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These gaps are often obscured when Asian Americans are lumped together, hiding communities in need. It doesn’t tell us, for example, that around 1.7 million Asians living in America are undocumented, working in precarity in the shadows.

The Asian American wealth gap, explained in a comic

The largest wealth gap in the country comes down to the history of Asian migration.

This comic is part of the Asian American identity series.

Asian Americans today are often stereotyped as wealthy. When many Americans think of Asians, they think of doctors, engineers, coders or “crazy rich Asians.”
There’s some truth to that narrative. The median annual household income for Asian Americans was $85,800 in 2019. This is more than 30% higher than the median for all American households, making it the highest earning group in the nation.
But Asian Americans Pacific Islanders also have the widest economic disparity of any racial group in the United States.
When you break down each group, the gaps in income, educational achievement, or access to healthcare start to become clearer. Indian ($119,000), Filipino ($90,400), and Japanese American ($82,900) households had the highest median incomes. But households headed by Burmese and Nepalese Americans had incomes of  $44,400 and $55,000, respectively.
These gaps are often obscured when Asian Americans are lumped together, hiding communities in need. It doesn’t tell us, for example, that around 1.7 million Asians living in America are undocumented, working in precarity in the shadows.
So how did this vast divide form? The story lies in the centuries-long Asian migration to the US and its connection to  our country’s labor needs and its military involvement overseas. From the 1800s railroad workers to the refugees displaced by war to today’s high-skilled tech workers, American capitalism and imperialism have long dictated who is admitted or excluded and when.
These forces have helped create the massive wealth gap. Asian Americans have arrived in different waves under different laws, and now we work at gas stations and law firms, nail salons and tech companies.
The divide threatens our solidarity. But understanding how it came to be — and how exploitation has always been core to our story — can bring us closer to Asian American unity.
Asians have been on US soil since the 1700s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that large groups were recruited for cheap labor. The Chinese arrived first, mostly for railroad construction, followed by Japanese, Koreans, Asian Indians, and Filipinos, who mostly worked in agriculture.
Asian laborers encountered a century of exclusionary policies. The 1875 Page Act that barred Chinese women, making Chinese family formation nearly impossible, and later, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banned all Chinese workers. This was followed by other laws that prevented land ownership for noncitizens.
These workers also faced widespread anti-Asian violence, expulsion, and incarceration. All of this kept many Asian Americans from creating stable or wealthy communities.
Incarcerated Japanese Americans during WWII, for example, lost property and possessions when they were forcefully removed from their homes and had to sell off what they cannot carry with them. Properties were looted and destroyed. While they eventually received reparative money, it’s nothing compared to the millions their land could be worth today.
U.S. involvement in the Korean War also brought “war brides,” or Korean women who married US soldiers stationed there, and initiated the first major migration of international adoptees.
Then, in the 1960s as the civil rights movement swept the nation, immigration opened up to highly educated and English-speaking professionals, as well as refugees with lower levels of education and little English proficiency. The decades afterward saw the growth in international students, researchers, and nurses, as well as immigrant-owned small businesses like motels, dry cleaners, nail salons, and restaurant workers.
Meanwhile, the Vietnam War, and the “Secret Wars” of Southeast Asia created a stream of Asian refugees in the 1960s and 1970s. Today’s refugees tend to come from Myanmar, Nepal, and Bhutan. These groups are often erased by today’s stereotype of rich, educated Asian Americans. Gone, too, are the memories of U.S. wars in Asia.
So where did this cliche of today’s “successful” Asian American come from?
In the 90s, the U.S. expanded the number of visas and increased the immigration categories to include investors and a variety of skilled, highly educated researchers and laborers with high earning potential. The latter has helped advance all kinds of scientific research and technology development, and their labor has buoyed the U.S. economy over the decades. 
These workers are on the higher paid end of the spectrum, but even they are subject to exploitation. H1B visas offer temporary status, and companies hold power over workers by offering eventual citizenship while paying them less than American workers. This two-tiered system resembles Asian versus white railroad laborers of the 1850s.
But the stereotype of the well-to-do Asian, which represents only some Asian Americans, persists, erasing the large working- to middle-class population.
We Asian Americans must look beyond our own small bubbles, too. Understanding this history, as well as the complexities and challenges facing our communities, allows us to celebrate our shared heritage connections while also being able to identify the structural barriers that create these inequities.
The Asian American label can often feel so arbitrary, given the vast diversity of people that it is supposed to represent. But the term is more than just about ethnic descent or having origins in the Asia-Pacific region. 
It represents multiple cultures and shared struggled produced by the long history of migration, rooted in American war and industry. Ultimately, we are united under these dual influences.
Solidarity among Asian Americans is not about claiming sameness. It is a commitment to work together in and through difference to achieve greater equity and social justice. Only then can change happen.


Key facts about Asian Americans, Pew Research Center

Key findings on the rise in income inequality within America’s racial and ethnic groups, Pew Research Center

Key facts about Asian origin groups in the US, Pew Research Center

Why Disaggregate? Disparities in AAPI Health, AAPI Data

Not Just a Latino Issue: Undocumented Asians in America, Asia Society

Lok Siu, PhD, is a cultural anthropologist and associate professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. Specializing in Asians in the Americas, she is an award-winning author, a regular contributor to media outlets, and an active public speaker.

Jamie Noguchi is a Washington, DC, cartoonist and illustrator. He is a contributor to the comics publication The Nib and, along with Jeremy Whitley, co-creator of School for Extraterrestrial Girls.


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