In 1965, Asian Americans made up less than 1 percent of the total U.S. population. In 2011, that number grew to 6 percent, encompassing 18.2 million people. This community is still expanding. According to a 2012 Pew Research report entitled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” Asian Americans are currently the fastest-growing racial group in the United States.
With such population growth comes the rapid expansion of a relatively unexplored corpus of experiences and history in a country where race relations are often characterized by a black-white dichotomy. Asian American Studies seeks to address this issue, to lay bare and give voice to the many perspectives of a wildly diverse and disparate group of individuals lumped together under a single label. In doing so, Asian American Studies explores not only the Asian American herself in all her many representations, but her relations with other racial and minority groups in the United States, her journey through American history, and her state in the pluralistic and multi-ethnic society in which we live today.
If anything, Asian American Studies is the study of a contradiction, for “the” Asian American identity is not merely one identity. Asian Americans are treated as one in America under the social construct of race. Yet, their backgrounds are diverse ethnically, socioeconomically, and politically. Consider the clear differences between Richard Aoki and John Yoo, the former a Japanese American radical leftist and Black Panther Party leader, the latter a Korean American conservative Justice Department official in the second Bush administration noted for his legal guidance concerning enhanced interrogation techniques. Or consider the fact that, while 70 percent of Indian Americans over 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree, only 26 percent of Vietnamese Americans have the same credentials.
For all these differences, the consequence of being categorized as one race has given commonality to the Asian American experience as well. Hate crimes and discrimination affect all Asian Americans, regardless of whether the victim was Sikh American Columbia professor Prabhjot Singh, targeted in one of many hate crimes perpetuated against Sikh and Muslim Americans after the 9/11 attacks; Vincent Chin, a Chinese American beaten to death in 1982 by Detroit autoworkers; or Dan Choi, a gay Korean American National Guardsman discharged under Don’t Ask Don’t Tell following his public coming-out. The American political-legal system itself has explicitly been discriminatory against Asian Americans: quotas preventing Chinese immigration to the United States have been codified into law by acts of Congress, while the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Japanese American internment during World War II as constitutional in Korematsu v. United States. A more modern example would be the judicial militancy that would lead to the unfair detention of Taiwanese American nuclear physicist Wen Ho Lee on unsubstantiated charges of espionage. Some argue that the extra scrutiny paid to the campaign finances of Asian American political candidates, such as former New York City Comptroller John Liu, amount to political discrimination.
Beyond outright prejudice, though, stereotypes of Asian Americans are a natural result of a homogenous racial identity as well. The perception of Asian Americans as a model minority and sexual attitudes that view Asian American males as effeminate and females as exotic, for instance, remain common. Misconceptions of Asian American wealth have led to the stigmatization of lower-income Asian Americans, while those who are highly educated are considered to be “docile” and “subservient,” which is perhaps why they face greater promotion discrimination than other American minority groups in a phenomenon termed as the “bamboo ceiling.”
This is not to say that Asian American Studies is isolated from the more well-established studies of other demographic groups. Cesar Chavez would be launched into the national spotlight as a result of the predominantly Filipino American-led Delano Grape Strike. The 1992 Los Angeles race riots would erupt a conflict between the African Americans and Korean Americans of Los Angeles.
It is clear that there are stories to be told behind the 18.2 million Asian American faces in this country today, faces that more than ever accentuate the diversity in the culture, history, and socioeconomics of the American population. Weaved into this Asian American narrative are an equally diverse group of people: the Chinese workers who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad, the all-Nisei 442nd Infantry Regiment in World War II, the Filipinos who fought against the United States in the Philippine-American War, and countless others. But with such a wide range of experiences, mere description is not enough. Powerful as stories are, Asian American Studies as a field is necessary to place these perspectives under the lens of theoretical and critical analysis and, above all, give voice to an integral part of the American narrative that contributes significantly to the richness of ethnic diversity in our society.