(January 2004) Asians in the Americas date back to the arrival of Chinese and Filipino crews of the galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco starting in the 16th century. Many of these sailors jumped ship and migrated north and east to the United States. Some established communities along the Gulf of Mexico, such as the Louisiana Manilamen, which produced over 10 generations of Filipino-American descendants.

Historically, reasons for the migration of Asians to the United States were similar in some ways to those for the Atlantic migration of Europeans — to escape from poverty and civil war and to find employment, opportunity, and freedom. Chinese laborers were recruited to build the transcontinental railroad in the mid-19th century and provide domestic services in cities such as San Francisco. They were followed by the Japanese and Filipinos in the early 20th century who labored in Hawaiian plantations, California farms, and Alaskan canneries. Of these early Asian Americans, only the Japanese were allowed to immigrate as families at the insistence of the Japanese government. For these early generations, Asians in America were largely bachelor communities of temporary sojourners, with male to female ratios as high as 10-to-1. Asian-American children in those early years were rare.

Through 1960, the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos represented the majority of the Asian-American population, but together they were less than half a percent of the U.S. population. Through the 1970 Census, the majority of the Asian-American population was U.S.-born.

Since 1970, the demography of this population has changed tremendously. In 2002, Asian Americans were slightly more than 4 percent of the U.S. population. The growth of the Asian-American population since 1970 is due in great part to the elimination of exclusionary immigration policies that existed before 1965, implementation of new refugee statutes directly flowing from the Vietnam War, and the rise of second and subsequent U.S.-born generations. In 1970, there were 1.5 million Asian Americans counted in the census, compared with the 11.6 million (race alone) to 13.1 million (race alone or in combination) in 2002. Depending on which 2002 numbers are used, this amounts to an eightfold to ninefold increase in little more than 30 years.

The population growth since 1970 has been accompanied by tremendous ethnic diversity due to immigration from many countries in the Asian continent — Korea, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and others. The five largest Asian population groups counted in Census 2000 are shown in this table:

Five Largest Asian Groups in the United States, 2000

Asian Group Race Alone Race Alone or in Combination
Chinese (not including Taiwanese) 2.3 million 2.7 million
Filipino 1.9 million 2.4 million
Asian Indian 1.7 million 1.9 million
Vietnamese 1.1 million 1.2 million
Korean 1.1 million 1.2 million

While the majority of the Asian-American population today is foreign-born, the Asian-American population will eventually shift back to mainly U.S.-born as the children of today’s immigrants mature.

In contrast to their predominantly rural U.S. history, Asian Americans are now the most urbanized U.S. population, with about 95 percent living in urban rather than rural residences. Asian Americans continue to be geographically concentrated in the West Coast and Hawaii. More than one-third of single-race Asian Americans (4.1 million) live in California, and an additional 538,000 call Hawaii home, but sizable numbers live in other large states such as New York (1.2 million), Texas (649,000), Illinois (481,000), and Florida (316,000). There are almost 800,000 (single-race) Asians in New York City alone — this is more than twice the number in Los Angeles. Like Latinos, many Asian Americans are also migrating into interior states with growth in the South, Midwest, and mountain regions.

Asian-American children, along with other children of color, are a rapidly growing proportion of all U.S. children. In 1990, there were fewer than 2.0 million Asian-American children under age 18 — 3.1 percent of all children. By 2000, there were between 2.5 million (race alone) and 3.2 million (race alone or in combination) Asian-American children — between 3.4 percent and 4.5 percent of all children (again depending on which number is used for 2000).

Asian-American children are notable in many ways:

  • They are quite diverse by religion, language, and ethnicity.
  • They represent the greatest proportion of children of interracial unions.
  • They reside primarily in urban areas.
  • They live in less-segregated neighborhoods.

A high proportion of Asian-American children live in married-couple families. Thus far, young Asian Americans exhibit strong family ties, including extended and multigenerational families, but some Asian Americans worry that their children will become “Americanized,” experiencing higher divorce rates and putting a lower priority on family relationships.

Asian Americans have the dubious distinction of being labeled a “model minority” — based on their stereotype as overachievers and as models to other racial minority groups. The model-minority stereotype is a persistent social issue that has important implications for Asian-American children. First, expectations of all Asian-American children (and adults) are initially higher than for other population groups, and this exacerbates the reality that American children are not all playing on the same level field. Second, many overachieving Asian-American children feel they are never good enough, as the bar for achievement continues to be raised. Third, Asian-American children who do not fit the model-minority stereotype are treated as underachievers, resulting in low self-esteem and self-worth.

At this point in U.S. history, Asian Americans are the most diverse racial/ethnic group in the United States in terms of language, religion, and customs. They are a relatively small proportion of the population, but they have a history of collaboration and coalition work extending from Maui to Manhattan, forming diverse groups at local to international levels.

Juanita Tamayo Lott is author of Asian Americans: From Racial Category to Multiple Identities (Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press, 1998). This article is excerpted from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Pocket Guide “Asian-American Children: State-Level Measures of Child Well-Being From the 2000 Census,” to be published in February 2004. The full text of this publication will be on the foundation’s KIDS COUNT website: www.kidscount.org.