How to Add Meaning, Context to Census Data about Minorities

The Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon recently invited me to Portland, Ore., with an unusual request: Lead a panel discussion to help us understand who we are as a community.

When I was a reporter for The Oregonian, I covered this nonprofit and often relied on it for sources. My race and ethnicity beat at the paper, which I helped create, was launched with the release of the 2000 Census. Now, as demographics and community reporters are preparing to crunch the data of the 2010 Census, the growth and characteristics of the nation’s minority groups will no doubt be a key focus. 

I looked to the numbers — some from 2000 and some from more recent American Community Survey results — to launch a discussion about Portland’s Asian Pacific American community.

Specifically, I wanted to show how cities such as Portland, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta had the most dynamic growth of Asian Americans, while traditional Asian American enclaves such as San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York had proportionately less growth and change. A related write-up from Asian-Nation.org offers a snapshot of the Asian American population and cites a U.S. Census Bureau report that has color-coded maps to illustrate the trends.

I presented a handful of conclusions about Portland’s Asian Pacific American community to the organization. Below, I’m extrapolating them to apply to the other cities I mentioned that have also seen an increase in their Asian American population. In these metropolitan areas, Asian Americans:

  • Are more likely to marry outside of their ethnic group (e.g. Chinese, Japanese) and outside of their race. In areas with smaller Asian populations, people will have more contact with those of different ethnic or racial groups, and therefore be more likely to socialize and marry.
  • Are more likely to be multiracial. At The Oregonian, we studied birth and marriage data to determine that the Portland area had a particularly high rate of both interracial marriages and multiracial children. (Funny how one has a way of following the other.)
  • Are more likely to be adoptees raised by parents of a different race, said my fellow panelist Jane Mauk, a Korean adoptee herself.
  • Are more likely to organize politically with a pan-Asian group, rather than seeing an issue or candidate as belonging to one ethnic group. This phenomenon evolved out of necessity. Unlike Queens, N.Y., or Monterey Park, Calif., where the Korean American or Taiwanese American communities, respectively, have such large numbers they can singlehandedly determine local elections or influence lawmaking, no single ethnic group in a city like Portland is big enough go it alone.

So what does this mean for journalists covering Census 2010? I told my audience of activists in Portland that these demographic realities meant they had to get out of old models of racial advocacy and organizing, and pay attention to different forms of diversity — interracial marriages, multiracial individuals, adoptees and pan-Asian identity.

Similarly, journalists should also think outside old models of coverage and consider more than just how many individuals of a particular minority group live in their community.

It’s important to take a step further and gauge how quickly that group is increasing as a proportion of the population. Asian Americans, for instance, were less than 7 percent of the New York metropolitan area’s population in 2000. Now, some of the aforementioned smaller cities have Asian American populations approaching 6 or 7 percent.

And there are so many rich stories in the new forms of identity and cross-cultural ties that are emerging: people who check two, three or more boxes under “race” on the census; the complex question of identity for transracial adoptees; ethnic groups that have had historical animosities come together in marriage or political organizing.

(One of the best stories I’ve seen on the last topic is by KRON-TV reporter Emerald Yeh, whose award-winning story, “The Rape of Nanking,” views the World War II massacre through the eyes of a present-day marriage between a Chinese American and a Japanese American.)

These stories, which look beyond the traditional “four-box” categorization of race popularized by the Census Bureau (white, black-African American, Asian-Pacific Islander, American Indian-Alaska Native), reflect the future of this country.

In many cities, we can see race and ethnicity becoming increasingly complex and slippery ways to categorize ourselves. The real story of the census, then, is the future of race as an evolving, not static, concept. 

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