Asian Americans

Asian Americans
by M. Lal Goel, PhD,
University of West Florida

The history of mankind is a saga of migrations. Several centuries after the dawn of civilization, humans numbered only a few million. Today the population is nearly 6 billion. Homo sapiens now occupy almost all of the terrestrial globe except for the polar reaches.

Humans migrate for a variety of reasons; e.g., environmental deterioration, political and religious persecution, economic hardship and a sense of adventure. A few examples will suffice to provide elaboration for these causes of migration.

Environmental deterioration has been a major factor in the movement of people. The area now occupied by the sands of the Sahara was once lush, green, productive, and occupied by a substantial population. Desiccation occurred, water courses shriveled, trees died, the topsoil blew away, and the people left.

The earliest settlers in America — the Indians — migrated from the Orient because of severe climatic changes. When glaciers advanced, the sea level fell, and the shallow waters of the Bering Strait became a land corridor which allowed Asians to walk to North America. Columbus ‘rediscovered’ America in 1492. Just as environmental austerity or opportunity may facilitate migration so will man’s inhumanity to man.

The Pilgrims who landed in Plymouth, MA in 1620 came to America to avoid religious persecution in England and to worship according to their belief. In our time, political persecution has replaced religious persecution as a spur to migration. Most 20th Century migrations have been caused by tyrannical regimes. The extreme right and the extreme left are equally intolerant to human rights.

The Nazis killed millions of Jews and also many others who did not belong to the so-called “master” race. Those who were lucky escaped to England, France and to North and South America. In 1956, America received Hungarian political refugees, and in the 1970s and 1980s, thousands fled the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and communist regimes in Vietnam and Cuba.

People also move for economic reasons. They abandon their homes to avoid starvation or simply to improve their economic status. Millions of Irish men and women came to America in the middle of the 19th Century to avoid starvation caused by the potato famine. The British Government refused to ship food to assist the starving Irish, because it did not wish to interfere with the economic laws of supply and demand. Even in the best of times people may move because of overcrowding or in response to a spirit of adventure.

In brief, people move to escape the negative effects of climatic and environmental changes, to run away from religious and political persecution, and to improve their economic conditions. Few people move for capricious reasons.

Migrations to America
The history of America is a history of waves of migrations. People have come here from all known civilizations. The blood that flows in American veins has received sustenance from every bloodline. In the 17th century, the English Puritans settled in the New England States as the Spanish settled in the Floridas. Early in the 19th century came the great flood of Irish and Germans — 2 million Irish and 1.5 million Germans came to America between 1815 and 1860. The next wave brought some 10 million to America’s shores between 1880 and 1890. These were mostly Western European — English, Dutch, Swedes, and Norwegians. The third wave was even bigger: 16 million from 1890 to 1914. Most of the newcomers (80%) were Eastern and Southern Europeans — Sicilians, Greeks, Poles, Czechs, Italians and Russian Jews. A small number of Asians also entered the United States in the 19th Century. Nearly 200,000 Chinese laborers came to the West to build the railroads, but in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act eliminated this flow.

Then in 1924, immigration was severely curtailed and almost eliminated for certain countries. The 1924 National Origins Act established quotas for each country outside the Western Hemisphere. The 1924 Act was directed against Eastern Europeans, and it was particularly prejudiced against Asians.

The 1924 Immigration Act was a remarkable document. It sought to freeze the ethnic composition of America. Those allowed to enter were primarily the British, Germans, Irish and the Scandinavians. Those from Southern and Eastern Europe were limited to tiny quotas. Asians were banned altogether. Some historians have argued, as did the British historian Arnold Toynbee, that the 1924 Act cut off America from the world’s poor, tired and huddled masses.

Pressure built up after the war to change the unfair immigration policy. The pressure came from the Eastern and Southern Europeans. The people who were fighting for changes were Jews, Italians, Greeks and Poles. They fought to bring to the U.S. their families and their co-religionists. Sweeping changes in immigration policy were enacted in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson. The new law eliminated ethnicity and race as factors in elimination. Every nation regardless of size, race, religion, and political ideology was allowed 20,000 immigrants with a total for all countries not to exceed 170,000 per year. For the first time, India and China were placed on the same footing as Germany and England.

The number of Asians migrating to the U.S. was not expected to be large. In the hearings before the U.S. Congress in 1964, the then Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, reported that the number of Asian immigrants expected to enter the U.S. was about 5,000. Although the 1965 bill sought to benefit the Eastern Europeans, the Asians have benefitted the most. Without the sweeping changes enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1965, most Asians in the United States would not be here.

The number of Asian and Pacific immigrants has increased rapidly in the last 25 years. First to benefit were people from Philippines, Taiwan, and Korea. Political repression in Indo-China added Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians. Many students from India took advantage of the changed law and settled down in the U.S. instead of returning home. In 1984 six of the seven top countries, after Mexico, to send immigrants to America were Asian countries.

As the century closes, Asians have become the nation’s fastest growing ethnic minority. High birth rates and legal immigration have contributed to this growth rate. In 1986 alone, some 300,000 Asians entered the U.S. legally. This figure does not include those who entered illegally. The 1990 Asian-American population in the U.S. was 7 million – or nearly 2.5 percent of the total population. This increased to 11 million or 4.1 percent of the population in 2000. See the Appendix for the 1990 census figures.

The major Asian subgroups in America are: Chinese (about 1.6 million), Filipino (1.4 million), Japanese (848,000), Indians (815,000), Koreans (799,000), Vietnamese (614,000), and a smaller number of Cambodians, Laotians, Malaysians, Thais, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Interestingly, the Japanese play no major role in the current wave of Asian migration. Most Asians settle in California, followed by New York, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois and Florida. Military bases in Northwest Florida have contributed to the settlement of Asians in the Pensacola area, including Ft. Walton Beach and Panama City.

Although the total Asian population in American is small (only 4.1 percent), they are compiling an amazing record of achievement. The enrollment of Asian students at the nation’s elite colleges far exceeds their population share. On the average, Asian students constitute 14 percent of the freshmen class at Harvard, 20 percent at MIT, 21 percent at the California Institute of Technology, and 25 percent at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1987, nine out of 40 of the Westinghouse’s Science Talent Search came from Asian families.

Partly as a result of their academic accomplishments, Asians are climbing the economic ladder with remarkable speed. Their average family income now exceeds both white and black incomes in America. Among major Asian groups, only the Vietnamese have somewhat depressed incomes. Asians are well represented in the professions, management, and in business. A survey in Chicago indicated that 39 percent of Asians in that city were either managers or professionals, twice the rate for whites.

What accounts for the remarkable success of Asians in America? No single factor will suffice as an explanation, although the Asian family structure and a well developed work ethic are part of the explanation. Asian families are close. Parents make many sacrifices for their children, and brothers help brothers. Chinese grocery stores, Indian motels, Vietnamese fishing boats are often acquired by pooling extended family resources.

The Asian has a strong work ethic. Many Asian entrepreneurs who own fish markets, convenience stores and green groceries make the 40-hour work week look like a vacation. Unlike the earlier European mass migrations originated from the working class poor, the post-1965 Asian immigrants tend to be highly educated. The Asian movement is largely middle class. Except for the Indochinese refugees, new Asian arrivals have, on average, twice the educational skills of native Americans.

The best explanation for the Asian success story is perhaps the psychological factor. Like previous immigrants the Asian immigrant brings with him drive and motivation to succeed at all costs. A personal example will illustrate the point.

I arrived at New York Harbor as a youth of 20 with insufficient fare to reach my destination. The $500 necessary for the voyage from India was collected by appeals to half a dozen relatives and friends. In New York I had to beg for $15 to pay the bus fare to my destination out west. I worked my way through college, sometimes working 12 hour shifts at $1 per hour in the peach orchards of California in 110 degree weather.

Education was a dream in spite of the fact that my father had seventh-grade education, and my mother was completely unlettered. Success came in response to persistence and hard work while failure always lurked in the background. I graduated first among a dozen doctoral students enrolled in the program at the State University of New York, Buffalo. At the University of West Florida I achieved promotion to the rank of Full Professor rapidly. I have published four books and have received the University’s distinguished research and teaching awards. These accomplishments have come in spite of difficulties with English, notwithstanding a brown skin in a white world, and in spite of a vastly different cultural background. I am an American resident now and I love America, but I still derive my greater strength from my Indian heritage. Many members of the larger Asian community can share similar stories of hard work leading to success.

Many Asians complain that they are victims of racial discrimination. They have to work harder than native-born Americans to compete for the same jobs or to get promotion. Ivy-league colleges use negative quotas to keep the number of Asian students down. In some xenophobic communities, buying or renting a home may cause problems. Although racially motivated physical violence is rare against Asians, it does occur.

Native born Americans have always been ambivalent about and somewhat hostile to new immigrants. What is meted out to Asians is a part of long American tradition of suspicion about new immigrants. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin asked, “Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them.” In 1930, Boston Mayor Ted Lyman called the Irish, “a race that will never be infused into our own, but on the contrary will always remain distant and hostile” (Time, July 8, 1985). If anything, Asians may be more welcome in America than were the Italians in the generation of Lee Iaccoca’s father.

America is a country that endlessly reinvents itself. The secret to American genius is that it adds new bloodlines every generation thus renewing and refurbishing the entire genetic pool. The energy of new combinations produces something different and better. The faces of immigrants are different now, mostly brown and yellow. They do not arrive at the Ellis Island as previous generations did. They come through customs at Kennedy. The end result is the same – a more vigorous and vibrant America.

(The 1990 Census data are included in the Appendix)

Useful web sites: (Link to numerous sites) (report) (tables)
Web sites for information on Asian Indians ((Indian American CommunityBA Story of Achievement) (History and demographics) (Search for Aug 1995 article on Asian-Indian Americans)

Population of the Ten Largest Asian Groups in the U.S.
1990 Census (Rounded)

Total Asian                                7.0 m (million)
Chinese                                    1.6 m
Filipino                                      1.4 m
Japanese                                  848 k (thousand)
Indian                                        815 k
Korean                                      799 k
Vietnamese                               614 k
Laotian                                      149 k
Cambodian                               147 k
Thai                                            91 k
Hmong                                        90 k
All Others                                  446 k
_______________           _____________

Asian Indians by State, 1990

California                                   160 k
New York                                   141 k
New Jersey                                  79 k
Illinois                                           64 k
Texas                                           55 k
Florida                                          31 k
Maryland                                      28 k
Pennsylvania                               28 k
Michigan                                      24 k
Ohio                                             21 k
All Other States                          184 k