The South's Asian American population is booming — and diverse (2023)

Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial or ethnic group in the United States — and that growth has been especially rapid in the Southeast. While most Asian Americans still reside on the West Coast, the second greatest proportion lives below the Mason-Dixon Line.

Asian Americans have been building communities in the South since the 1800s, with Chinese laborers settling in rural Mississippi and Bengali peddlers integrating into neighborhoods in New Orleans, but their population's growth has accelerated in recent decades.

It's a trend that's been studied by demographers — and, during recent election cycles with high-stakes races and precarious balances of power, by political organizers eager to better understand this demographic's interests and leanings. Now, a new collaborative study by UNC-Chapel Hill's Asian American Center and Carolina Demography sheds fresh light on the population's growth and characteristics.

Nationwide between 2010 and 2020, the number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders grew by 35%, the study found. Across the Southeast in that same period, the AAPI population increased by 46%, while in North Carolina it leapt 64%. (The study classifies the Southeast region as including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.) That outpaces the growth rate even of the rapidly increasing Hispanic population, which over the last 10 years jumped 39% in the Southeast and 40% in North Carolina.

This boom in the AAPI population is expected to continue in the coming decades, with the Pew Research Center predicting a more than threefold increase in the Asian American population nationally from 2000 to 2060.

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But who exactly makes up this fast-growing AAPI community? Where is the growth concentrated? Does our current understanding of the AAPI population reflect the complex and diverse nature of a demographic with roots in more than 20 countries?

The UNC study aims to answer some of these questions using data from the 2020 census and the Census Bureau's 2019 American Community Survey. It looks at the AAPI population in the Southeast broadly and takes a deep dive into North Carolina specifically, examining factors like ethnicity, national origin, citizenship, and socioeconomic status.

Heidi Kim, a professor of English and comparative literature at UNC-Chapel Hill and the director of the Asian American Center, which commissioned the study, was responding to a demand for greater understanding of the AAPI population's diversity in the South.

"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," Kim said in a recent university Q&A. "The questions that I got weren't just about the state; they were about what's going on in different regions, states and cities."

'Snowball effect'

The study from UNC researchers found that North Carolina's AAPI population* grew more than eightfold between 1990 and 2020, from around 52,000 to 441,000. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders now make up 4.1% of the state's total population.

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The UNC study also found that the three largest AAPI ethnic groups across both the Southeast and North Carolina are Indians (called "Asian Indians" in the report as in the U.S. Census to distinguish them from American Indians), Chinese, and Vietnamese. Together, they make up more than half of the Asian population in both the region and the state.

While a 2018 Carolina Demography report documented significant growth among the Hispanic population in rural communities in North Carolina, this new report found that AAPI groups are concentrated in four of North Carolina's urban areas: Durham-Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Cary, Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia, Greensboro-High Point and Winston-Salem, and Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton. The specific groups present vary from place to place, with a large proportion of Indian and Chinese immigrants in the tech-centric Raleigh-Durham area, for example, and many Hmong immigrants in the foothills around Hickory.

Kim describes the growth in some areas as resulting from the "snowball effect." As immigrants move to a particular area for business or educational opportunities, a community begins to develop. This in turn attracts more immigrants looking for jobs, grocery stores, restaurants, religious organizations and community hubs.

The report also drills into data on educational attainment and socioeconomic status by various AAPI ethnic groups, dismantling harmful "model minority" myths that oversimplify complex realities. In the Southeast as a whole, for example, 60% of the entire AAPI population between the ages of 25 and 64 holds a bachelor's degree or higher; that compares to 35% of white people, 24% of Hispanic people, and 22% of Black people. However, that figure varies widely among AAPI ethnic groups, from 82% of Taiwanese people to just 16% of Laotians.

In North Carolina, the median income among Asian Americans also widely varies, from $115,000 for Indians to $52,010 for Koreans. Similarly, the poverty rate for AAPI groups in the state ranges from just 2% among Japanese and Pakistani populations to a high of 14% among Vietnamese people.

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Specific data like this is crucial for addressing differing needs within the Asian American population, said Chavi Khanna Koneru, co-founder and executive director of North Carolina Asian Americans Together (NCAAT).

"Data disaggregation is a very critical part of our work," Khanna Koneru told Facing South. "Because you can't really advocate for a community that has such disparity in education and income levels without getting down on a micro-level to talk about that ethnicity, their immigration story, how that's impacted them."

Changing populations, categories

Khanna Koneru sees studies like the one from UNC's Asian American Center and Carolina Demography as important resources for advocating for AAPI groups and the issues they care about.

In 2016, NCAAT collaborated with the Southeast Asian Coalition, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, and the Institute for Southern Studies, nonprofit publisher of Facing South, to produce a report diving into the explosive growth of the Asian American population — and the political implications for North Carolina's electorate.

"Asian Americans are generally left out of that conversation in North Carolina about how certain policies would impact our population, even as a large group," Khanna Koneru said. "But to be able to say, 'This is how it would impact this particular group,' is really helpful. I think it's also going to help build cross-racial solidarity, because some of these ethnic groups … are more similar to other communities of color than they are necessarily to some other Asian American ethnicities."

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But Khanna Koneru, who is Indian American, also pointed to difficulties around self-identification in demographic studies. For example, the Census Bureau and the Carolina Demography/AAC study use the term "Asian Indian," but that category can be confusing even among those for whom it's applied.

"I have suggested to the Census Bureau that we change this, because I will tell you that my own parents, who are educated, who had been in the U.S. for a while, did not check that box because they didn't know what 'Asian Indian' meant," Khanna Koneru said. "They thought, was that a different kind of Indian? So I think that's just an example of the types of terms that can be confusing, and maybe they are common to the government, but they're not common to the people who are filling out these forms."

Khanna Koneru also noted the evolution of the usage of "Asian American" — a term first coined as a political identity in 1968 by students and activists at the University of California, Berkeley and inspired by the Black Power Movement. It's now widely adopted by government entities, including the U.S. Census Bureau, and academia, often grouping a diverse set of populations together.

Similarly, Kim pointed to challenges in data collection and analysis for AAPI populations, such as the inability to draw "apples-to-apples" data when terminology and categories have changed over the course of the census. From 1920 to 1950, for example, South Asian people were categorized as "Hindu" — the only time a religion was included as a race category in the decennial population count. It wasn't until the 2000 census that the "Asian or Pacific Islander" racial category was divided into "Asian" and "Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander."

"It's great to have demographic information, but it's always important to be aware of its limitations," Kim said.

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*The AAC and Carolina Demography report differentiates between the AAPI population alone and the AAPI population in combination with another racial or ethnic group, and counts the growth rate for the AAPI group as non-Hispanic Asian/Pacific Islander alone.

(Editor's note: Maydha Devarajan currently works as a contractor for the Asian American Center on their collaborative oral history project, Southern Mix.)


Are South Asians diverse? ›

The most common languages other than English spoken by South Asians in the United States include Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. South Asians are also diverse in terms immigration and socioeconomic status.

What is the South Asian population of America? ›

Demographics. South Asian Americans are one of the fastest growing groups in the United States, increasing in population from 2.2 million to 4.9 million from 2000 to 2015. Around one third of the group lives in the Southern United States, with the population nearly tripling in the South between 2000 and 2017.

What southern state has the highest Asian population? ›

Hawaii has the highest relative population of Asian Americans, with a total of 547,843 Asian Americans, counting for 38.95% of the total population.
Asian Population by State
  • New Jersey - 948,998.
  • Washington - 854,617.
  • Illinois - 828,847.
  • Hawaii - 803,266.
  • Florida - 763,613.
  • Virginia - 691,449.
  • Massachusetts - 538,409.

When did the first South Asians come to America? ›

The first wave of South Asians arrived in the United States between 1897 and 1924 and consisted primarily of Sikh farmers from Punjab, India, and some Bengali Muslims. Specifically, between 1905 and 1912, thousands of male laborers from South Asia made their way to North America (Rangaswamy, 2000).

Is South Asia the most diverse? ›

South Asia is one of the most diverse parts of the world, and their culture is completely entwined in language, ethnicity, and religion. There are many practiced religions, but the most popular ones are Hindu, Islam, and Buddhism.

Is Southeast Asia very diverse? ›

Southeast Asia has incredible diversity in terms of religion, language, ethnicity and culture. All these features provide complex challenges but also opportunities that are the concern of social policy.

Why is there a lot of Asians in South America? ›

Asian immigrants to Latin America have largely been from East Asia or West Asia. Historically, Asians in Latin America have a centuries-long history in the region, starting with Filipinos in the 16th century. The peak of Asian immigration occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What are South Asians called? ›

“South Asian,” “brown” and “Desi” are three that are dominant today. For some, they're apt names to describe inherently similar cultures and a connected history. Others say they paint over a vast array of peoples who make up the subcontinent and its diasporas.

Where do most South Asians live in America? ›

The five states with the largest South Asian populations are California, New York, New Jersey, Texas, and Illinois. San Francisco-Oakland. largest South Asian population. Various South Asian Groups are also concentrated in different metropolitan areas in the country.

Where do most South Asians live? ›

The four largest South Asian nations represented by population are India (192,209), Bangladesh (53,174), Pakistan (41,887), and Sri Lanka (3,696), respectively.

What US states have the most Asians? ›

According to the 2010 Census almost three quarters of all Asian Americans live in California, New York, Texas, New Jersey, Hawaii, Illinois, Washington, Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
Metropolitan areaTotal% of total population
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA Metro Area1,884,66914.7%
15 more rows

Where do the majority of people in southern Asia live? ›

India and Pakistan account for 86 percent of the region's total population and, along with Bangladesh, rank among the world's ten largest countries by population.

Who are South Asians descended from? ›

Modern South Asians are descendants of a combination of an indegeneous South Asian component (termed Ancient Ancestral South Indians, short "AASI"), closest to Southern Indian tribal groups, and distantly related to the Andamanese peoples, as well as to East Asian people, and Aboriginal Australians, and later-arriving ...

Did South Asians originate from Africa? ›

There are a significant number of South Asians who are of African descent. There are a large number of Pakistanis with African descent. As early as the seventh century, Africans settled on the Balochistan coast and the Sindhi shores.

Where did South Asians come from? ›

Nearly all of the Indian subcontinent's ethnic and linguistic groups are the product of three ancient Eurasian populations who met and mixed: local hunter-gatherers, Middle Eastern farmers, and Central Asian herders.

Why is South Asia population high? ›

Due to the advancement in medicine, mortality rates have gone down which has led to a population explosion. In addition, there is a lack of food supply which causes deficiency diseases and starvation in overcrowded areas.

Which country in South America has the most diverse population? ›

Colombia is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the Western Hemisphere. Its population is the result of indigenous racial mixture, African and European. The indigenous ethnic groups and Afro-Colombians inhabit 24% of the country.

Is Southeast Asia perhaps the most diverse region on earth? ›

It also has been of great importance that Southeast Asia, which is the most easily accessible tropical region in the world, lies strategically astride the sea passage between East Asia and the Middle Eastern–Mediterranean world. Within this broad outline, Southeast Asia is perhaps the most diverse region on Earth.

Why is Southeast Asia diverse? ›

Southeast Asia's population includes a wide variety of ethnic groups and cultures. This diversity is related to its position as a focus of converging land and sea routes. In addition, over the span of human habitation, the region alternately has been a bridge and a barrier to the movement of people.

What is the most diverse country? ›

The usual suspects lead the list of culturally diverse countries: Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Togo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These and other African countries typically rank high on any diversity index because of their multitude of tribal groups and languages.

Why is Southeast Asia so unique? ›

A distinctive feature of Southeast Asia is its cultural diversity. Of the six thousand languages spoken in the world today, an estimated thousand are found in Southeast Asia.

Why is South America so diverse? ›

Latin America has a rich and diverse history of indigenous cultures, European colonization, African slavery, and global immigration that makes it complex and difficult to describe its people with a single ethnic category or identifier.

What are South Asians more prone to? ›

Compared with other ethnic groups, South Asians are especially at risk for serious medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.

Why did South Asians migrate? ›

South Asian migrants to the UK after 1947 come from different countries and for different reasons - to escape civil war, to seek better economic opportunities and to join family members already settled here.

What do South Asians believe in? ›

The primary South Asian religions are Hinduism and Islam. Minority religions are Buddhism, Christianity, and Sikhism.

What religion is South Asians? ›

The major religions in the subcontinent are Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Christianity. The chart below shows the different religions in South Asia and the percent of the more than 1.29 billion people who practice each of them. The majority of the people in South Asia practice Hinduism.

Which US city has the most Asians? ›

In August 1959, Hawaii officially became the fiftieth US state. Since then, Honolulu has not only remained its largest city, but is the US city with the highest share of Asian-Americans in its population. Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos live in the city in large numbers.

Which US state has the most Chinese? ›

The state of Hawaii has the highest concentration of Chinese Americans at 4.0%, or 55,000 people.

What state has highest black population? ›

Texas has the largest Black state population.

Where do most Southeast Asians come from? ›

Modern Austronesian and Austroasiatic speaking populations of Southeast Asia were found to have mostly East Asian-related ancestry (89% to 96%, with 94% on average). Taiwanese indigenous peoples had on average 99% East Asian-related ancestry.

What are some fun facts about South Asia? ›

Home to 1.75 billion people, South Asia has the world's tallest mountains, and is the origin of some of the world's oldest civilizations and the wellspring of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sanamahism, Sikhism, and Jainism.

Is the population of South Asia aging? ›

As a combined result of fertility-mortality trends, the proportion of older persons in South Asia's population which had declined from 5.8 to 5.5 per cent during 1950-1975, increased to 6.3 per cent in 2000. Projections show that by 2025 the proportion will have increased to 10 per cent and to 19 per cent by 2050.

Is it harder for South Asians to gain muscle? ›

South Asians are able to mount an anabolic response to resistance exercise training of a similar magnitude as White Europeans with similar increases in muscle mass and strength.

Do Southeast Asians have Indian DNA? ›

Most populations harboring South Asian admixture were heavily influenced by Indian culture in the past or are related to descendants of ancient Indianized states in Southeast Asia.

Where are Indians from? ›

While the demonym "Indian" applies to people originating from the present-day Republic of India, it was also used as the identifying term for people originating from what is now Pakistan and Bangladesh prior to the partition of British India in 1947. Languages of India, including: Assamese.

Which black tribes are from South Asia? ›

Siddis, or Habshis, are a unique tribe that has African ancestry and lives in South Asia. They are mainly found in three Indian states—Gujarat, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh—and according to the latest census, their total population size is about 0.25 million.

Did Asians colonize Africa? ›

In the Middle Ages, North and East Africa was further colonised by people from Western Asia.

Where do the African tribe Asians come from? ›

More than 70% of the native population has Afro-Asian ancestry stemming from African, Malagasy, Indian and Chinese peoples, combined with additional British and French origins.

Where did most Asians come from? ›

Originating primarily from China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Philippines, these early migrants were predominantly contracted workers who labored on plantations. With the annexation of Hawaii by the United States in 1893, a large population of Asians lived in U.S. territory and more would continue to immigrate.

What are South Asians a mix of? ›

Nearly all of the Indian subcontinent's ethnic and linguistic groups are the product of three ancient Eurasian populations who met and mixed: local hunter-gatherers, Middle Eastern farmers, and Central Asian herders.

Who do South Asians descend from? ›

Modern South Asians are descendants of a combination of an indigenous South Asian component (termed Ancient Ancestral South Indians, short "AASI"), closest to Southern Indian tribal groups, which are distantly related to the Andamanese peoples, as well as to East Asian people, and Aboriginal Australians, and later- ...

Do South Asians have African descent? ›

There are a significant number of South Asians who are of African descent. There are a large number of Pakistanis with African descent. As early as the seventh century, Africans settled on the Balochistan coast and the Sindhi shores.

What religion are most South Asians? ›

The majority of the people in South Asia practice Hinduism. Hindus have many representations of God from which they choose to worship. They also have many holy scriptures and prophets.

Do South Asians have more testosterone? ›

Conclusions Total, but not free, testosterone concentrations are lower in healthy South Asian males than in Caucasians. These differences are apparent at a young age and may be partly attributable to alterations in insulin sensitivity.

Which race has the highest muscle density? ›

This may be related to differences in body composition, which is known to differ between ethnic groups. 62, 105 More specifically, black adults were found to have a relatively higher muscle mass (leading to a lower sarcopenia prevalence) compared to whites and Asians.

Do South Asians gain weight faster? ›

(5) South Asians, in particular, have especially high levels of body fat and are more prone to developing abdominal obesity, which may account for their very high risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

What is the main ethnicity in Southeast Asia? ›

Southeast Asian is generally considered a race in and of itself. However, major ethnicities include Vietnamese, Burmese, and Indonesian. There is significant cultural influence between Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Asia.

What race is Southwest Asia? ›

Arabs comprise most of the population of Southwest Asia.

Where do Afro-Asians come from? ›

Afro-Asians (or African Asians) are African communities that have been living in the Indian Subcontinent for centuries and have settled in countries such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Where does the Indian DNA come from? ›

Thus, it is true that the majority of Indians are primarily descended from people who have been been in South Asia for at least the last 10,000 years, but much of their ancestry comes from an ancient migration from the Middle East; in fact, Indians as a whole genetically cluster with Middle Easterners, with the ANI ...

When did Asians come to Africa? ›

The Asian presence in East Africa dates as far back as 2,000–3,000 years. Until the nineteenth century Asians were confined to the coastal areas as small scattered groups of merchants (Hollingsworth 1960).


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