The town of Palisades Park, New Jersey, sits close to the George Washington Bridge, one of the main commuter thoroughfares into New York. Until the 1980s, the town was mostly Italian-American, with inexpensive houses and its share of vacant storefronts and buildings. But now, Korean language signs and bustling shops are tangible evidence that this town is home to the densest concentration of Korean Americans in the United States. More than 44 percent of the town’s population is now Korean American, reports the New York Times, up from 31 percent in 2000.
The story of Palisades Park mirrors the explosion of Koreans in America over the last four decades. In the 1970s, there were about 100,000 Korean Americans but by 2009 that number had skyrocketed to an estimated 1.35 million, according to a new report by Larry Shinagawa and Chang Won Lee of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland. The report, based on a new sampling of US Census Bureau data, shows that Koreans account for about one in ten Asian Americans and about 0.4% of the overall US population. Interestingly, immigration patterns are also changing. Thirty years ago, most Korean Americans were US-born, but today nearly three in four Korean Americans are foreign born immigrants. This contributes to making the United States home to the second largest diaspora community of Koreans in the world, after China.
Data from the Korea Matters for America project shows that Koreans are the fifth largest Asian American community after Chinese, Indians, Filipinos and Vietnamese. Three in five Korean Americans live in one of six states: California, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Illinois, and Texas.
As is typical for some other Asian American groups, many Korea Americans are doing very well. As a bloc, Korean Americans have lower than average unemployment numbers. They also have much higher average household wealth than the general US population, though much of this is because the vast majority of Korean Americans live in urban, high-cost areas. Yet, Korean Americans have lower rates of labor force participation, particularly among women (65% participation vs. 73% US average for women). At the very lowest levels of wealth, Korean Americans have a much higher poverty rate than other Asian American groups and the general US population, especially among the elderly.
In civic life, Korean Americans show a mixed level of involvement. On the one hand, Korean Americans are much more likely to become naturalized American citizens: half of Korean Americans obtained their citizenship through naturalization, much higher than for other ethnic groups. Yet, Korean Americans still have relatively low levels of civic participation. In Palisades Park, Korean Americans make up 44 percent of the population but only 25 percent of the voters. And it was less than twenty years ago that Jay Kim, the first Korean American Congressman was elected to represent California’s newly-created 41st congressional district. Kim was the first Korean to be elected to a national political office outside of Korea. Less ceremoniously, he would later plead guilty to accepting $230,000 in illegal campaign donations, a record for campaign violations at the time.
With the influx of Koreans, communities have occasionally encountered problems. Jason Kim, a city council member in Palisades Park, said that when Koreans first started moving in, neighbors were welcoming. But as more came, tensions mounted. Neighbors complained when Korean-owned businesses posted Korean-only signs. Korean restaurateurs, for their part, fought for years to stay open 24 hours a day, just as American eateries could. Eventually, however, the two groups found common ground or left the area. Korean businesses began to post bilingual signs, eager to not only mollify critics but also to expand their customer base beyond the Korean American community. These and other efforts seem to have paid off. Now, the community has overcome its “cultural clash”, Mr. Kim says, and “we are really working along very well.”
There are thirteen times more Koreans in American now than there were 40 years ago and that number is likely to further increase. Koreans make up, along with Hispanics and other Asians, the new face of immigration that will shape the demographics of the United States for generations to come.
The report by Larry Shinagawa and Chang Won Lee can be downloaded here: Korea Americans in a New Century. It is well worth reading with excellent charts throughout.