Accurately Counting Asian Americans Is a Civil Rights Issue (Jennifer Lee, Karthick Ramakrishnan and Janelle Wong)


1. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing group in the United States, increasing from 0.7 percent in 1970 to nearly 6 percent in 2016. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2065, Asian Americans will constitute 14 percent of the U.S. population. Immigration is fueling this growth: China and India have passed Mexico as the top countries sending immigrants to the United States since 2013. Today, two of three Asian Americans are foreign born--a figure that increases to nearly four of five among Asian American adults. The rise in numbers is accompanied by a rise in diversity: Asian Americans are the most diverse U.S. racial group, comprising twenty-four detailed origins with vastly different migration histories and socioeconomic profiles. In this article, we explain how the unique characteristics of Asian Americans affect their patterns of ethnic and racial self-identification, which, in turn, present challenges for accurately counting this population. We conclude by discussing policy ramifications of our findings, and explain why data disaggregation is a civil rights issue.

2. Keywords: Asian Americans; immigration; race; ethnicity; identity; civil rights


3. Comprising twenty-four detailed origins with vastly different migration histories, Asian Americans evince socioeconomic and political outcomes at both extremes of the spectrum, including educational attainment, median household income, health status, poverty levels, civic participation, and naturalization (Foner 2010; Kao and Tienda 1998; Kasinitz et al. 2008; Kibria 2003; Louie 2004; Min 2005; Portes and Rumbaut 2006; Ramakrishnan et al. 2012; Ramakrishnan and Shah 2017; Wong 2018; Wong et al. 2011; Zhou and Bankston 1998). For example, Indians, Chinese, and Koreans attain higher levels of education than all other U.S. groups, including native-born whites (Lee and Zhou 2015). By contrast, Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong are less likely to complete high school than AFRICAN AMERICANS and Latinos: 40 percent of Hmong Americans do not graduate from high school, and just 14 percent have a bachelor's degree--half the national average (Ramakrishnan and Ahmad 2014).

4. Second, Asian Americans are the most diverse racial group in the United States with respect to national origin, migration history, and socioeconomic and political status. While some arrive as poorly educated refugees from war-torn countries, others migrate through employer sponsored H-1B visas. The differences in migration histories manifest in socioeconomic outcomes at the extremes with respect to educational attainment, poverty levels, median household income, and political participation. For example, 72 percent of Asian Indians and 53 percent of Chinese hold a bachelor's degree or higher, yet less than 15 percent of Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong can claim the same, as Figure 1 shows. In fact, the latter groups are much less likely than AFRICAN AMERICANS or Latinos to have high school degrees.

5. When the alternative question experiment was proposed, the presumption was that detailed-origin reporting among whites and BLACKs would increase because these groups had not been provided such an option before. It was not clear how much detailed-origin reporting among Asian Americans would be affected. Prior testing of a write-in strategy for Asian Americans found, however, declines in detailed-origin reporting related to factors such as LEP when only provided an open-ended write-in option to denote their national origin (Compton et al. 2013).

6. Other groups, including advocates for BLACK and Latino communities, have pressed the U.S. Census Bureau to collect detailed data on their groups as well, so that the needs of smaller ethnic groups become more visible. Whites, BLACKs, and Native Americans will have the option to write in their ethnicity in the upcoming 2020 census, enabling a more detailed count of these populations. Therefore, Asian Americans are not alone in their call for the collection of detailed data, but they have been leaders in this policy area.


 IV: Some Ramifications of Diversity