How AAPI as a racial category paints an incomplete picture : The Indicator from Planet Money When confronted with racial categories, which box do you tick? For Asian Americans, the grouping called AAPI – that's Asian American and Pacific Islander – is a strangely broad and ambiguous category.

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AAPI and the problems of categorizing race

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When we want to understand what is going on with people in the economy, we often rely on statistics that tell us about people's incomes, employment, wealth or education. And often this data can be further broken down by race and ethnicity.


You know, categories like white, Black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian American or Pacific Islander.

MA: Ah, AAPI, yes. It just rolls off the tongue. Wailin, I don't know about you, but when I hear this term, increasingly, I just get confused because when I think about it, it lumps in so many different people with such different backgrounds.

WONG: Yeah. According to the U.S. Census, Asians and Pacific Islanders hail from more than 20 different countries and places, and they speak at least that many languages.

MA: And not to mention all the diversity in religion, culture and history. So when we see statistics that purport to tell us something about this ginormous group we call AAPI, what the heck are these numbers actually saying?


WONG: And I'm Wailin Wong. Today on the show, how we ended up with this weirdly broad and - some would argue - nonsensical racial category. We'll talk about why it matters and whether there's a better way to understand the fastest-growing demographic in the country.


MA: What do people think of when they hear the phrase Asian American?

KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN: If you look at how Asian Americans are covered in news stories or the kind of stereotypes about Asians in America today, they probably think of a Chinese American who is highly educated, has a very large house - maybe they watched that movie "Crazy Rich Asians" - definitely not poor and probably living in California or New York.

WONG: Karthick Ramakrishnan knows what he's talking about because he studies AAPI demographics at the University of California, Riverside. He says the problem with the statistics on Asian Americans writ large is not that they're wrong necessarily, but most of the time they're painting this really broad, overall picture, kind of like an average.

RAMAKRISHNAN: What that does is that average actually hides a much more diverse reality and an unequal reality within Asian America.

WONG: Yeah. So for example, according to recent government data, people who identify as Indian have, as a group, a median household income of around $125,000. That's almost double the national median income.

MA: But another group of Asians, people who identified as Burmese, their median income was almost $20,000 below the national level. But often what the public sees is just, you know, a big Asian category which lumps both of these groups together along with a whole lot of others. And they see a headline number that shows Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have the highest incomes of any racial or ethnic group.

WONG: And it's not just incomes where you see this kind of messiness. It's also poverty levels, education levels, employment, all kinds of economic outcomes.

RAMAKRISHNAN: You are left with this false impression that this is a community that has it made. There's nothing we need to do, you know, to make sure that this community is being served better.

WONG: So how do we end up with such a large, arguably flawed statistical category?

RAMAKRISHNAN: Well, it turns out that what Asian means as a racial category is actually a category that's left over after you think about white people and Black people.

WONG: And to understand what Karthick is talking about, you have to go way back.

RAMAKRISHNAN: So our earliest immigration laws allowed immigrants who are free, white persons of good character to naturalize, to become U.S. citizens. And that was the law up through the Civil War. Now, after the Civil War, the United States expanded that eligibility for naturalization to allow Black immigrants to naturalize.

WONG: And maybe you're wondering, what about Mexicans and others who today might identify as Hispanic or Latino? Karthick says under these laws, they were often counted as white. Of course, it's complicated today, and we could do a whole other episode on the shifting meaning of Hispanic and Latino identity.

MA: But going back to our history about immigrants from Asia, the government didn't consider them white or Black. And let's just put a pause on Karthick for a second because notice we said the government. Now, today we might be used to surveys and forms asking us to self-identify our race or ethnicity. But NPR's Hansi Lo Wang, who spent years covering the census, he says as recently as the 1950s, self-identification was not a thing.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: It was essentially assigned to a person based on a government worker's observations.

MA: Wait a second. So, like, when they were doing the censuses before 1960, like, a census worker would go to somebody's door, and they'd, like, interview people and then be like, you look Chinese or whatever.

WANG: Yes.

MA: It'd be like that?

WANG: Yes. If you go back and look at the instructions for each census for the census workers, there were sometimes specific instructions about how to categorize people with, quote-unquote, "mixed blood." And for most of the history of the U.S. Census, this was not about using how people self-identify racially, ethnically, as the standard.

WONG: OK. Back to Karthick. He says because things were done this way, the government came up with categories for folks they did not consider white or Black.

RAMAKRISHNAN: They started collecting data on Chinese first, and then they started adding Japanese. They then added this - and Korean. And then they added this category called Hindu, which was not a religious category, but that's how they thought of as British Indian people in the U.S. at the time. Many of them were Sikh or Sikh - right? - but it didn't matter. They were classified as Hindu.

MA: Keep in mind, immigrants put into these categories were not allowed to naturalize, which meant they couldn't have full rights as citizens. Of course, this did not sit well with a lot of people. And in the 1920s, a couple of them did probably the most American thing of all - they took the issue to court, the Supreme Court actually.

RAMAKRISHNAN: One is the case of Ozawa v. United States. And that was a Japanese immigrant who basically argued that, I'm lighter-skinned than some of these Eastern European and Southern Europeans that you're giving citizenship to, and so, therefore, I should be considered white under U.S. law and therefore be granted citizenship. Essentially, the Supreme Court says, nice try, but that is not what it means to be white. To be white means to be Caucasian. You are not Caucasian. And therefore, you are not eligible for U.S. citizenship.

WONG: This legal history preceded a grassroots political movement in the late 1960s that introduced the term Asian American. And today, we have this really broad term for people of Asian descent - AAPI. It combines Asians, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. But is there a better way?

MA: Karthick says one thing researchers, demographers and pollsters could do is start collecting even more detailed data on ethnicity. And then instead of presenting a big AAPI category, break it up into a few smaller ones like East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders.

RAMAKRISHNAN: I mean, on the one hand, you can say these are arbitrary geographic categories, but they relate in many significant ways of the history of how these people have shown up to the United States.

WONG: For instance, people who trace their roots to Southeast Asia - countries like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia - it's more likely that you'll find people who have a refugee experience of moving because of the war that the U.S. was involved in in that region. That's less likely to be the case for people who come from India, Pakistan or Bangladesh.

MA: To be clear, Karthick is not saying we should just get rid of, you know, Asian American Pacific Islander as a category entirely. He believes, despite its flaws and despite its critics, there is some political value in the label. He says based on a lot of surveys that he and his colleagues have done over the years, Asian Americans across the board seem to have a lot in common. They support health care expansion, gun control, immigrant rights and environmental protection.

RAMAKRISHNAN: It is remarkable that given all of this tremendous linguistic, religious, socioeconomic diversity that you actually have what looks like a common Asian American agenda.

MA: Now, a lot of people who identify as Asian American might be skeptical of this statement. But what Karthick and the skeptics agree on is that our collective understanding of what, quote-unquote, "Asian America" is needs to evolve.


WONG: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Corey Bridges, with engineering from Josh Newell. It was fact-checked by Kathryn Yang. Viet Le is our senior producer. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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