Understanding Asian-American Assimilation Outcomes, 1940-2000


Having recently overtaken Hispanics as the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, Asian-Americans are notable as a group not only for their socioeconomic success but also for their “foreignness” despite their nearly two-century-long history in America dating back to the late 1840s. According to a 2012 Pew Research Center analysis, fully 74% of Asian-American adults were born abroad, only half of which claimed to speak English “very well” (“The Rise of Asian Americans”). I will be investigating assimilation outcomes of Asian-Americans by studying their demographics from 1940 to 2000, a period encompassing the conflict with Japan during the Second World War, extensive military involvement in Korea and Vietnam, and the modern surge of immigration following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act which lifted national origin restrictions barring immigration from nearly all Asian countries.

This post will begin by summarizing the hypotheses proposed in the literature to explain the stunted assimilation outcomes of Asian-Americans in the United States, and will then use census data to test and explore these claims. Three major themes emerge in the literature: historical opposition to Asian immigration and integration, culturally-based self-segregation geographically and occupationally, and demographics-based explanations.

There exists considerable literature chronicling the deep-seated and often highly explicit anti-Asian biases in United States immigration policy throughout history. Ting’s 1994 article “Other Than a Chinaman” explains how U.S. immigration law was born and molded by a desire to exclude Asian immigrants from the United States and examines current U.S. immigration policies and practices in light of this history, noting the extent to which these reflect a continuing anti-Asian bias (Ting, 1994). White et al.’s “Immigration, naturalization, and residential assimilation among Asian Americans in 1980” uses specially-tabulated census data to look at how highly restricted and labor-oriented immigration contributed to the residential isolation of Asian immigrants into different geographical locations of the United States, and the formation of Chinatowns and Japantowns in urban areas (White et al., 1993). This perspective of study suggests that a large part of modern-day Asian-American assimilation outcomes can be attributed to significant historical opposition against their immigration and integration into American society.

Another direction of study seeks to quantify the extent to which assimilation outcomes result from culturally-based self-segregation. The aforementioned White et al. paper also studies how ethnicity and immigrant status are correlated to residential assimilation, finding significant differences across the various Asian-origin groups (White et al., 1993). Tang et al.’s “Asian Americans’ career choices” uses surveys of Asian-American college students to investigate how level of acculturation, sense of self-efficacy, and family involvement can steer Asian-American students toward certain lines of work, seeking to explain why the occupational distribution of Asian-Americans differs so wildly from the population as a whole (Tang et al., 1999). Zhou et al.’s “The multifaceted American experiences of the children of Asian immigrants” analyzes religious, educational, occupational, and residential outcomes of second generation immigrants by ethnicity and parental origin (Zhou et al., 2005). This school of thought attributes assimilation outcomes to fundamental cultural differences between Asian immigrants and their descendants with the native U.S. population.

A third area of research identifies demographics-based justifications for immigrant assimilation outcomes. The seminal work of Bleakley et al. in “Age at arrival, English proficiency, and social assimilation among US immigrants” uses census microdata to relate immigrants’ English proficiency, marriage, fertility, and residential location variables to their age at arrival in the US, and in particular whether that age fell within the “critical period” of language acquisition (Bleakley et al., 2010). The results give insight on how age-at-arrival of immigrants and household environment of children of immigrants affect socioeconomic outcomes, and call into question the commonplace hypothesis that social assimilation is dependent on culture or preferences related to birth place or national origin.

These readings have framed my understanding of how Asian-American assimilation outcomes are intricately related to the three main factors of historical external opposition, cultural values, and demographics. I will explore each of these further in my analysis using IPUMS data along the dimensions of birth place, location, occupation, age-at-arrival and years in the US. Each of these dimensions reflects the intersection of at least two of the above factors, and so will hopefully serve to connect these separate but interrelated determinants of Asian-American assimilation outcomes.

Data and Methods

My analysis is based on four data visualizations showcasing various Asian-American immigration and assimilation outcomes from 1940-2000. The data come from Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS) 1% samples for each census year in the period, using 1% state form 1 for 1970 and 1% metro for 1980. The majority of these analyses focus exclusively on those who identify racially as Asian in the IPUMS variable RACESING (i.e. people born in Asia but who identify as another race will not be included). RACESING assigns to multiple-race people the race category deemed most likely, depending on the individuals’ age, sex, Hispanic origin, region and urbanization level of residence, and the racial diversity of their local area, and is used over RACE due to the inclusion of 2000 census data which records multiple-race responses. Data is weighted using PERWT, which indicates how many persons in the U.S. population are represented by a given person in an IPUMS sample.

Figure 1 is a spine graph showing the historical distribution of Asian-Americans by birthplace, in terms of raw population and percentages, with the width for each year representing the total Asian-American population and the height representing the percentage from each birthplace. Birthplace is categorized as one of three domestic locations (California, Hawaii, Other US states/territories), or one of eight foreign locations (China, Japan, Korea, Philippines, Vietnam, Other SE Asia, India, Other Foreign Country) using the IPUMS variable BPL, with each of these being one of the highest-represented locations of birth either historically or in the present. Note that since data is unavailable for Alaska and Hawaii pre-1960, the distributions for 1940 and 1950 may be skewed by the absence of the Hawaiian population, which has historically made up a significant percentage of the Asian-American population.

Figure 2 is a series of maps documenting the historical distribution of Asian-Americans by state. Again, data from Alaska and Hawaii is unavailable pre-1960. States of residence are derived from the IPUMS variable STATEFIP.

Figure 3 is a set of column graphs showing the historical occupational distribution for people age 15-65 of first Asian-Americans and then Americans as a whole, broken down by sex and nativity. Individuals are grouped into one of six broad occupational groupings using the IPUMS variable OCC1950, as follows: none (including no response and non-occupational responses), farmers and farm laborers, craftsmen/operatives/laborers (excluding farm laborers), managerial/clerical/sales (managers, officers, and proprietors; clerical and kindred; sales workers), service (private household and non-household), and professional (including professors and instructors).

Figure 4 is a pair of population pyramids showing the historical distribution of Asian immigrants by age at arrival and sex, and by years in the United States and sex. Since the IPUMS variable YRIMMIG is not available pre-1970, the range of years covered is 1970-2000. This analysis considers only Asian-Americans whose birthplace as observed from IPUMS variable BPL was outside of the United States. Age at arrival and years in the US are calculated by using the IPUMS variables AGE, YEAR, and YRIMMIG, and organized in ten-year groups.

Code to generate each of these figures can be found on GitHub.



Figure 1: Asian-American Population by Birthplace, 1940-2000

Figure 1 frames the analysis of the evolving national composition of Asian-Americans in the United States and how it was impacted by US immigration policy and significant events in the countries of origin. Perhaps the most immediate observation is the high proportion of the Asian-American population from 1940-1970 that was born in the United States or one of its territories. Due to the lack of data for the Hawaiian population pre-1960, and the observation that Hawaiian-born individuals comprised over 30% of the entire Asian-American population in 1960, it is likely that the proportion of Asian-Americans in 1940 and 1950 born within the United States is even higher than is shown in the figure. This high proportion of native-born individuals among Asian-Americans is the logical result of immigration policies like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Gentleman’s Agreement in 1907, and the Immigration Act of 1924, which have historically excluded Asian immigrants from the United States (Ting 1994). Reduced immigration over this period owing to stringent national quotas would naturally lead to the Asian-American population being increasingly made up of US-born individuals. In particular, California, the original destination of Asian immigration in the early 19th century, and Hawaii together comprised over half the birth states of native-born Asian-Americans.

With the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, national quotas were standardized and the proportion of foreign-born among the Asian-American population grew substantially. The proportion of Asian-Americans born in Korea, Vietnam, and India increased particularly rapidly, while the proportion of Japanese, who were historically the most favored Asian nation in US immigration policy, declined (Ting 1994). At the same time, Asian-Americans began to diversify geographically within the United States, with an increasing proportion being born outside of California and Hawaii.

Political and economic conditions within the countries of origin had a significant impact on new immigration into the United States. The turmoil resulting from the Chinese Revolution of 1949 brought about a continuous flow of refugees into the U.S. On the other hand, the rapid economic development of Japan following the Second World War reduced incentives for permanent migration (White et al., 1993).

Asian immigration from other countries besides China, Japan, and the Philippines was limited in the early part of the 20th century. However, American military involvement in Asia led to an influx of refugees and war brides from Korea starting in 1960 and from Vietnam starting in 1980. Immigration from India, despite the country not having a US military presence historically, likewise surged after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 as a result of its explosive population growth (White et al., 1993).


Figure 2: Asian-American Populations By State, 1940


Figure 2: Asian-American Populations By State, 1950


Figure 2: Asian-American Populations By State, 1960


Figure 2: Asian-American Populations By State, 1970


Figure 2: Asian-American Populations By State, 1980


Figure 2: Asian-American Populations By State, 1990


Figure 2: Asian-American Populations By State, 2000

Figure 2 serves as a geographic overview of the Asian-American presence in the United States over the period 1940-2000. In 1940, the Asian-American population was highly concentrated in California, with some representation in Washington state and New York. Historically, immigration from Asia has been directed to the West Coast,as gold rushers, railroad builders, and farm laborers, and New York has long been a hub for immigration into the United States. By this time, immigration from Asia had largely been cut off, indicating that this geographic concentration remained for a time in descendants of immigrants. Asians face only about half the level of residential segregation of blacks, suggesting that this concentration is due in no small part to self-segregation, which has been observed even among persons who are not recent immigrants (White et al., 1993).

The 1950 census saw a significant influx into Illinois, presumably as Asian-Americans headed for Chicago. By 1960, sizable Asian-American populations had developed outside New York, Illinois, and the West Coast in surrounding Northeast, Midwest, and Southwest states respectively. By 1970, they had expanded to middle America and the South as continued military involvement in Asia resulted in an increasing amount of refugees and war brides brought home by US servicemen.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which greatly enlarged the scope and scale of Asian-origin immigration, inspired a new wave of skilled and highly educated immigrants. By 1980, eleven states had Asian-American populations of over 60,000. These were states which either historically had large Asian-American populations (California, Hawaii, Washington), or were home to one of the largest cities in the country (Illinois to Chicago, Maryland to Baltimore, Michigan to Detroit, New Jersey in proximity to New York City, New York to New York City, Pennsylvania to Philadelphia, Texas to Dallas, and Virginia in proximity to DC).

By 1990 and 2000, Asian-Americans were fairly well-represented throughout the country, albeit with notable concentrations along both coasts, the Midwest, and parts of Texas and the Southwest. With a few exceptions, such as the high proportion of Asian-Americans in Hawaii, these geographic residence patterns are fairly similar to the US population as a whole, conforming to the spatial assimilation model in which gains in socioeconomic status and increasing acculturation translate into residential propinquity with Anglos (White et al., 1993).


Figure 3a: Occupation of Asian-Americans Aged 15-65 by Sex, Birthplace, and Year, 1940-2000


Figure 3b: Occupation of Americans Aged 15-65 by Sex, Birthplace, and Year, 1940-2000

Figure 3 displays the occupational distribution of working-age Asian-Americans by nativity and sex and compares with the occupational distribution of working-age Americans as a whole. Differences between the occupational distribution of Asian-Americans and the occupational distribution of Americans as a whole include a higher proportion among Asian-Americans of farmers and farm laborers pre-1960, particularly among foreign-born males, higher proportion of professionals more recently, and historically lower proportion of craftsmen, operatives, and non-farm laborers.

These occupational outcomes reflect the intersection between immigration policy and cultural values. One key trend is the rise among Asian-Americans in professional occupations and the fall of farm and labor occupations over the period among both native-born and foreign-born females and males. Labor-oriented immigration and discrimination against Asian-Americans restricted their work opportunities historically, while the preference given to skilled and highly-educated immigrants in the post-1965 immigration system increased the proportion of Asian-Americans in professional occupations, particularly among the foreign-born (White et al., 1993).

Cultural values, including level of acculturation, sense of self-efficacy, and family involvement, have been found to steer Asian-American students toward the professional occupations (Tang et al., 1999). The value of education, family, hard work, and stability resonate particularly strongly with second-generation immigrants, whose parents’ embrace of these ideals proved instrumental to success in America (Zhou et al., 2005). Of note is the relatively high proportion of managerial/clerical/sales occupations among native-born Asian-American females compared to the other three groups, which could reflect both higher acculturation levels, due to more favorable treatment in American society, and gender roles, which is supported by the fact that native-born American females as a whole likewise have a relatively higher proportion of managerial/clerical/sales occupations (Zhou et al., 2005).

The increase in “none” in recent years among native-born males and females is interesting as well, and could possibly reflect more years spent in school and higher educational attainment. This hypothesis would be supported by Tang et al. and Zhou et al.’s work identifying cultural and familial effects on career choice and how these have evolved with the new wave of immigration to increasingly favor occupations requiring advanced degrees. Preliminary attempts to break down this category in the census data have been unsuccessful, but this would be a fruitful area for future study.


Figure 4a: Population Pyramids for Age at Arrival of Asian Immigrants


Figure 4b: Population Pyramids for Years in US of Asian Immigrants

Figure 4a shows the distribution of all foreign-born Asian-Americans by age-at-arrival. An immediate observation is that in every period, the number of foreign-born females exceeds the number of foreign-born males.This discrepancy is particularly striking among those whose age-at-arrival was from 20-29. This result likely reflects the influx of “war brides” from nearly a century of American military involvement in Asia: in the Philippines, in Japan, in Korea, and in Vietnam (White et al., 1993). One important consequence of immigrating as a wife of a US citizen is that many such immigrants are likely to have non-Asian husbands and are therefore less likely to be immediately channeled via self- or externally-imposed segregation into an ethnic enclave.

Historically, the majority of Asian immigrants into the United States arrived as adults of working age, but immigrants whose age-at-arrival was under 20 have increased particularly rapidly in 1990 and 2000. Language acquisition theory suggests that there exists a critical period of language acquisition in youth, and studies have found a strong correlation between immigrants’ age at arrival in the U.S. and their English-language skills in adulthood for immigrants from non-Anglophone countries, a category which encompasses nearly all Asian countries (Bleakley et al., 2010). In turn, English proficiency has been found to have a causal effect on various social outcomes, specifically, raising the probabilities of being divorced, marrying a U.S. native, having a more educated and higher-earning spouse, having fewer children, and for some groups, living outside of ethnic enclaves. (Bleakley et al., 2010). These results indicate that English-language skills have an important role in the process of social assimilation, and so the historical predominance of immigration from non-English speaking countries beyond the critical period of language acquisition could have stunted social assimilation outcomes among foreign-born Asian-Americans, who have been making up an increasing proportion of the Asian-American population as a whole.

Figure 4b shows the distribution of all foreign-born Asian-Americans by years in the United States. The results reflect the surge in new immigration In the years following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. From 1970 to 1990, the majority of foreign-born Asian-Americans had been in the United States for fewer than 10 years. Years spent in the United States of immigrants from non-Anglophone countries naturally impacts English-language skills, so the high proportion of new immigrants in the foreign-born Asian-American population suggests lower English proficiency on average and thus limited social assimilation outcomes.


Asian-Americans, who trace their ancestry to the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent, comprise an extremely diverse group in terms of history, culture, language, religion, economic/demographic traits, social/political values and pathways into America. Nonetheless, despite often sizable subgroup differences, Asian-Americans are distinctive when compared to Americans as a whole. They are the highest-income, best-educated, and fastest-growing racial group in the US.They are also the most likely of any major racial/ethnic group to live in mixed neighborhoods and marry across racial lines (“The Rise of Asian Americans”). At the same time there exists a prevalent conception of Asian-Americans as perpetual foreigners, a stereotype rooted at least partially in reality.

In this post, I have used census data to examine the evolving national composition, geographical concentration, and occupational distribution of Asian-Americans in the United States from 1940-2000, and the age-at-arrival and years-in-US for the foreign-born segment from 1970-2000. These analyses have shone light on how Asian-American assimilation outcomes are related to the three main factors discussed in the literature: historical external opposition, cultural values, and immigration demographics.

Immigration and foreign policy is reflected in historical Asian-American population by birthplace. The increasing proportion of foreign-born individuals suggests that historical opposition to immigration from Asia and the recent surge of immigration has led to real and perceived foreignness in the Asian-American population. Labor-oriented immigration and its evolution is shown in the geographic distribution and occupational distribution, with the West Coast-based farm and labor jobs in the middle of the 20th century giving way to urban-centered professional careers closer to the present day. Finally, immigration of refugees and war brides resulting from US military involvement in Asia is observed through population by birthplace as well as sex and age at arrival.

Differing cultural values is explored primarily through occupational distribution. These have been found to impact the occupational choices of Asian-Americans, both native- and foreign-born, leading to significant differences compared to the choices of Americans as a whole. The increasing propensity of Asian-Americans to pursue professional occupations at rates above their general American peers reflects the intersection between culture and immigration policy which has promoted the value of education and hard work.

Immigration demographics can be seen through the age-at-arrival and years-in-US population pyramids. Employment-based immigration resulted in the majority of Asian immigrants being of working age and arriving after the critical period of language development, which could have hindered social assimilation given that the vast majority hail from non-Anglophone countries. Substantial new immigration in the last 40 years has increased the proportion of foreign-born who have spent fewer than ten years in the US, a trend which likewise decreases English proficiency on average and which only recently has been reversed.

I hope that this post has been of value in examining some of the theories explaining Asian-American assimilation outcomes and thereby reconciling the somewhat conflicting ideas of Asian-Americans as simultaneously “model minorities” and “perpetual foreigners.”

Works Cited

Bleakley, Hoyt, and Aimee Chin. “Age at arrival, English proficiency, and social assimilation among US immigrants.” American economic journal. Applied economics 2.1 (2010): 165.

Tang, Mei, Nadya A. Fouad, and Philip L. Smith. “Asian Americans’ career choices: A path model to examine factors influencing their career choices.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 54.1 (1999): 142-157.

“The Rise of Asian Americans.” Pew Research Centers Social Demographic Trends Project RSS. N.p., 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Ting, Jan C. “Other Than a Chairman: How US Immigration Law Resulted from and Still Reflects a Policy of Excluding and Restricting Asian Immigration.” Temp. Pol. & Civ. Rts. L. Rev. 4 (1994): 301.

White, Michael J., Ann E. Biddlecom, and Shenyang Guo. “Immigration, naturalization, and residential assimilation among Asian Americans in 1980.” Social forces 72.1 (1993): 93-117.

Zhou, Min, and Yang Sao Xiong. “The multifaceted American experiences of the children of Asian immigrants: Lessons for segmented assimilation.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 28.6 (2005): 1119-1152.