Asian American population boom bigger in NC, Southeast
The region saw a 46% increase, while the state’s growth rate was 64%, according to a study by two Carolina centers.
What’s behind the dramatic rise in the Southeast’s Asian Indian population? How can data points such as the median age of Asian American groups predict North Carolina’s future? How do the numbers match with growth trends of other populations like Latinx?
A UNC Asian American Center collaborative study with Carolina Demography published in November 2022 will help researchers, scholars and communities answer those questions and many more as they plan for North Carolina’s future.
The study’s seven reports draw from partial 2020 U.S. Census data available in 2022 and a 2019 American Community Survey to present demographics such as race, age, income and citizenship status. The reports include a nationwide benchmark and one-page snapshots of the Southeastern U.S., North Carolina and four of the state’s metropolitan areas with high Asian American populations: the Charlotte area; Durham, Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Cary; Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem; and Hickory, Lenoir and Morganton. The Southeastern data come from 11 states, including Arkansas and Louisiana to the west, south to Florida and north to Kentucky and Virginia.
Heidi Kim, director of the Asian American Center and a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ English and comparative literature department, talked with The Well about the study.
Why did the center commission the study?
When I became Asian American Center director in fall 2020, one of the most frequent questions I got was for different population numbers about Asian American Pacific Islanders. I didn’t know, and more to the point, nobody else did. Nobody had those numbers easily at their fingertips. There had been one North Carolina study, but it was high time for another one. The questions that I got weren’t just about the state; they were about what’s going on in different regions, states and cities. There’s so much variation, which I think you can see in the four reports on North Carolina areas.
In the wake of the 2021 Atlanta shootings [in which eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were killed at three spas], a lot of discussion focused on the Southeast’s growing Asian American population, so we wanted that snapshot. To do that, we needed a national benchmark to provide the full picture of how the region, the state and localities differ from a national average, which is always difficult to wrap your mind around. The other big issue that I wanted to address is the need for disaggregation or breaking down all the data on AAPI populations by ethnicity and national origin.
There have been different generations and types of migration, which sets up people in different ways in society. Looking at those differences through disaggregation is in high demand. On average, Asian Americans might look like they’re at or even above the mean of certain standards. Again, a lot of that has to do with different migration flows. If the population is heavy with H-1B visa workers who are coming for skilled jobs, it’s going to skew economic data in a certain direction. For example, look at the Research Triangle area. Lower-income populations here could be lumped in with higher-income populations and be underserved.
How did the study come together?
I talked to Carolina Demography about the things that I wanted to get at, specifically data for ethnic and national origins. They gave us great guidance and produced these beautiful one-pagers, so big thanks to them. I also wanted to investigate different economic markers. They pointed me to the 2019 American Community Survey as a supplementary data source, particularly because the 2020 census results are released in waves and the disaggregated data were not available yet. I didn’t want to wait for it. I wanted to do this now and fill this need. This is something we want to try to do regularly. Researchers and others will want updates, and then we’ll be able to track change over time.
In addition to researchers, who else do you anticipate using the data — scholars, Carolina administrators, students, folks from around the U.S.?
All of the above and more. Administrators around campus have expressed an interest in the University’s different initiatives. There are people conducting research and those who are working with different communities. There are local governments, different public-serving businesses or nonprofits who work on diversity, equity and inclusivity. To know if they’re reaching the population around them, they have to know the demographics of that population.
The nonprofit North Carolina Asian Americans Together had previously done a study in North Carolina, but it’s not something that they have been able to keep generating. My feeling was that the University is a place that produces knowledge. We should be producing this knowledge. We should be helping researchers and people working with the community by providing this kind of information. It seems like a perfect fit.
My hope is that this can accelerate better research, better services, better outreach to all these different populations.
What do the top-level findings tell you?
It confirms what people generally know, which is that the Asian American population in the U.S. Southeast and in North Carolina is growing at a tremendous rate. In the Southeast between 2010 and 2020, it grew at a 46% rate while nationally it grew by 35%. But in North Carolina, it grew at an even higher rate of 64%. Then the data by locality in North Carolina show it increasing more in some places. Look at the Charlotte area! Not knowing that area well, I was really blown away by the 89% growth over the last 10 years.
The numbers may in some ways be slightly deceptive and even be a little low. One reason is the addition of the multiracial category, which has shown explosive growth as more and more people tick that box. We don’t know how many people who also identify as Asian American are ticking multiracial. That’s one of the caveats that comes with looking at this kind of data and working with people’s self-identification.
You can also look at the growth-rate tab for a comparison with other groups. We know that the Latinx population is also growing at a tremendous rate in the Southeast and in North Carolina. So you can see how the state’s makeup is changing. It’s exciting for some people. It’s unsettling for some people. Regardless, we need to know about it and be prepared to serve all these populations.
In the U.S., the largest Asian ethnic groups are 22% Chinese and 22% Asian Indian, but those populations change drastically in the Southeast, North Carolina and the Triangle with the Asian Indian population taking the top spot and steadily increasing.
To what to you attribute that increase?
Where communities are established, they bring religious institutions and cultural amenities like supermarkets. People look for those things when they want to settle down. We have a lot of industry and higher education in this region that drive a constant amount of migration. Families might join families. Workers might join ethnic-owned businesses. Again, when you look at these numbers, it gives a sense of what is around you, but it doesn’t tell you all those other drivers.
What do the data tell you about the future?
I’m not a demographer. We’re just providing the data, but I will say that we can predict growth and change. A really good example of that is age. The group with the highest median age is the Japanese American population and the group with the youngest median age is the Hmong American population. That reflects waves of migration. There’s not as much Japanese immigration now. This has never been a hub of Japanese Americans, so that population is aging and not being renewed. There’s also a lot of mixed-race marriage in the Japanese American community. I don’t know if that’s true of North Carolina, but nationally that’s true. The Hmong population will age. They’re a refugee population that currently skews young, and the immigration flow is not predictable. But I don’t think you can just say that the South will follow the same patterns we’ve seen in other regions. There’s a distinct culture and history here, and again, that will shape the future just as much as the numbers.