This article is about the U.S. population of Americans of Asian ancestry. For populations of Asians across the Americas.
Asian Americans are Americans of Asian ancestry (including naturalized Americans who are immigrants from specific regions in Asia and descendants of such immigrants). Although this term had historically been used for all the indigenous peoples of the continent of Asia, the usage of the term “Asian” by the United States Census Bureau excludes people with ethnic origins in certain parts of Asia, including West Asia who are now categorized as Middle Eastern Americans; and those from Central Asia who are categorized as Central Asian Americans. The “Asian” census category includes people who indicate their race(s) on the census as “Asian” or reported entries such as “Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Korean, Japanese, Pakistani, Malaysian, and Other Asian”. In 2018, Asian Americans were 5.4% of the U.S. population; including multiracial Asian Americans, that percentage increases to 6.5%. In 2020, the estimated number of Asian Americans was 24 million.
Chinese, Indian, and Filipino Americans make up the largest share of the Asian American population with 5 million, 4.3 million, and 4 million people respectively. These numbers equal 23%, 20%, and 18% of the total Asian American population, or 1.5% and 1.2% of the total U.S. population.
Although migrants from Asia have been in parts of the contemporary United States since the 17th century, large-scale immigration did not begin until the mid-19th century. Nativist immigration laws during the 1880s–1920s excluded various Asian groups, eventually prohibiting almost all Asian immigration to the continental United States. After immigration laws were reformed during the 1940s–60s, abolishing national origins quotas, Asian immigration increased rapidly. Analyses of the 2010 census have shown that Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States.
As with other racial and ethnicity-based terms, formal and common usage have changed markedly through the short history of this term. Prior to the late 1960s, people of Asian ancestry were usually referred to as Yellow, Oriental, Asiatic, or Mongoloid. Additionally, the American definition of ‘Asian’ originally included West Asian ethnic groups, particularly Turkish Americans, Armenian Americans, Assyrian Americans, Iranian Americans, Kurdish Americans, Jewish Americans, and certain Arab Americans, although in modern times, these groups are now considered Middle Eastern American. The term Asian American was coined by historian Yuji Ichioka in 1968 during the founding of the Asian American Political Alliance, and he is also credited with popularizing the term, which he meant to be used to frame a new “inter-ethnic-pan-Asian American self-defining political group”. Prior to being included in the “Asian” category in the 1980s, many Americans of South Asian descent usually classified themselves as Caucasian or other. Changing patterns of immigration and an extensive period of exclusion of Asian immigrants have resulted in demographic changes that have in turn affected the formal and common understandings of what defines Asian American. For example, since the removal of restrictive “national origins” quotas in 1965, the Asian-American population has diversified greatly to include more of the peoples with ancestry from various parts of Asia.
Today, “Asian American” is the accepted term for most formal purposes, such as government and academic research, although it is often shortened to Asian in common usage. The most commonly used definition of Asian American is the U.S. Census Bureau definition, which includes all people with origins in the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. This is chiefly because the census definitions determine many governmental classifications, notably for equal opportunity programs and measurements.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Asian person” in the United States is most often thought of as a person of East Asian descent. In vernacular usage, “Asian” is usually used to refer to those of East Asian descent or anyone else of Asian descent with epicanthic eyefolds. This differs from the U.S. Census definition and the Asian American Studies departments in many universities consider all those of East, South or Southeast Asian descent to be “Asian”.
In the US Census, people with origins or ancestry in the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent are classified as part of the Asian race; while those with origins or ancestry in Western Asia (Israelis, Turks, Persians, Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs, etc.), and the Caucasus (Georgians, Armenians, Azeris, etc.) are classified as “white” or “Middle Eastern”, and those with origins from Central Asia (Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Turkmens, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Afghans, etc.) are classified as “white”. As such, “Asian” and “African” ancestry are seen as racial categories only for the purpose of the Census, with the definition referring to ancestry from parts of the Asian and African continents outside of West Asia, North Africa, and Central Asia. The definition also overlaps other interpretations: for example the country of Afghanistan has long been listed under the category of South Asia, but is racially categorized as Central Asian American.
In 1980 and before, Census forms listed particular Asian ancestries as separate groups, along with white and black or negro. Asian Americans had also been classified as “other”. In 1977, the federal Office of Management and Budget issued a directive requiring government agencies to maintain statistics on racial groups, including on “Asian or Pacific Islander”. By the 1990 census, “Asian or Pacific Islander (API)” was included as an explicit category, although respondents had to select one particular ancestry as a subcategory. Beginning with the 2000 census, two separate categories were used: “Asian American” and “Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander”.
Debates and criticism
The definition of Asian American has variations that derive from the use of the word American in different contexts. Immigration status, citizenship (by birthright and by naturalization), acculturation, and language ability are some variables that are used to define American for various purposes and may vary in formal and everyday usage. For example, restricting American to include only U.S. citizens conflicts with discussions of Asian American businesses, which generally refer both to citizen and non-citizen owners.
In a PBS interview from 2004, a panel of Asian American writers discussed how some groups include people of Middle Eastern descent in the Asian American category. Asian American author Stewart Ikeda has noted, “The definition of ‘Asian American’ also frequently depends on who’s asking, who’s defining, in what context, and why… the possible definitions of ‘Asian-Pacific American’ are many, complex, and shifting… some scholars in Asian American Studies conferences suggest that Russians, Iranians, and Israelis all might fit the field’s subject of study.” Jeff Yang, of The Wall Street Journal, writes that the panethnic definition of Asian American is a unique American construct, and as an identity is “in beta”. The majority of Asian Americans feel ambivalence about the term “Asian American” as a term by which to identify themselves. Pyong Gap Min, a sociologist and Professor of Sociology at Queens College, has stated the term is merely political, used by Asian-American activists and further reinforced by the government. Beyond that, he feels that South Asians and East Asians do not have commonalities in “culture, physical characteristics, or pre-migrant historical experiences”.
Scholars have grappled with the accuracy, correctness, and usefulness of the term Asian American. The term “Asian” in Asian American most often comes under fire for only encompassing some of the diverse peoples of Asia, and for being considered a racial category instead of a non-racial “ethnic” category. This is namely due to the categorization of the racially different South Asians and East Asians as part of the same “race.” Furthermore, it has been noted that West Asians (whom are not considered “Asian” under the U.S census) share some cultural similarities with Indians but very little with East Asians, with the latter two groups being classified as “Asian”. Scholars have also found it difficult to determine why Asian Americans are considered a “race” while Americans of Hispanic and Latino heritage are a non-racial “ethnic group”, given how the category of Asian Americans similarly comprises people with diverse origins. Though it has been argued that South Asians and East Asians can be “justifiably” grouped together because of Buddhism’s origins in South Asia.
In contrast, leading social sciences and humanities scholars of race and Asian American identity point out that because of the racial constructions in the United States, including the social attitudes toward race and those of Asian ancestry, Asian Americans have a “shared racial experience.” Because of this shared experience, the term Asian American is argued as still being a useful panethnic category because of the similarity of some experiences among Asian Americans, including stereotypes specific to people in this category. Despite this, others have stated that many Americans do not treat all Asian Americans equally, highlighting the fact that “Asian American” is generally synonymous with people of East Asian descent, thereby excluding people of Southeast Asian and South Asian origin.
Proportion of Asian Americans in each U.S. state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico as of the 2020 United States Census
Proportion of Asian Americans in each county of the fifty states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico as of the 2020 United States Census
The demographics of Asian Americans describe a heterogeneous group of people in the United States who can trace their ancestry to one or more countries in East, South or Southeast Asia. Because they compose 6% of the entire U.S. population, the diversity of the group is often disregarded in media and news discussions of “Asians” or of “Asian Americans.” While there are some commonalities across ethnic subgroups, there are significant differences among different Asian ethnicities that are related to each group’s history. The Asian American population is greatly urbanized, with nearly three-quarters of them living in metropolitan areas with population greater than 2.5 million. As of July 2015, California had the largest population of Asian Americans of any state, and Hawaii was the only state where Asian Americans were the majority of the population.
East Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans, Hong Kong Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Mongolian Americans, Ryukyuan Americans, Taiwanese Americans and Tibetan Americans.
South Asian Americans, including Bangladeshi Americans, Bhutanese Americans, Indian Americans, Indo-Caribbean Americans, Indo-Fijian Americans, Maldivian Americans, Nepalese Americans, Pakistani Americans, and Sri Lankan Americans.
Southeast Asian Americans, including Burmese Americans, Cambodian Americans, Filipino Americans, Hmong Americans, Indonesian Americans, Iu Mien Americans, Laotian Americans, Malaysian Americans, Singaporean Americans, Thai Americans and Vietnamese Americans.
This grouping is by country of origin before immigration to the United States, and not necessarily by ethnicity, as for example (nonexclusive), Singaporean Americans may be of Chinese, Indian, or Malay descent.
Asian Americans include multiracial or mixed race persons with origins or ancestry in both the above groups and another race, or multiple of the above groups.
In 2010, there were 2.8 million people (5 and older) who spoke one of the Chinese languages at home; after the Spanish language, it is the third most common language in the United States. Other sizeable Asian languages are Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Korean, with all three having more than 1 million speakers in the United States.
In 2012, Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Washington were publishing election material in Asian languages in accordance with the Voting Rights Act; these languages include Tagalog, Mandarin Chinese, Vietnamese, Spanish, Hindi and Bengali. Election materials were also available in Gujarati, Japanese, Khmer, Korean, and Thai. A 2013 poll found that 48 percent of Asian Americans considered media in their native language as their primary news source.
The 2000 Census found the more prominent languages of the Asian American community to include the Chinese languages (Cantonese, Taishanese, and Hokkien), Tagalog, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, Hindi, Urdu, Telugu and Gujarati. In 2008, the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Tagalog, and Vietnamese languages are all used in elections in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Washington state.
A 2012 Pew Research Center study found the following breakdown of religious identity among Asian Americans:
26% Unaffiliated with any religion
2% other religion
The percentage of Christians among Asian Americans has sharply declined since the 1990s, chiefly as a result of large-scale immigration from countries in which Christianity is a minority religion (China and India in particular). In 1990, 63% of the Asian Americans identified as Christians, while in 2001 only 43% did. This development has been accompanied by a rise in traditional Asian religions, with the people identifying with them doubling during the same decade.
Because Asian Americans or their ancestors immigrated to the United States from many different countries, each Asian American population has its own unique immigration history.
Filipinos have been in the territories that would become the United States since the 16th century. In 1635, an “East Indian” is listed in Jamestown, Virginia; preceding wider settlement of Indian immigrants on the East Coast in the 1790s and the West Coast in the 1800s. In 1763, Filipinos established the small settlement of Saint Malo, Louisiana, after fleeing mistreatment aboard Spanish ships. Since there were no Filipino women with them, these ‘Manilamen’, as they were known, married Cajun and Native American women. The first Japanese person to come to the United States, and stay any significant period of time was Nakahama Manjirō who reached the East Coast in 1841, and Joseph Heco became the first Japanese American naturalized US citizen in 1858.
Chinese sailors first came to Hawaii in 1789, a few years after Captain James Cook came upon the island. Many settled and married Hawaiian women. Most Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants in Hawaii or San Francisco arrived in the 19th century as laborers to work on sugar plantations or construction place. There were thousands of Asians in Hawaii when it was annexed to the United States in 1898. Later, Filipinos also came to work as laborers, attracted by the job opportunities, although they were limited. Okinawans would start migrating to Hawaii in 1900.
Large-scale migration from Asia to the United States began when Chinese immigrants arrived on the West Coast in the mid-19th century. Forming part of the California gold rush, these early Chinese immigrants participated intensively in the mining business and later in the construction of the transcontinental railroad. By 1852, the number of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco had jumped to more than 20,000. A wave of Japanese immigration to the United States began after the Meiji Restoration in 1868. In 1898, all Filipinos in the Philippine Islands became American nationals when the United States took over colonial rule of the islands from Spain following the latter’s defeat in the Spanish–American War.
Under United States law during this period, particularly the Naturalization Act of 1790, only “free white persons” were eligible to naturalize as American citizens. Ineligibility for citizenship prevented Asian immigrants from accessing a variety of rights, such as voting. Bhicaji Balsara became the first known Indian-born person to gain naturalized U.S. citizenship. Balsara’s naturalization was not the norm but an exception; in a pair of cases, Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), the Supreme Court upheld the racial qualification for citizenship and ruled that Asians were not “white persons”. Second-generation Asian Americans, however, could become U.S. citizens due to the birthright citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment; this guarantee was confirmed as applying regardless of race or ancestry by the Supreme Court in United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898).
From the 1880s to the 1920s, the United States passed laws inaugurating an era of exclusion of Asian immigrants. Although the exact number of Asian immigrants was small compared to that of immigrants from other regions, much of it was concentrated in the West, and the increase caused some nativist sentiment which was known as the “yellow peril”. Congress passed restrictive legislation which prohibited nearly all Chinese immigration to the United States in the 1880s. Japanese immigration was sharply curtailed by a diplomatic agreement in 1907. The Asiatic Barred Zone Act in 1917 further barred immigration from nearly all of Asia, the “Asiatic Zone”. The Immigration Act of 1924 provided that no “alien ineligible for citizenship” could be admitted as an immigrant to the United States, consolidating the prohibition of Asian immigration.
World War II
President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, resulting in the internment of Japanese Americans, among others. Over 100,000 people of Japanese descent, mostly on the West Coast, were forcibly removed, in an action later considered ineffective and racist.
World War II-era legislation and judicial rulings[which?] gradually increased the ability of Asian Americans to immigrate and become naturalized citizens. Immigration rapidly increased following the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965 as well as the influx of refugees from conflicts occurring in Southeast Asia such as the Vietnam War. Asian American immigrants have a significant percentage of individuals who have already achieved professional status, a first among immigration groups.
The number of Asian immigrants to the United States “grew from 491,000 in 1960 to about 12.8 million in 2014, representing a 2,597 percent increase.” Asian Americans were the fastest-growing racial group between 2000 and 2010. By 2012, more immigrants came from Asia than from Latin America. In 2015, Pew Research Center found that from 2010 to 2015 more immigrants came from Asia than from Latin America, and that since 1965; Asians have made up a quarter of all immigrants to the United States.
Asians have made up an increasing proportion of the foreign-born Americans: “In 1960, Asians represented 5 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population; by 2014, their share grew to 30 percent of the nation’s 42.4 million immigrants.” As of 2016, “Asia is the second-largest region of birth (after Latin America) of U.S. immigrants.” In 2013, China surpassed Mexico as the top single country of origin for immigrants to the U.S. Asian immigrants “are more likely than the overall foreign-born population to be naturalized citizens”; in 2014, 59% of Asian immigrants had U.S. citizenship, compared to 47% of all immigrants. Postwar Asian immigration to the U.S. has been diverse: in 2014, 31% of Asian immigrants to the U.S. were from East Asia (predominately China and Korea); 27.7% were from South Asia (predominately India); 32.6% were from Southeastern Asia (predominately the Philippines and Vietnam) and 8.3% were from Western Asia.
Asian American movement
Prior to the 1960s, Asian immigrants and their descendants had organized and agitated for social or political purposes according to their particular ethnicity: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, or Asian Indian. The Asian American movement (a term coined by historian and activist Yuji Ichioka) gathered all those groups into a coalition, recognizing that they shared common problems with racial discrimination and common opposition to American imperialism, particularly in Asia. The movement developed during the 1960s, inspired in part by the Civil Rights Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. “Drawing influences from the Black Power and antiwar movements, the Asian American movement forged a coalitional politics that united Asians of varying ethnicities and declared solidarity with other Third World people in the United States and abroad. Segments of the movement struggled for community control of education, provided social services and defended affordable housing in Asian ghettoes, organized exploited workers, protested against U.S. imperialism, and built new multiethnic cultural institutions.” William Wei described the movement as “rooted in a past history of oppression and a present struggle for liberation.” The movement as such was most active during the 1960s and 1970s. Increasingly Asian American students demanded university-level research and teaching into Asian history and the interaction with the United States. They supported multiculturalism but opposed affirmative action that amounted to an Asian quota on their admission.
7.2% of the population (2020)
Chinese Americans: 5,143,982
Indian Americans: 4,506,308
Filipino Americans: 4,089,570
Vietnamese Americans: 2,162,610
Korean Americans: 1,894,131
Taiwanese Americans: 1,542,195
Pakistani Americans: 526,956
Thai Americans: 329,343
Hmong Americans: 320,164
Cambodian Americans: 300,360
Japanese Americans: 1,002,595
Laotian Americans: 213,774
Bangladeshi Americans: 213,372
Burmese Americans: 189,250
Nepalese Americans: 175,005
Indonesian Americans: 116,869
Sri Lankan Americans: 61,416
Malaysian Americans: 38,277
Tibetan Americans: 26,700
Regions with significant populations
|American English. Asian languages. Spanish|
including Jain, Zoroastrian, Tengrism, Shinto, and Chinese folk Religion
(Taoist and Confucian)
More than half of Asians ages 25 and older (54%) have a bachelor’s degree or more education, compared with 33% of the U.S. population in the same age range. Similar shares of U.S.-born (55%) and foreign-born Asians (54%) have earned a college degree.
Educational Attainment by Gender, Asian American and Pacific Islanders
|AAPI Men||AAPI Women||All AAPI||U.S. Average|
|No High School Diploma||10.5%||13.6%||12.2%||11.4%|
|High School or Some College||32.6%||33.6%||33.1%||55.5%|
Adult Population with a College Degree (Age 25+), Largest 15 AAPI Groups
|Bachelor’s degree||Advanced degree||College Degree|
Immigrant Adult (25+) Population with a College Degree and Share of Adult Population, Foreign-Born for Largest 15 AAPI Groups
|All Adults with at BA||Immigrants Adults with a BA||All Adults, Immigrant|
Top Ten Occupations
|Occupation||AAPI Workers||Workforce, AAPI|
|Manicurists and pedicurists||199,500||73.5%|
|Computer hardware engineers||19,700||32.1%|
|Misc. life scientists||41,900||29.9%|
|Physical Scientists, all other||95,300||29.1%|
|Computer and Information Research Scientists||10,200||28.9%|
|Software Quality Assurance Analysts and Testers||20,100||28.0%|
|Gambling and Casino Workers||29,900||25.1%|
People Living in Poverty or Under 200% of the Federal Poverty Level
|Below Federal Poverty Line||Between 100% and 200% Poverty Level||More than 200% Poverty Level|