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Data points to disparities among Asian Americans, a demographic that often is portrayed as monolithic

Liddy Chan and others gathered around the Parkman Bandstand in Boston Common to attend the National Day of Solidarity Against AAPI Hate rally on May 31.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

With the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and violence, a spotlight has been put on the Asian American community.

Even I, as a lifelong Asian American, am learning a lot about who we are and where we might go from here.

This year marks a new chapter for many Asian Americans in the United States. No longer is it OK for us to be the forgotten minority. The March 16 shootings at three spas in the Atlanta area ― which took eight lives, including six Asian American women ― has shaken some of us to our core.

I live in fear for the first time in my life. I don’t know whether Atlanta was the culmination of a yearlong wave of anti-Asian sentiment, or the beginning of a more violent and dangerous period for Asian Americans. A month after Atlanta, there was another mass shooting claiming the lives of eight Fedex workers, including four who were Sikh, at an Indianapolis facility.

I have started to think twice about taking walks alone or going out after dusk. I always walk with the dog now, and I avoid checking my cellphone when out and about so that I’m more aware of my surroundings. I thought it was just me overreacting, but I recently read how Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, co-author of a new federal COVID-19 hate crime law, had a similar response to growing Asian hate: She no longer feels comfortable taking a walk while listening to an audiobook on her earbuds.


Perhaps it has been a privilege that I haven’t had to live in a constant state of fear. But I want my sense of safety back, not just for myself, but for everyone. Nobody in America should live like this.

Education and awareness are key to eradicating ignorance, especially about Asian Americans, who are treated as perpetual foreigners by some and the model minority by others.


Here are some surprising facts I’ve learned this year, courtesy of Boston Indicators, the research arm of the Boston Foundation; the Institute for Asian American Studies at University of Massachusetts-Boston, and CareQuest Institute for Oral Health.

  • At 8.9 percent, the Asian American population is similar in size to the Black population in Greater Boston.
  • The poverty rate among Asian American households in Boston is higher than in Black households and nearly three times higher than in white households. A family of four living on a household income of $26,500 is considered poor by the federal government.
  • During the pandemic, revenue dropped sharply at more Asian American-owned small businesses compared with their white, Black, and Latinx counterparts.
  • Asian Americans were the most likely to have lost health insurance (34 percent) and dental insurance (19 percent) during the pandemic.
  • Nearly a quarter of undocumented immigrants in Massachusetts are Asian.
  • Disparities within the Asian American community are enormous, often reflecting the wide range of immigration paths, from refugees to employment-based visas. Less than a third of Vietnamese and Cambodians in Massachusetts have a college degree, compared with 80 percent or more for Korean, Japanese, and Indian-Americans. The overall median household income in Greater Boston is about $85,000, but within the Asian American community the median ranges from a low of about $60,000 for Nepalese families to a high of nearly $130,000 for Indian families.
  • Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in Greater Boston, surging 207 percent from 1990 to 2019 compared with 166 percent for Latino people and 52 percent for Black people. During that same period, the white population declined 23 percent.
  • While Quincy is known for its high percentage of Asian Americans (28 percent), other communities aren’t far behind, including Lexington (25 percent), Acton (23 percent), Malden (23 percent), Lowell (21 percent), and Boxborough (20 percent).

Some of the data also surprised Luc Schuster, director of Boston Indicators, and research fellow Anne Calef. Schuster was struck by the high poverty rate, while Calef didn’t expect Asian Americans in Greater Boston to rival the size of the Black population.

Much of the data that Schuster and Calef compiled came from the US Census Bureau, which collects detailed household information beyond a single “Asian” category. This gives researchers and policymakers a more accurate reflection of what’s happening in the Asian American community, instead of treating the group as a monolith.

“This helps break down the way oversimplified model minority myth,” said Schuster.

Schuster would like to see more public agencies collect information about Asian subgroups, such as asking for people’s country of origin. Lumping Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese together often masks disparities within the subgroups.

Better data can help government and nonprofits target support to Asian Americans who need it the most. State Representative Tackey Chan, a Quincy Democrat, has been pushing legislation on Beacon Hill that would require state and quasi-state agencies to collect data by racial subgroups.

Bad data has hurt Asian Americans, often leaving them out of the conversation. It’s painful to see this happen over and over.


Remember that oft-cited 2015 Federal Reserve Bank study that pegged the median net worth of a Black household in the Boston area at $8? While the finances of white and Hispanic households were analyzed, an explanation of the net worth of Asian Americans was reduced to this terse sentence: “Unfortunately, the sample size for Asians is too small to make any inferences.”

The Boston Fed is updating its “Color of Wealth” study, and one goal, I am told, is to learn more about the region’s Asian populations so it can be part of the effort to increase wealth for communities of color.

Asian Americans were also noticeably excluded in a MassINC poll on the Boston mayoral race that was conducted in April. Of the 552 registered voters surveyed, about half were white, 26 percent were Black, 13 percent were Latino, and 8 percent were “other.”

For Asian Americans, the message was loud and clear: We don’t count. Ironic, given that Michelle Wu, a Boston city councilor who is Chinese-American, is considered a leading mayoral candidate.

MassINC president Steve Koczela, in an e-mail, explained that since George Floyd’s killing last May, pollsters have been trying to “oversample,” or collect extra responses to better understand the public opinions of Black, Latino, and Asian residents.

Not all clients do this because of cost, so MassINC is creating a new survey panel called “MassVoice” to make capturing diverse respondents affordable and accessible.


“In doing so, the state’s diverse voices will be amplified across policy issues in ways that have not been possible before,” said Koczela.

The inconvenient truth is that the Asian American experience is not nearly as well known as those of other minority groups. Ours has been a complicated narrative to unpack, making it easier for America to leave us out of the nation’s racial reckoning.

That has to change now. Equality has to be for everyone, not just for the people you know.

Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com.