 led the U.S. government to again modify immigration policy, thus opening its borders to more Chinese immigrants, now considered displaced persons or refugees.

In the United States at the time, the ratio of Chinese men to women was somewhat skewed at 168:100—a legacy of the Chinese bachelor society that existed during the earlier years of Chinese settlement. The new policies, including the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, did much to balance gender distribution so that by 1990 the ratio became 99:100. This also gradually decreased the number of U.S.-born ethnic Chinese to 30 percent, which indicates a major influx of Chinese during the latter part of the 20th century.

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Most of the Chinese who have settled in the United States came from one of three areas of East Asia: Guangzhou and Fujian Provinces of mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Today they migrate from other Asian countries and typically end up in the states of California, New York, and Hawai‘i. Unskilled newcomers tend to settle in long-established enclaves or Chinatowns located in major cities where their inability to speak and comprehend English is less of a burden, whereas skilled workers and professionals having higher social and economic status reside in satellite Chinatowns, also called ethno burbs, or in multicultural residential neighborhoods.

Filipino Americans

The largest and fastest-growing subgroup of Asian Americans is Filipinos. The latter is true only when considering that many also identify themselves in the U.S. census as Chinese. The so-called Manila Men were the first Asians to arrive in the Americas. They rode the Spanish galleons to the region, which was the crossroads of the Spanish Empire, and hopped off in Acapulco, California, or the Mississippi Delta. In 1898, the Philippines became a colony of the United States as a result of the Spanish-American War. Filipinos were then considered nationals and allowed to travel and stay in the United States. Those who came worked as farm laborers and in the fishing industries of the Northwest. Others were students schooled in the finer points of democratic governance. By 1910, there were 2,767 registered Filipino Americans; by the 1920s, there were 26,634.

The Immigration Act of 1924 had little effect on Filipino naturalization, even though the law mandated a national origins quota system that restricted “Orientals” (Asians) from entering the country. By the early 1930s, the Filipino population was 108,424. Yet when the U.S. government later reclassified the Philippines as a commonwealth, it also recast Filipinos as “aliens.” This was done through the enforcement of the Tydings-McDuffie Act, which also imposed an annual quota of 100 Filipinos beginning in 1935. In fact, the government seemed so desperate to rid the country of aliens that they offered Filipinos free passage back to the Philippines; this inducement was a cornerstone of the Repatriation Act of 1935.

The exigencies of World War II’s Pacific theater prompted the U.S. government to give U.S. citizenship to Filipinos and other aliens who fought alongside American soldiers and sailors. Following the War Brides Act of 1945, almost 52,000 of an estimated 300,000 foreign war brides who entered the country were Filipinos.

Yet once again, this time in 1954, the tide turned against Filipino immigration. Not only was a new quota scheme introduced with the Immigration Page 250  |  Top of Articleand Nationality Act of 1952 (also known as the McCarran-Walter Act), but the government also revoked entitlements given to Filipino World War II veterans. During the next 10 years the population grew to only 250,000. However, 10 years into the 21st century that number had grown to 3,416,840, thereby constituting 19.7 percent of the contemporary Asian American population. One reason for this astounding increase has been the Philippine government’s lucrative program of development diplomacy, which involves the education and exportation of skilled and semiskilled contract workers, particularly in the health care and domestic service industries, and the importation of remittances. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 also facilitated this increase by easing entry requirements for skilled Filipino laborers and raising quotas of Eastern Hemisphere countries, including the Philippines, to 20,000 a year.

Asian Indian Americans

The first people of East Indian descent, specifically from the Punjab region of the Subcontinent, settled on the West Coast of North America. Today the majority of Indian Americans live and work in the U.S. Northeast, an unusual geographical characteristic among Asian Americans. The Punjabis who came were mostly male, Sikh, and indentured. They worked in lumber mills, on railroad construction crews, and as farm laborers. Later, men from rural Gujarat and Bengal would also risk the trip to the United States to find better-paying jobs. Indian Americans are now the most educated of Asian Americans and have established themselves in the medical, scientific, and engineering professions. As such, they also maintain the highest median household income among this demographic cohort. The world’s leading universities, biotech laboratories, medical facilities, and engineering firms prosper in the northeast megalopolis, which is probably why many Indian Americans live in the region.

In 1899, fewer than 2,000 Indians made the West Coast their home. Economic competition with working-class Euro-Americans and racism led to labor restrictions for Indian workers. The U.S. government even created an Asiatic Barred Zone, stipulated in the Immigration Act of 1917. This prohibited the emigration of all people from Asia except those from certain parts of the Far East. American intolerance convinced many Indians to return to the land of their ancestors. Just after World War II, however, immigration policy changed: Indians were now permitted to become naturalized, while a quota was set up that allowed 100 potential citizens to enter the country.

In 1970 the Indian government created a special category of immigrants, nonresident Indians, to stimulate economic investment in the country by Page 251  |  Top of Articleexpatriated Indians who had the right to own property, open bank accounts, and vote in elections but were not required to pay income tax in India on foreign-earned income. This coupled with the demands of the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 made the United States an appealing place for Indians to relocate. By the 1980s there were 300,000 Indian Americans, and a decade later there were 800,000; that number doubled the following decade. According to the U.S. census of 2010, there were 3,183,063 Indian Americans (18.4 percent of the Asian American population).

Vietnamese Americans

Economic advancement has been relatively rapid for Vietnamese Americans. The first to arrive in the United States came during the Vietnam War (1964–1974), and most were educated and skilled. The first significant population to reach the United States came soon after the war, when communist forces overran Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975. With that the U.S. government put through the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act and then in 1980 the Refugee Assistance Act. What followed was an exodus from Vietnam that lasted into the 1990s. Most refugees were unskilled and unprepared for the demands of American industries; therefore, poverty rates were initially high. In short order, though, the Vietnamese work ethic would change this as more and more entered the workforce, particularly the manufacturing sector of the economy, and strove for the American Dream.

Between 1975 and 1995, over 2 million Vietnamese were refugees in various countries around the world. About 800,000 Vietnamese fled Vietnam by boat, thus the moniker “boat people,” and were placed in refugee camps in neighboring countries of Southeast Asia. About 700,000 Vietnamese and 500,000 Cambodians and Laotians would resettle in the United States. Some were known as Amerasians—children born in Vietnam whose mothers were Vietnamese and fathers were most likely American soldiers.

By the turn of the century, the population reached almost 1.25 million. The gain was mostly due to family sponsorship rather than political asylum. The majority have settled in California, where just outside of the city of Los Angeles they have cultivated a “Little Saigon,” which sustains the densest population of Vietnamese Americans in the United States. Other major cities with thriving Vietnamese communities are San Francisco and Washington, D.C. According to the 2010 census, the states of Texas, Washington, Florida, Massachusetts, and Virginia claim most of the 1,737,433 Vietnamese Americans, 10 percent of the total population of Asian Americans.

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Korean Americans

The most geographically dispersed of all Asian Americans are Koreans. Although 45 percent of Koreans live on the West Coast, where in Los Angeles stands the best known of American Koreatowns, they nevertheless reside in various cities and suburbs across America’s heartland. There many have perfected the craft of entrepreneurialism by owning and managing businesses mostly in the service and retail industries.

The first Koreans to immigrate to North America were ginseng merchants and students making their way during the late 19th century. In 1903, Japanese farmhands in Hawai‘i and on the West Coast went on strike. Christian missionaries and agribusiness recruiters colluded to import 7,000 Korean workers, 90 percent of whom were men, to replace the protesting Japanese laborers. The Gentlemen’s Agreement (1907) signed by the Japanese and U.S. governments would end Korean immigration for the time being except for thousands of Japanese picture brides permitted into Hawai‘i and the United States. Since Korea had become a protectorate of the budding Japanese Empire in 1905, Korean women were considered Japanese and therefore eligible brides.

The Korean War (1950–1953) and the Cold War initiated a sharp rise in Korean migration. Between 1950 and the early 1960s, 18,000 newcomers including war brides, students, and orphans entered the country. Their families would follow once the Immigration Act of 1965 became law. In the 1970s, restrictions on immigration were imposed across the board; only those with specific knowledge and skills were allowed to settle in the United States. The latest flow of Koreans was mostly middle-class urbanites seeking educational and economic opportunities. During the 1970s and up to the mid-1980s, about 30,000 Koreans entered every year. The last U.S. census (2010) puts the Korean American population at 1,706,822, 79 percent of whom are foreign born. Koreans make up 9.9 percent of the Asian American population and are therefore the fifth-largest subgroup within this demographic category.

Japanese Americans

Up until the 1990s, Japanese Americans were one of the largest populations of Asian Americans in the United States. With the recent influx of others from the Asian realm and the return to Japan of older Japanese wanting to spend their remaining years in their ancestral homeland, the number of Japanese Americans has dwindled to about 7.5 percent of the overall Asian American Page 253  |  Top of Articlepopulation according to the 2010 census. The population has for several years hovered around 1.3 million.

Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868) and rapid industrial development inspired friendly relations with the United States. By the latter part of the 19th century, Japanese men, including Okinawans whose independent island was annexed by Japan at the time, were hired to work on pineapple and sugar plantations in Hawai‘i and farmlands in California. Japanese could also sharecrop and rent land for agricultural ventures. They also were hired to replace Chinese workers once the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was enforced. Because of racial violence, many West Coast Chinese fled toward the Eastern Seaboard.

Soon racial animosity was directed at the increasingly prosperous Japanese. In this case, the upshot was a so-called gentlemen’s agreement signed between the United States and Japan. The latter would curtail immigration to the United States including from Korea, which was a protectorate of the Japanese Empire, and the United States would grant entry to picture brides, whose children could become U.S. citizens. Then in 1913 the State of California passed the Alien Act, which prohibited those of Japanese descent from purchasing land. The coup de grâce of the American ideal “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” was the Immigration Act of 1924, with its all-out ban on Asian newcomers. World War II (1942–1945) brought on another reminder that ideals are made to be broken. After the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed Pearl Harbor, Hawai‘i, in 1941, as many as 120,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up by the federal government and sent to internment camps, where they were held for the remainder of the war. After the war, though, alien spouses of American soldiers who served during the war were welcomed into the United States with the passing of the War Brides Act.

Today, the agricultural traditions of Japanese Americans and the communities they have formed continue to be a vibrant part of the economies of California and Washington and in particular Hawai‘i, where 20 percent of the population is of Japanese descent.

Ken Whalen

Further Reading

“The Asian Population: 2010.” U.S. Census Bureau, March 5, 2014, .

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Lee, Sharon M. “Asian Americans: Diverse and Growing.” Population Bulletin 53 (June 1998): 2–40.

“The Rise of Asian Americans.” Pew Research Center, June 19, 2012, .

“U.S. Hispanic and Asian Populations Growing, but for Different Reasons.” Pew Research Center, June 26, 2014, .

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX6495400072