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Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders: A Population with Different Histories, Assets, and Needs

In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we would like to highlight the integral role that Asian Americans play in American history, the issues they face, and how Community Science is contributing to promoting the health and well-being of members of this diverse population.

“Asian and Pacific Americans make up more than 5% of the U.S. population, over 17 million people—and those numbers are growing. Their ancestral roots represent over 50% of the world, extending from East Asia to Southeast Asia, and from South Asia to the Pacific Islands and Polynesia” (Smithsonian, 2014). There are historical records of Asian Americans settling in the U.S. as early as in the 17th century, notably as agricultural and other industrial workers in Savannah, Georgia (J. H. Kim, 2008). Asian Americans have been fundamental in building the economy of this country, contributing as engineers, taxicab drivers, entrepreneurs and innovators, dry cleaners, doctors, nail salon workers, etc. (NAPAWF, 2014). 

Despite these numbers and historical records, they often are invisible or inaccurately portrayed in American society. Individuals from a particular Asian group also have been mistaken for another group, leading to violence (e.g., the case of Vincent Chin and Sikhs being mistaken for Muslim terrorists). The overwhelming attention to the success stories of Asian Americans as a population tends to downplay the within-group differences. The model minority stereotype, in particular, has its consequences: “Only more visible and successful Asians allow the mainstream society to discredit the racial disparities or racial discrimination that exists in the U.S; and too much attention to the success stories of Asian Americans results in understating of the struggles within the group” (J. J. Lee, 2011). Even the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, which have distinct historical background and ancestral roots, were lumped into one category. It was only in recent American history that the within-group differences were officially recognized. In 1997, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget separated the Asian or Pacific Islander category into two separate categories—Asian and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander (U.S. Census Bureau News, 2014)—and appeared as distinct categories in the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census. In 2000, the U.S. Census included more comprehensive subgroup categories of Asians, which allowed respondents to select Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, or Other Asian (with a space to enter their ethnicity or heritage if not included in the provided list).

In addition, “Asian Americans are often seen as “foreigners” in the U.S., regardless of whether they were born and raised in the U.S. or are 2nd, 3rd, or later generation Americans (J. J. Lee, 2011). The Asian American community has attracted more attention with the recent influx of immigrants and refugees from Central to East Asia. With the increasing numbers of immigrants and refugees finding new homes in U.S. communities, there are growing efforts to integrate the newcomers into the U.S. society, which is well represented by the recent release of the “Strengthening Communities by Welcoming All Residents: A Federal Strategic Action Plan on Immigrant & Refugee Integration” by the White House Task Force on New Americans on April 14, 2015. Recent developments in the immigration policies have attempted to reflect an emphasis on integration (as opposed to assimilation); however, knowledge about what works and doesn’t work about common and unique patterns of integration experienced by the different Asian populations remains limited, and any changes, while helping to make immigrants feel more welcomed, have yet to create lasting solutions that ensure justice and equity.

Community Science, under the leadership of Kien Lee, Principal Associate and Vice President, helps to promote the health and well-being of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in various ways. For example, in our recent work on the Affordable Care Act’s Outreach, Education, and Enrollment strategy for the National Partnership for Action to End Health Disparities, six of the places that are receiving technical assistance and evaluation support from us work in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Several of these efforts use distinct approaches to reach out to various types of Asian American and Pacific Islander groups. We also conducted a study in 2002 to inquire about the civic values, traditions, and practices of immigrants, which highlighted the commonalities and uniqueness among immigrants from different parts of Asia.  


Community Science. (2002). An inquiry into the civic values, traditions, and practices of immigrants. Gaithersburg, MD: Community Science.

Kim, J. H. (2008). The unheard story: Asian American history in Georgia. Georgia Asian Pacific Islander Community Coalition's 2008 General Body Meeting Series. Atlanta: Georgia Asian Pacific Islander Community Coalition.

Lee, J. J. (2011). Experiencing community through the Asian American lens: A qualitative study of photovoice participants. Dissertation, Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA. Retrieved from

National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. (2014). Turning the page on U.S. immigration policy: Immigration and Asian American women and families. A National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum Report. Brooklyn, NY.

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. (2013). I want the wide American earth: An Asian Pacific American story [Exhibition]. Washington, D. C.: National Museum of American History.

U.S. Census Bureau News. (2014). Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month: May 2014. Retrieved from

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