By Nicole Chavez and Priya Krishnakumar, CNN
Asian Americans are often labeled as a singular group, but the fastest growing population in the United States is far from a monolith – and their complex history and cultures are often glossed over.
While they’ve been in America since the nation’s infancy, Asian Americans continue to be harmed by stereotypes like the “model minority” as well as racial violence. Much of the recent anti-Asian bias is the result of many people being unaware of the group’s history in the country and xenophobic messaging around the Covid-19 pandemic, experts and lawmakers say.
Here’s a look at the diversity of Asians in America and why we can’t talk about them as one.
They trace their roots to dozens of countries
The term “Asian American” is an umbrella term for dozens of ethnic groups of Asian descent. It was first used in 1968 by graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley as the name of an organization aimed at uniting Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Filipino Americans, among others, to fight for political action and social.
An estimated 22 million Asian Americans live in the United States, nearly 7% of the total population, according to US Census data. Those who identify as having Chinese, Indian, or Filipino ancestry make up the three largest Asian groups in the United States, but no one ethnicity constitutes the majority.
For decades, Asians have been lumped together with Pacific Islanders by government officials and advocates. Currently, there are an estimated 1.6 million Pacific Islanders living in the United States, many of whom identify as Native Hawaiians, Samoans, and Guamanians or Chamorros.
About a third of Asians in the United States live in California
Most Asians live around major cities in four states — California, New York, Texas and Hawaii — but for the most part, those cities aren’t home to a single ethnic group.
About a third of all Asians in the United States live in California, where there is a large Chinese population in Los Angeles County as well as Filipino, Korean, Japanese and Indian communities. Meanwhile, Asians in Texas are Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, and Pakistani.
The Asian diaspora across the country is as diverse as the reasons that lead people to migrate to the United States.
There are approximately 309,000 Hmong people in the United States. The largest share is in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where many settled as refugees in the 1970s.
In southern states like Louisiana and Mississippi, Vietnamese make up the largest share of the Asian population. They resettled in the area after the Vietnam War.
They have the largest income gap between racial and ethnic groups
Economically, Asian Americans are the most divided racial or ethnic group in the United States, according to a Pew Research study. High-income Asian Americans near the top of the income scale earn 10.7 times more than those at the opposite end of the income scale.
While Asian Americans have the highest levels of education compared to Blacks, Hispanics, and Whites, their economic and education levels are quite diverse. Some work in white-collar jobs and others work in low-wage service industries. For example, they make up 57% of the 449,000 “miscellaneous personal appearance workers,” a category that primarily includes nail salons, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The highest-earning Asians among those with a university degree and over the age of 25 are Indians and Taiwanese, with a median household income of over $100,000 a year. Meanwhile, the median household income of Burmese and Nepalese is below $46,000 and $63,000 respectively.
“I think one of the most important things we want people to see is that unfortunately our communities are struggling as much as many other low-income communities,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Center for Southeast Asian resources. “Because of the stereotype that all Asian Americans are doing well, these struggles are rendered invisible.”
Dinh said the income disparities are due to many factors, including how Asians came to the United States and the challenges that already existed in the communities where they settled.
“People like my parents who left as people from Vietnam, left with nothing more than the shirts on their backs so that today I could be free against someone who might be from another country who immigrated with a master’s degree for their own country,” Dinh said.
They are key players in the immigration debate
While some Asian Americans have been in the United States for generations, others have come over the years under different circumstances, including refugees and asylum seekers.
It is estimated that two-thirds of Asian Americans and one-sixth of Pacific Islanders were born outside the country, according to Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC.
Asians make up a significant portion of immigrants to the United States, but they are often overlooked in the immigration reform debate. Of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, 1.5 million come from Asia, according to the Migration Policy Institute. This represents approximately 13% of the total undocumented population in the United States.
There are thousands of Asians who are undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, a group often described as Dreamers. Tereza Lee, a Brazilian-born South Korean pianist, is credited with inspiring Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin to co-sponsor the DREAM bill in 2001, which offered legal status in exchange for her college education or of his entry into the army.
They hold about 3% of the seats in Congress
Asian Americans are mostly underrepresented in elected office in the United States, despite some gains in recent years.
There are 18 members of Congress who identify as part of the AAPI community, representing about 3% of the seats. The lack of AAPI diversity in leadership positions in President Joe Biden’s administration has also come under scrutiny.
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, who is the first Asian American elected to the post, said AAPI representation in public office at all levels is “unacceptably low.”
“There are a lot more members of Congress than when I was a kid. We have the first AAPI Vice President in our country’s history in Kamala Harris, but our voice is still not enough, and in many ways Asian Americans are still invisible in our public life,” Tong told CNN.
AAPI’s elected officials, Tong said, are committed to service even though they often face stereotypes and are among the few people of color in the room.
“People still struggle to see and conceive of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as good elected officials,” he said.
Asian American voter turnout hit an all-time high in the 2020 presidential election and recent events such as the surge in anti-Asian attacks and the state’s voter suppression efforts will cause voters to participate, said Christine Chen, co-founder and executive director of civic engagement group APIAVote.
While Asia’s largest populations lean towards the Democrats, Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steel became the first Korean American Republican women to sit in Congress after toppling Democrats by one term in Southern California.
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