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Survey finds that 42 percent of people in U.S. can't name one Asian American

“Hopefully an increased awareness about these issues will, in fact, turn the tide," the director for the Institute for Asian American Studies said.
42 percent of Americans can't name a person of Asian descent, new study finds
From left, Vice President Kamala Harris and actress Sandra Oh.Getty Images

Forty-two percent of Americans cannot name a well-known Asian American, according to a new survey released Monday.

The survey, commissioned by the nonprofit Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change, polled 2,766 American adults across the country. It’s one of the first national surveys in two decades to assess public attitudes toward Asian Americans, the fastest-growing racial group in the U.S.

When asked to name a famous Asian American, 42 percent of respondents answered “don’t know.” The next most popular choices were martial arts legends Jackie Chan (11 percent), who’s from Hong Kong, and Bruce Lee (9 percent), who died nearly a half-century ago. The results were similar across racial groups: Among Black, white and Latino Americans, “don’t know” was the most common answer.

“This just shows that even when we’re in the news, people are not really soaking in the presence of Asian Americans in our country,” Norman Chen, the co-founder and chief executive of LAAUNCH, told NBC Asian America.

The fact that Asian Americans remain largely invisible in American society cannot be disentangled from the sharp rise in hate incidents over the past year, he said.

The survey was conducted between March 29 and April 14, nearly two weeks after the Atlanta-area spa shootings, which left eight people, including six women of Asian descent, dead. Even so, more than one-third of white Americans and nearly half of Republicans said they didn’t know anti-Asian violence is rising. Twenty-two percent of Democrats expressed the same sentiment.

The reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate found that reports of anti-Asian hate incidents nearly doubled in March, surging from 3,795 to 6,603. This spike in violence has taken an immense psychological toll on Asian Americans, one-third of whom say they fear someone might threaten or physically attack them, according to an April report from the Pew Research Center.

“We wanted to figure out what the root causes behind these attacks are,” Chen said. “We know it’s not just Trump and it’s not just Covid.”

Other notable findings from the survey include that about one-quarter of white Americans don’t consider anti-Asian racism a problem that needs to be addressed.

In addition, about 80 percent of Asian Americans said they face discrimination, compared with 90 percent of Black Americans and 73 percent of Latinos.

The survey also found that fewer than 1 in 4 Asian Americans feel respected in this country, and more Americans get their information about Asian Americans through movies, TV and music than friends or colleagues.

To formulate the survey questions, the group consulted Asian American data scientists and scholars from elite universities, including Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. The survey, he said, drew from time-tested surveys on biases toward other racial and religious groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League’s research into Jewish Americans’ experiences with antisemitism.

“There’s nothing new about these attitudes about Asian Americans, but they’ve emerged in stark relief given the impact of the Covid-19 crisis and the Atlanta shooting,” he said. “Hopefully an increased awareness about these issues will, in fact, turn the tide.”

Some questions are designed to assess the prevalence of well-known stereotypes about the group.

The survey found 1 in 5 respondents thought Asian Americans were “more loyal to their countries of origin than to the U.S.” The result, Watanabe said, reflects the persistence of the “perpetual foreigner” trope in the country, nearly two centuries after the first major wave of Asian immigration.

Another question showed that Americans were most comfortable with an Asian person as their doctor, friend or colleague and less comfortable as their boss, in-law or president of the United States. The finding tracks with the group’s social standing in America, as Asians only occupy 2.6 percent of leadership positions nationwide.

Chen said the survey will be conducted annually to track changes in public perception over time. Next year’s, he said, will include more questions and respondents, hopefully yielding deeper insights. Already, many people have offered suggestions on new data points, such as how attitudes toward Asians differ by state or socioeconomic class.

In the long term, he said, LAAUNCH has laid out a three-pronged approach to tackling the harmful stereotypes that undergird public opinion about Asian Americans: working with congressional leaders to influence policy, building solidarity with other communities of color and advocating for the inclusion of Asian American history courses in public school curricula.

“We are part of America,” Chen said. “We need to be supported and celebrated in American culture.”