The following excerpt is from the report A Demographic Portrait of Asian Americans, by Yu Xie and Kimberly Goyette and published by the Russell Sage Foundation and the Population Reference Bureau. This report is one of several in the new series The American People, which sets the results of Census 2000 in context and collectively provides a portrait of the American people in a new century. Each report is written by an author or team of authors selected for their expertise with the data and their broad understanding of the implications of demographic trends.

(October 2004) Asian Americans are a diverse group who either are descendants of immigrants from some part of Asia or are themselves such immigrants. They come from East Asia (China, Japan, and Korea); Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam); and South Asia (Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan). Cultural heritage, economic conditions, political systems, religious practices, and languages are quite different across these countries and, in some cases, have changed over time. As a result, ethnic differences among Asian Americans are so large that they call into question the use of a single, overarching category to group them (see table).


Asian American Population by Major Ethnicity: 1980, 1990, and 2000 Censuses

1980 Census 1990 Census 2000 Census
Race/Ethnicity Number % Number % Number %
Total U.S. Population 226,545,805 248,709,873 281,421,906
Asian Americans 3,259,519 1.4 6,908,638 2.8 11,070,913 3.9
Chinese 806,040 0.4 1,645,472 0.7 2,633,849 0.9
Japanese 700,974 0.3 847,562 0.3 958,945 0.3
Filipino 774,652 0.3 1,406,770 0.6 2,089,701 0.7
Korean 354,593 0.2 798,849 0.3 1,148,951 0.4
Asian Indian 361,531 0.2 815,447 0.3 1,785,336 0.6
Vietnamese 261,729 0.1 614,547 0.3 1,171,776 0.4
Other Asian 806,040 0.4 2,425,463 1.0 3,916,204 1.4

Note: To be consistent with the 1980 and 1990 censuses, multiracial and multiethnic Asian Americans in the 2000 Census were allocated evenly to their approiate categories following the 50 percent rule.
Sources: Summary reports from the 1980 and 1990 U.S. Censuses; and calculations based on J.S. Barnes and C.E. Bennett, The Asian Population: 2000 (2002).


The broad category of Asian Americans is used for several reasons. Besides the practical need to collapse racial categories in statistical tabulations, there are also many ways in which Asian Americans are distinct from other major racial groups in the United States. First, Asian Americans are physically and culturally distinguishable from whites and other minorities. Second, except for those of Japanese descent, most Asian Americans arrived in the United States recently, as beneficiaries of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act (Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Asian Indians) or as refugees (Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians). Finally, again with the exception of Japanese Americans, most Asian Americans speak their native languages at home and maintain their distinct ethnic cultures and values, signaling that they either face difficulties fully assimilating into the American mainstream or purposefully resist full assimilation. Asian Americans have socioeconomic experiences and demographic profiles that are overall distinct from those of whites and blacks.

With available census data and supplemental material, the full report documents racial differences in demographic and socioeconomic characteristics between Asian and non-Asian Americans, as well as ethnic differences in these characteristics among Asian Americans. The report begins with an historical review of the immigration history of the major Asian groups. It then examines the educational achievements of Asian Americans relative to whites and blacks and across Asian ethnicities over the past 40 years; the labor force outcomes of Asian Americans relative to whites and blacks and variations across Asian ethnicities over time; Asian Americans’ family characteristics and marriage patterns; and spatial distribution and residential patterns in the United States.


Yu Xie holds several faculty appointments at the University of Michigan. He is Otis Dudley Duncan Professor of Sociology and Statistics and Research Professor in the Survey Research Center and the Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research, where he directs the Quantitative Methodology Program. He is also a faculty associate at the Center for Chinese Studies. Kimberly A. Goyette is an assistant professor of sociology at Temple University.