May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the collective identity and diversity of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI). Over the next month, Urban researchers explore data that shed light on challenges faced by distinct AAPI groups and how these groups strengthen their communities.
I grew up in a northwestern Louisiana county where South Asians are few and far between. Only 0.2 percent of the county’s population identify as South Asian. In places like these, the immigrant experience can be isolating. The recent rise in intolerance makes me fear that the experience of South Asian families living in these places may be even more challenging today.
Last week, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national advocacy organization, documented a 34 percent rise in xenophobic rhetoric, racial profiling, and hate crimes targeting South Asians. These incidences were largely fueled by anti-Muslim sentiment partially ignited by the divisive political rhetoric of the 2016 election.
Many of these incidents occurred in rural towns like Lafayette, Louisiana, Twin Falls, Idaho, and Waterloo, Ohio, where the populations of South Asian Americans are small. The lack of local institutional supports in these areas poses a challenge to the ability of South Asians to be resilient in the face of these incidents.
Who are South Asians?
South Asia includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Many Americans do not understand who South Asians are and where they come from. The 2016 National Asian American Survey found that 41 percent of white Americans do not view Indians as “Asian.” The number is even higher (45 percent) for Pakistanis.
Why does this matter? First, these boundary lines in the perceptions of Asian Americans can allow prejudice and intolerance to grow. Second, these misconceptions limit the ability of Americans to understand and support South Asian Americans when there are incidents of hate or discrimination.
The paucity of complete data on South Asians also hampers the effort to break down these misconceptions. Most data are only available in aggregate form, and data on South Asian groups other than Indian Americans are largely missing at a national level.
Not all areas offer the same experience for immigrant communities
Major metropolitan areas like Houston, New York City, and San Francisco, which are immigrant gateways, are likely to have cultural institutions, temples and mosques, and advocacy and political organizations that support South Asian communities and help educate the local community about issues facing these people. Although most South Asians live in major metropolitan areas, some South Asians live in places where these resources and supports are absent.
South Asians remain clustered geographically. About 77 percent of South Asians live in only 100 counties across the country. About 205,000 South Asians (6 percent) live in counties that have fewer than 1,000 South Asians. Although this share is not large, the experiences of these populations should not be ignored.
As I learned growing up in Louisiana, teachers and schools may not know how to accommodate the needs of South Asian students and their families. English-language proficiency becomes a necessity, and opportunities to engage with community and political groups that represent the needs of South Asians become more elusive. These are not surprising or unique conditions and are not insurmountable problems. But in this era marked by a documented increase in intolerance and hostility toward South Asians, living in these communities is likely to be isolating.
Organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, SAALT, and Welcoming America have posited many worthwhile strategies for combatting the rising incidence of hate at the local level. SAALT suggests promoting civic engagement across various communities of color, lobbying leadership at local levels to build political capital and allies, encouraging policies like “hate-free” zones, and looking to restorative justice as a pathway forward. Welcoming America’s toolkit, “Neighbors Together,” offers strategies for countering anti-Muslim backlash at the local level that centers around building a network of communities engaged in this work.
These strategies hard to achieve in counties and towns where people of color and South Asians make up so little of the population and the bloc of eligible voters. Where local organizations focusing on advocating and supporting South Asians do not exist, national advocacy and network-building efforts should fill in.
Local policymakers and community leaders should implement policies that support and welcome immigrant populations, understanding that South Asians are as much their constituents as any other population. These efforts can strengthen and unite communities in the face of division.
Despite being the fastest-growing population in the United States, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are often overlooked or reported as a monolith in research on racial and ethnic disparities. Representation matters—and that’s especially true in policy research, where “invisibility is an unnatural disaster” (Mitsuye Yamada). Aggregate statistics obscure communities’ contributions and needs, so data disaggregated by ethnic origin are needed to change stereotypical narratives around AAPIs in every area of policy research.