May 28, 2021

'Asian American': A Name that Belies a Diverse Community

Asian Americans have been a part of this nation’s history since its very beginning. Though U.S. immigration policies have influenced from where and how people from all parts of Asia have arrived in the U.S., for generations, Asian Americans have played an integral part of building this country. Their experience in the U.S. — how they are treated, their ability to achieve economic success, and the extent to which they can fully participate in all aspects of American society — is inextricably tied to global politics and events. As a result, different Asian immigrant groups at different points in time have been in the spotlight in American discourse and policy, either as targets of suspicion or exemplars of the American ideal. 


The Asian American population is far from being a monolith. The Pew Research Center reports that the Asian American population, totaling 23 million, represents more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. The Asian American population in the U.S. is also growing fast — surpassing the growth rate of any other racial or ethnic group between 2000 and 2019.

Though the exact composition of the Asian American population is slightly different in the U.S. and in Florida, as shown in Figure 1 below, six countries of origin account for 85 percent of the population.

The Asian American population in Florida is also increasing faster than it is in the nation as a whole. Between 2011 and 2019, the Asian American population in Florida increased 35 percent, compared to 27 percent nationwide. As illustrated in Figure 2, each of the top countries of origin saw increases during this time period.

There is also significant variation in the socioeconomic status of Asian American groups. As Erika Lee describes in The Making of Asian America, “Asian Americans are in fact what some call a ‘community of contrasts,’ with significant diversity and disparities within and between different groups.” Census data bears this out. Though on the whole Asian Americans have higher household incomes than the U.S. average, certain Asian American groups, such as Burmese and Nepalese households, fall significantly below the average. The same is true for Asian Americans living in poverty. While the overall poverty rate among Asian Americans (10 percent) is less than the national average (13 percent), some groups have significantly higher poverty rates such as Bangladeshi and Pakistani Americans (19 percent and 15 percent, respectively).

As a growing population both in Florida and the U.S., it is important not to paint the entire Asian American population with a broad brush. These data show that Asian Americans are diverse and represent dozens of cultures, languages, histories, and identities — and along with this diversity comes unique experiences and challenges as Americans.

A Community in Question

Asians have been migrating to the U.S. for generations, with earlier arrivals coming from China, Japan, Korea, and India to work as laborers and farmers in the 1800s. The most significant catalyst for Asian migration to the U.S. in recent history was the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which fundamentally changed the nature and flow of immigration. It prioritized immigration based on family reunification and professional skills, and for the first time enacted a cap on immigration from the Western Hemisphere. This Act, along with the 1990 Immigration Act, opened the doors for Asians from a vast array of backgrounds to make their home in the U.S.

Throughout this history, Asian Americans have faced significant prejudice and barriers to opportunity through policies that reinforced structural racism. The perception and treatment of Asian Americans has also fluctuated with global events, often causing them to be looked upon with suspicion and with questions about their allegiance to the U.S. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II are some of the more well known and overt instances of policies targeting Asian Americans. But there were many other ways that Asian Americans were barred from full participation in American life, the legacy of which persists today.

One example here in Florida is the 2018 repeal of the state’s “Alien Land Law.” These laws were passed in many states during the 1920s, specifically to bar Chinese and Japanese immigrants from owning land. Florida’s Alien Land Law, passed in 1926, stated:

All natural persons, female and male alike, are equal before the law and have inalienable rights, among which are the right to enjoy and defend life and liberty, to pursue happiness, to be rewarded for industry, and to acquire, possess and protect property; except that the ownership, inheritance, disposition and possession of real property by aliens ineligible for citizenship may be regulated or prohibited by law.

As the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of South Florida explains, the term “aliens ineligible for citizenship” was a euphemism for Asian immigrants. At the time that these laws were passed, the U.S. had only extended citizenship to African Americans, while other ethnic groups were prohibited — namely Chinese and Japanese immigrants. Though immigration laws eventually removed the barriers to citizenship based on race or ethnicity, the state constitution kept this vestige of racism for far too long. In fact, Florida was the last state to repeal its Alien Land Law.

Model Minorities, Sleeper Cells, and the China Virus

As mentioned above, Asian Americans’ acceptance as “real” Americans has always been tenuous. Global forces and events can turn perceptions of Asian Americans in an instant, with real-life impacts for Asian Americans.

Even a seemingly positive portrayal of Asian Americans as “model minorities” is part and parcel of the same racist beliefs that deemed the Chinese immigrants a “Yellow Peril” leading to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Model minorities, so the thinking goes, are from certain Asian cultures with values that are “superior” to others, thus enabling people from those cultures to “rise above discrimination through hard work” to achieve economic and social  success. This stereotype not only glosses over the disparities with the Asian American population, it is also rooted in anti-Black racism and pits communities of color against each other.

The model minority myth has persisted alongside other insidious stereotypes of Asian Americans. After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and subsequent War on Terror, South Asian Americans from a variety of religious backgrounds were targeted as domestic terrorists. In that moment, the “American-ness” of South Asian Americans became suspect, despite the economic and professional success many had achieved in the U.S. Fears of homegrown terrorists and sleeper cells fueled a rise in hate crimes. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that in the six years following the September 11 attacks, the department investigated over 800 incidents of violence against individuals who were “perceived to be Muslim or Sikh, or of Arab, Middle Eastern, or South Asian Origin.”

Most recently, the global COVID-19 pandemic has put Asian Americans in the spotlight. Rhetoric surrounding the pandemic and its suspected origins, using names like the “China virus,” served to construct China the public enemy, and by extension cast suspicion once again on Chinese and other Asian Americans. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism published an analysis showing that anti-Asian hate crimes increased 149 percent in 2020, while overall hate crimes decreased 7 percent. This year saw the shooting at three Atlanta spas, killing eight people, including six Asian women, and spurring the #StopAsianHate movement. 

Redefining the Asian American Identity

Despite their fraught history, Asian Americans have forged a unique identity that celebrates their diversity and they have found common ground with other communities of color in the struggle for justice and equity. As Erika Lee describes , “After decades of being lumped together by the media and lawmakers as undifferentiated ‘Orientals’ who were threats to American Society, a new generation willingly and consciously joined together as self-identified Asian Americans to promote multi-ethnic alliances and action.”

Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month
was borne out of this effort to reclaim the Asian American identity. It began in 1972 as a week and expanded in 1992 to a month-long celebration of the spectrum of cultures and backgrounds that Asian and Pacific Americans represent. While it certainly does not resolve the long history of racism toward people of Asian heritage, it is one part of an effort to expand the Asian American narrative.

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