Asian Americans, a group of people categorized by the United States Census Bureau as having origins to East Asia, Southeast Asia, or the Indian continent are oftentimes defined to a single category, overshadowing nuances within the diverse population. The term “Asian American” has been contested throughout its history and not always agreed upon by those whom it is meant to describe.
Asian Americans also have a complex history with the United States census. Studies have shown Asian Americans are the least likely demographic group to fill out the census. Factors for this include language access and concerns about what the information will be used for.
With this knowledge, Asian Americans canvased to get their community counted in the 2020 United States Census. With the work to get counted done, the 2020 U.S. Census Data and analysis by the New York Times shows a growing, complex population. In 2020, nearly 20 million people in the United States identify as Asian American, now the largest growing racial and ethnic group in the United States. The largest group of Asian origin people are Chinese Americans (24%), followed by Indian Americans (21%) and Filipino Americans (19%). People who identify as mixed race Asian make up 3.5 million people. The majority of Asian Americans were born in another country and are naturalized.
Overall, the census data shows household incomes for people of Asian descent are higher than the average US household income, however, that statistic alone does not show the economic variability within Asian American populations. Indian Americans are generally the wealthiest Asian Americans, with a medium household income of $123,700, and Bhutanese-descent have the lowest income, with a medium household income of $49,854.
The data also shows Asian Americans are not only located on the coasts and in cities, where historically large populations existed. The Asian American population has grown in all states and the District of Colombia since 2000, with the largest growth rate in North and South Dakota. Asian American businesses and cultural associations have increased in recent years in cities such as Fargo, North Dakota. Asian Americans point to many factors in building a life in the rural Midwest, such as pursuing education, job opportunities combined with low cost of living, and refugee resettlement. For example, in Grand Forks County, North Dakota, the largest Asian population is Bhutanese, which is also one of the largest refugee populations in North Dakota.
States such as North and South Dakota also have strong economic and cultural connections to countries and businesses in the Indo-Pacific. North Dakota businesses send 1.5 billion dollars of goods and services to the Indo-Pacific. In South Dakota, 58% of international students are from the Indo-Pacific. Many of these connections are based in food and agriculture. For example, in 2017, the United States Department of Agriculture led seven of North Dakota’s food companies on a mission to Manilla, Philippines to present their products to an emerging market. March of this year, CJ Foods, the US-based affiliate of South Korea’s CJ CheilJedang, announced plans to build a food production facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Whether it be place of residence, economic status, or racial/ethnic community, the growing Asian American population is diverse and complex. The 2020 United States Census data is an important reminder and opportunity to highlight the diversity of what it means to be Asian American.
Abbigail Hull is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington.