The problem with “Asian American”

Asian Americans (source: New York Times)

(source: New York Times)

A recent article in The Economist discusses the complexities of the “Asian American” classification as a demographic category (via @sepiamutiny):

But is the term “Asian-American” anything more than a convenient shorthand? The ancestral lands of the people it covers are home to most of the world’s population. Unlike the vast bulk of Latinos, Asian-Americans speak different languages and worship different deities from one another. Almost two-thirds of Latinos are of Mexican ancestry. But the biggest Asian subgroup, Chinese-Americans, make up just 23% of Asian-Americans.

Sikhs of South Asian descent are often included in this category (which separates these members of the Sikh faith from followers of other races). As we have seen before, the label isn’t consistently used as a self-identifier by Sikhs, South Asians, or other members of various communities that are considered Asian American:

Politically, Asian-Americans range from the strongly Democratic (Indians) to the evenly split (Filipinos). Economically, all big Asian groupings do better than the average American. But the income of the median Indian household is 175% that of the median Korean. “The generic ‘Asian-American’ category disguises what is going on more so than other segments,” says Mark DiCamillo, a San Francisco-based pollster. Just 19% of Asian-Americans use the term to describe themselves.

And, while the label may be a “catch-all” group that masks significant variability within, the Asian American label has some utility for its members:

Perhaps the best way to understand the term Asian-American, says Eric Liu, a Chinese-American author and former adviser to Bill Clinton, is as a “classically American invention”: a manufactured identity that grants those it happens to include a level of political and cultural power they would not otherwise enjoy. Mr Liu says the various Asian subgroups in Seattle, his home town, are too small for any one to wield real power. But united as “Asian-Americans”, they are a force in civic life.



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