In the last census conducted by the U.S. government in 1990, one fact caught many people by surprise: the percentage of Asian Americans had grown faster than any other segment of the population. European Americans had, as expected, continued their slow decline in percentage of the total U.S. population, though they were still dominant at about 76%. Black Americans had stabilized at about 12% of the population. Hispanics had continued their fast growth and were, at 9%, aimed at toppling Black Americans as the country's largest minority group. The growth in Asian Americans, however, surged from only 2% of the total U.S. population in the 1980 census to 3% in 1990. By the year 2000 at least 4% of Americans will be of Asian ancestry. This relatively huge increase has caught many demographers by surprise. Clearly a new force is developing in U.S. demography, but few people seem to appreciate its implications. The Asian Americans are here and are here to stay, but exactly who are they, and what does their rapid increase mean for the country as a whole?
As a multi-ethnic nation, it should not be surprising that Asian Americans are becoming an increasingly large and important sector of the "rainbow nation" some Americans prefer to think of their country as. Indeed, the only surprise about this segment growing so fast is why it has not occurred sooner. After all, Asia is home to 60% of all the people in the world. However, Asia is also a vast land, encompassing East, Southeast, South, and West Asia, each region significantly different from its neighbors. Further, there is no sense of unity within Asia, as there is, say, among European or Latin American countries. Indeed, the term "Asian Americans" is more a fiction of the European mind, since people from this area unfailingly refer to themselves as Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, etc., rather than as Asian-Americans.
For more than 100 years, three primary groups of Asians emigrated to the United States: Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino. However, since the end of the Vietnam War, other groups from Asia have become increasingly prominent, especially those from Vietnam, Korea, and India. In addition, Iranians and Israelis from Southwestern Asia have also entered the U.S. in large numbers.
The patterns of Asian immigration have changed greatly over the past 30 years. In 1970, 96% of Asian Americans were Chinese, Japanese, or Filipino; as of 1997, this percentage had dropped to 55%! In that year, 24% of Asian Americans claimed Chinese ancestry, 21% Filipino, and 10% Japanese. The "newcomers" among Asian Americans include the Indians at 13%, Vietnamese at 11%, and Koreans also at 11%.
What real numbers are we talking about? There were estimated to be nearly 9,600,000 Asian Americans in the U.S. in 1997. With such a high growth rate, there will be more than 10 million of them this year and perhaps 32 million in 2050 (about 8% of the total U.S. population at that time). Where do Asian Americans live? Currently, an astounding 40% of this regional group lives in California. Other states with relatively large Asian American populations include New York, Hawaii, Texas, New Jersey, Washington (the state), and Illinois (which contains Chicago). Overall, the West is home to 54% of all Asian Americans, the Northeast 19%, the South 16%, and the Midwest 11%.
What about future trends? As Asian nations continue to prosper, it is likely that they will contribute more to U.S. immigration, especially from Southeast Asia and India. All of these groups continue to have above-average birth rates. On the other hand, Chinese and Japanese Americans have very low birth rates; consequently, the percentage of these ethnic groups among the total will continue to fall. All in all, America can look forward to an increasingly large number of Asians enriching their new home with their diligence, investment, and diverse cultural contributions.