At Tuesday night’s Democratic debate, 12 candidates shared the stage, including five people of color, three of whom are Asian American and Pacific Islander.
Yet for many people, Andrew Yang is the only Asian American candidate who comes to mind. Most do not immediately recognize California Sen. Kamala Harris as Asian, even though her mother was an immigrant from India. And many do not know that Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is a Pacific Islander whose ancestry is Samoan and whose religious background is Hindu. Our new research helps to explain why.
According to the Census Bureau, an Asian is a “person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent.” Immigration has been the primary means for Asians to arrive in the United States. By contrast, Pacific Islanders such as Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Guamanians and Tongans have a distinct history of inter-island trade, shared heritage and experience with American colonization. Pacific Islander community organizations pushed for their own recognition and, starting with the 2000 census, the federal government has treated Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders as a separate racial group.
While Chinese, Indians and Samoans now fall into separate racial categories on the census, survey data show that these categories do not always match Americans’ understanding of them. For example, even though East Asians account for just over a third of the Asian American population today, the general perception of who counts as Asian remains quintessentially East Asian, and also monoracial Asian. This dominant view comes from the early 20th century, when East Asians were the vast majority of Asian Americans.
Americans are much less likely to view South Asians such as Indians and Pakistanis as Asian, even though they are among the fastest-growing groups in the country, accounting for more than a quarter of the total Asian American population. Thus, while about 80% of Americans in our survey classify Chinese, Japanese and Koreans as Asian, fewer than half classify Indians and Pakistanis as Asian.
Our research also shows that the exclusion of South Asians from the Asian category is at odds with how South Asians see themselves: 94% of Indians and 93% of Pakistanis identify their groups as Asian American. This mismatch is consequential given the different experiences and attitudes between South Asians and East Asians.
Asian Indians are eight times more likely than Chinese to report that they have been unfairly stopped or unfairly treated by police. Indians and Pakistanis are also more likely than other Asian groups to identify as Democrats and hold more liberal policy views on issues ranging from gun control and environmental protection to taxation and affirmative action. Chinese Americans, by contrast, tend to have more conservative attitudes and are more likely to oppose affirmative action. Overlooking South Asians is not just outdated, it supports the biased view that Asians are politically conservative and are immune to racial discrimination.
Most Americans also don’t think of multiracial Asians as Asian — which explains why many see Yang, a Chinese American, as the only Asian American candidate but don’t see Harris, who is multiracial, that way. This is problematic because the Asian American and Pacific Islander population has among the highest rates of intermarriage and multiracial identification in the country. Harris and Gabbard reflect this demographic reality. Yet, many Americans are unaccustomed to having people choose more than one race to identify themselves. The census, after all, did not even allow Americans this choice until 2000.
For Harris, her black American heritage complicates the public’s view of who counts as Asian. Through most of U.S. history, Americans with any trace of black ancestry were assigned a black racial identity. Harris claimed her blackness at a previous Democratic presidential debate by stating that she was “the only black person on this stage,” which silenced her fellow candidates and gave her the floor “to speak on the issue of race.” But Harris has also claimed her Asian Indian identity in her campaign, her book and press interviews. Harris does not choose between black and Asian. Neither should we.
As the United States continues to diversify through immigration and multiracial identification, Americans will have to adjust their outdated understanding of who counts as Asian American or Pacific Islander. Our research found that younger, more educated Americans are ahead of the curve in adopting a more inclusive definition. Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate shows it’s time for the rest of us to update our views about race and representation.
Jennifer Lee is a professor of sociology at Columbia University. Karthick Ramakrishnan is a professor of public policy at UC Riverside and founding director of AAPI Data.