Asian-Americans are probably the most misunderstood racial group in the United States: seen as somehow more "mainstream" than blacks and Latinos, respected for their accomplishments, but distrusted, privately scorned, publicly scorned (on occasion), and envied more often than not. Americans of Asian descent have been around for centuries, yet they're still seen as somehow "different" from everyone else, and not always in a good way. Let's start with a simple question:

What is an Asian-American?

HA! Fooled you. Nobody has a widely acceptable answer to this question. Yuji Ichioka, the Japanese-American who coined the term in the 1960's, identified Asian-Americans as having an ethnic identity distinct from both Asians and Americans, which is probably the most accepted definition because it's also the vaguest (heck, I could almost be Asian-American then).

I've argued in favor of a logical definition: that Asians and Americans form two overlapping populations, and that those who fall in the intersection of the two are Asian-American. But many people would disagree with me.

First of all, most Americans outside of the AA community assume that "Asian-American" means East Asian: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, perhaps Vietnamese or Filipino. Thais and Indonesians might make it in. Indians and Pakistanis are questionable. Arabs from Asian countries are almost never included in the popular sense of the word, although they could technically be "Asian" if they came from the Asian continent (the census, however, considers them to be white). Many people now talk about "Asian Pacific Americans" to distinguish East Asians from South Asians and West Asians.

Besides the issue of ethnicity, many Asian-Americans distinguish themselves by their experience. Some believe that "Asian-American" implies growing up in America, as opposed to being born elsewhere and shipped in at an older age. They see Asian-Americans as a group of people with an American education and American cultural preferences, but with the upbringing of Asian or Asian-American parents: many view native Asians in America as a completely different, "fresh off the boat" group. Others believe that if an Asian moves to America, they become an Asian-American.

Moving right along...

Why is all this important? Asian-Americans have become a political movement. I've been working on the periphery of the movement for some time: recently, I've begun to approach the nasty heart of it, a heart that seems to pump bile as often as it pumps blood. And the biggest battle at its core is over who should be "Asian" and who should be "Asian-American."

Many people argue that an Asian-American culture has developed, largely independent of both Asian and American culture. They cite an Asian-American body of literature, music, film, and even language (slang, mostly). They want Asian-Americans to organize independently of Asians, and attempt to demolish the stereotypes created by early American perceptions of Asian immigrants: that they don't speak English, have submissive personalities, eat dogs, and all that stuff. They will kill you if you say "Me love you long time."

Despite the ongoing disagreement over what an "Asian-American" is, many self-described Asian-Americans have entered the movement. Its biggest stronghold, as you might imagine, is on college campuses, where many of the great civil rights movements of our time have begun. Back in the 1970's, students at the University of California fought long and hard for Asian-American studies programs, and that fight has since been taken up at other campuses (it still continues today in many places).

The big rallying point for the movement, however, was in 1982. The occasion was a brutal one. Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American draftsman, was beaten to death by two laid-off automotive workers in Detroit, Michigan. Having just lost their jobs in the face of Japanese competition, they decided to take their anger out on a guy who happened to resemble a Japanese person, even though he wasn't. The community didn't really coalesce until a Michigan judge gave the perpetrators a pair of light probation sentences: shortly after that, a group of activists got together to bring the case before a federal civil rights court, which ultimately failed to imprison the two men, but served to finally bridge the gap between ethnic communities that had previously been squabbling with each other.

Anti-Asian hate crimes aren't all that common (although they do happen more than most people think). The big issue for most Asian-Americans is the ongoing resentment they face. A couple of weeks ago, I got an e-mail from one of my friends that contained excerpts from an online discussion forum, stuff like this:

"I wish there was such a school in California, so I could convince unsuspecting Asian women to sell-out."

"Koreans are among the lowest of the asian castes, slightly edging out the laotians, vietnamese, and the filipinos (the more mongrel asians)."

"Cali schools are past ridiculous. But in all seriousness this is an indication that these "top schools", state schools mostly, are not taking into consideration nonracial elements besides just the numbers. Asian students mostly memorize and are not well rounded, which is why their numbers are fewer at Ivies which heavily account for evidence of nonacademic achievement."

"Don't worry about Asians. They'll turn them White or Black soon enough. I mean, that's what history shows. They are all pressured to sell out, and before you know it, they are no longer Asian, adding to the White and Black populations. So stop complaining."

"Meaning systematic eradication of Asians as a race in the United States, including their identity, influence, power, language, or any identifying measures, there of; so Asians are really gone in the long run; they just don't know it because they're just stupid."

The really frightening thing about these quotes is that they come from the Princeton Review's LSAT discussion forums, where prospective law school applicants go to communicate with each other. eliserh adds her own anecdote: "There was a bit of a scandal here in Cincinnati recently when the man hired by the city to develop (read: 'gentrify') one of our inner-city neighborhoods publicly stated that he would not do business with anyone of Chinese descent 'because they've got funny math,' apparently referring to his belief that Chinese people are more likely to haggle over prices." So this isn't just some uneducated proletariat nonsense: people in the leadership elite have these views, too.

The future?

Asian-Americans have a number of things to be proud of. They are becoming more visible in the United States, taking up prominent positions in government, business, science, sports, and entertainment. They take up disproportionate numbers of admissions slots at most major universities, and are increasingly filling up medical schools, law schools, business schools, and other professional fields.

The problems are still ongoing, though. Almost all Asian-Americans face prejudice in their daily lives, which is usually based on false stereotypes. They often find that their racial reputation precedes them wherever they go, and many have expounded at length about the identity crises they suffer as children, teenagers, and adults. Even as many young Asian-Americans fill a burgeoning middle class (often referred to as the YAPs, for "young Asian professionals"), they suffer the same ostracism when outside their community. This has led many to congregate in Asian-American enclaves, primarily in major cities and throughout the West Coast states, which only earns them more curious stares from the outside world.

Realistically, this won't end in my lifetime or yours, and it probably won't end for a couple of coming generations' lifetimes: consider how long stereotypes about blacks, Latinos, and even European minorities (like Italians and Irish) have hung around American society. The most consistent dividing lines between peoples are their appearances, and as long as Asian-Americans look different from other Americans, the friction is going to be there.

Nobody can agree on what to do about this, either. Some Asian-American leaders have embraced the idea of keeping the community geographically, economically, socially, and politically cohesive to avoid these issues of prejudice. Others, including myself, have argued in favor of "de-ghettoization," or spreading the Asian-American population out until it becomes so common as to defy mistrust. It's a similar phenomenon to the recent African-American experience, although slightly different in a number of subtle ways (most notably socioeconomic).

So I wouldn't hold my breath on any great racial revolution just yet. These problems are here to stay, and the best thing we can do about them is to be informed and to inform others. Racism is passe, but it's not gone just yet.