IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Asians in the U.S. are the fastest growing racial group. What's behind the rise.

The Asian population in the U.S. grew by 35.5 percent over the past 10 years.
Shoppers in New York's Chinatown on June 25, 2021.
Shoppers in New York's Chinatown in June. Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images

The Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities continue to grow steadily, the 2020 census data showed. 

The data, released Thursday, revealed almost 20 million people identified as "Asian," and another 4 million checked boxes as "Asian" combined with another race group, for a total of 7.2 percent of the population. Another 0.5 percent of the population identifies as "Native Hawaiian" and "Other Pacific Islander" alone or in combination with another race group.

The results make the Asian population the fastest growing racial group in the United States at 35.5 percent.

Aggressive outreach in addition to the shifting demographics helped impact the group’s participation in the census, as well as overall population growth, Karthick Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data, a policy and research nonprofit group, told NBC Asian America. 

The communities confront multiple barriers to census participation including distrust in the census, as well as a lack of outreach, experts say. 

The U.S. Census Bureau released findings in 2019 that revealed Asian Americans were the least likely of any racial group to report that they intended to complete the form. Ramakrishnan noted that one contributing factor to the reluctance was the addition of a citizenship question that was floated under the Trump administration. 

The discussions led to many concerns over the possibility that participants could jeopardize their or their family members’ immigration status. It also created an environment of suspicion due to the oftentimes controversial way such data was utilized in their own home countries, experts said. 

“It’s what it means to be an immigrant or refugee and the United States … it was really challenging to get communities to trust the federal government,” Ramakrishnan said. 

Since then, grassroots and community organizations put forth aggressive efforts to not only push back on the question, but also encourage community members to participate in the census, and soothe fears after the question was eventually scrapped. 

Throughout the pandemic and before, organizations put together virtual census parties to raise awareness and educate people on the fact that the citizenship question was no longer there, that their information was secure and safe, and to assist them in navigating the forms.

The last census took place in the shadow of the recession in 2010, when governments didn’t have the resources to invest in census outreach. At the time, philanthropy “had to step up,” Ramakrishnan said. 

“It’s the populations themselves that deserve the credit first, but then, you can’t take for granted that just because communities are growing because of migration or fertility, that it’s automatically going to show up in the census numbers,” he said. “You need to have investment and outreach.”

Other immigration trends played a role as well. Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist and a professor of American studies at Amherst College, said that movement to the U.S. has steadily continued at high rates among Asians. And despite discussions around discrimination, or even anti-Asian bias during the pandemic, the U.S. remains a destination for immigrants. 

“As more Asians live in the United States, it attracts more Asians who want to reunite with family and see the country as a place to settle down,” he said. 

Ramakrishnan also noted that while recent immigrants are less likely to fill out the census, many of their children, who were in the U.S. at the time of the last census have come of age since. This means that a significant chunk of the population, who would have relied on their parents to participate in the last survey but were not counted because the family did not do so, no longer had to for this round.

“When you look at populations that were children in the 2010 census and adults today, Latinos and Asian Americans would be disproportionately represented among those groups as well,” he said. 

While immigration and fertility stand as the primary drivers of growth among the racial group, the rise in those identifying as multiracial also contributed. The results showed that the population identifying as "Asian" in combination with another race group grew by 55.5 percent. 

Ramakrishnan said the actual growth in the population of children in multiracial families has risen, however changes in the way the race question was asked likely plays a role in the steep rise in the multiracial population. He said more people were likely to identify as multiracial in 2020 compared to 2010, especially with the census allowing participants to fill in their own race. 

And many multiracial children, who previously relied on parents to determine their race in past censuses, came of age and declared their own. 

Another factor that grew the number of AAPIs is the surge of multiracial people identifying as Asian or Pacific Islander as well as another race, said Van Tran, associate professor of sociology at City University of New York. 

Results also revealed that the U.S. is now more multiracial in general. 

Behind the “Other” section

The categories on 2020’s ethnicity question are consistent with what they were in decades past, including in 2010 and 2000. For the “Asian” category, the first six options represent the groups most populous in the United States: Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, followed by an “Other” category where participants could fill in their ethnic identity. 

Similarly for Pacific Islander, the first three options were Native Hawaiian, Guamanian or Chamorro, and Samoan with an “Other” category. 

Tran said, though the “Other” category seems ambiguous, data disaggregation after results are counted will break down the ethnicities that people filled in. Analysts with the Census Bureau will count the top 25 Asian American groups in the U.S. by population, based on previous census data. Any group that doesn’t fit into the top 25 options will remain as “other” when data is presented. 

“Then there’s also a possibility that people in the ‘other’ category may also identify as both Asian and white, both Asian and Black,” he said. 

Included in the “other” category are multiracial people who want to check more than one box, a practice that has only been allowed since 2000. Despite these options, multiracial people who identify more closely with one ethnicity may choose to only select one. 

Tran says the breakdown of Asian ethnicity data can be strengthened by adding pan-ethnic categories, for example South Asian, Southeast Asian and East Asian. 

A disaggregation like this would help, Tran said, because of the role skin color plays in discrimination, and it would also help in understanding the experiences of minority Asian Americans. 

“There’s often the perception that Asian Americans are highly achieving, faring well socially, economically, and therefore they do not need any help or support,” he said. “But that perception is false … By not disaggregating the Asian category, we’re doing a disservice to the groups that are smaller and more disadvantaged.”