With the tendency for Asian Minnesotans to be thought of as one demographic, as perpetual immigrants, or as model minorities, the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL), based in St. Paul, set out to identify the distinctions. Combining diverse Asian Minnesotan populations into one group leads to misperceptions and exclusions in investments and resources. To meet the needs of varied communities, CAAL dug deeper into research. The results were announced in the 2021 report “Redefining Wealth Through Communal and Cultural Assets.”
Ten focus groups were created with the largest Asian ethnic groups in Minnesota — Asian Indian, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Hmong, Japanese, Korean, Lao, Vietnamese, and Karen (pronounced Kah-REN, Indigenous people from the Thailand-Burma border region). Asians make up more than five percent of the state’s total population. The South Asian ethnicities — Hmong, Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese — make up about 60 percent of the Asian population in Minnesota.
Overall, Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) are the fastest growing racial group in the U.S., with more than 23 million people. There are nearly 300,000 Asian Minnesotans. The largest recent Southeast Asian population to arrive in Minnesota is the Karen people, who arrived in 2004 as political refugees. Other Southeast Asians began their migration as political refugees in the 1970s. Minnesota has the highest concentration (estimated at 15,000) of Korean adoptees of any state. More than half of the Asian population (62 percent) was born outside of the U.S.
Examining the Barriers to Wealth Creation
CAAL executive director Bo Thao-Urabe says the intention of the report is “to look at systemic barriers that need to be changed, and to facilitate wealth-building that builds on the groundings and assets of [unique] communities.” She says the purpose also is “to dispel the model minority myth. More and more people are saying that Asians are not people of color. I think that is harmful to not just Asian Americans, but to communities of color — we all live among each other.”
Leona Thao, lead research consultant, says there are over 40 Asian ethnic groups in Minnesota. Aggregated data on U.S. Asians perpetuates the notion that all Asians are leading on socio-economic outcomes. In reality, Asian Minnesotans’ economic situations vary. The biggest barriers are in education and employment.
Income Disparities: “Data on the Asian population overlooks the large inequality within the community,” Thao says. “The Asian population experiences the widest income gap in the U.S., with those in the top 10 percent income distribution earning nearly 11 times more than those in the bottom 10 percent.”
The report included data on per capita income, because several Asian subpopulations live in multi-generational homes. Asian Indians ($96,291) have nearly four times as much household income as the Burmese ($25,823)
Housing: The Burmese population experiences the most overcrowding. More affordable multi-family housing options are needed to accommodate multi-generational families, as is increasing “culturally relevant home-buying programs to ensure that Asian Minnesotans understand how home ownership enables families to build intergenerational [wealth].”
Unemployment: Unemployment is “twice as high among the Cambodian and Lao community compared to the general population.” With the pandemic, Asian Minnesotans have been affected by rising unemployment and cost of unemployment insurance, temporary and permanent small business closures, challenges in housing and education, positive COVID-19 cases, and increased anti-Asian racism.
Thao says that Minnesota is “in a position to model to other states the equitable way of not only talking about but working with the Asian community.”
Federal Bank Perspective
Alene Tchourumoff, Senior Vice President of Community Development and the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank, leads the bank’s work to promote economic opportunity for low- and moderate-income people and those living in Indian Country. Her keys areas of focus include early childhood development and affordable housing.
Tchourumoff says, from a personal standpoint, she appreciated that the report highlighted what she called the “forever foreign” concept. She explained: “That we are sometimes trying to live within a definition of an identity that really doesn’t feel natural in many ways, if you come from Asia, but is a definition that is imposed upon us.”
She notes that her people — the Kalmyks Mongolians — are such a small population in the U.S. that “we don’t register on anyone’s radar.” It was not represented in the focus group data. The Kalmyks are a semi-nomadic people who originated in Western Mongolia and reside mostly in southwestern Russia. “Even capturing the top ten Asian groups in the state, there are still a lot who are not included in that.”
Another community that is missing from the report is mixed-race Asian Minnesotans.
In the media conference about the report, Tchourumoff said: “We are dealing with an even bigger data desert when it comes to our tribal communities. My team at the Minneapolis Fed is in Community Development. We focus on doing applied research that allows us to bring policy solutions to decision makers. We are looking at things like supply and affordability, and access to housing. Early childhood development is something we spend a lot of time focusing on, especially the impact on women in COVID.”
Last year, Federal Reserve Bank decided to “devote substantial staff resources to highlight the role of structural racism in our society and our economy.” They began a series of events in October to “understand context about how we got to where we are, but also to try to push for potential solutions.”
An event in November looked at racism in employment. It “focus[ed] on things like occupational segregation — a heavy focus on pedigree that emphasizes the degree rather than experience, the racial equity impacts of that work, and how that might disadvantage communities of color.
The program will continue in 2021, “looking at housing in March, then small businesses, wealth, and health, criminal justice, access to credit.” Data will be shared with financial institutions, “so that they can understand the complexity within the community. Employers can look at this as a gateway to understanding the diversity of employees.”
Tawanna Black is CEO of the Center for Economic Inclusion — the “nation’s first organization dedicated exclusively to creating inclusive regional economies by equipping public and private sector employers to dismantle institutional racism and build shared accountability for inclusive economic growth.”
She explains that the disaggregated CAAL data enables us to recognize “that none of our racial and ethnic groups are monolithic. We don’t have this type of data available in our other racial and ethnic groups.”
Black says “there is something unique about a particular organization, with a community every day, who has the trust of that community, being able to walk alongside it, and then be able to say, ‘Now we want to go inside a family, and be able to understand experiences and highlight them.”
Now that the CAAL data has been collected, Black says, it should be used for “push[ing] the conversation in a different way and starting to drive accountability arm-in-arm with other organizations to be able to force different types of actions. Whether that is action at the state level to look at the allocations [of the] legislature or for investing in business development and growth. [It also] could go directly to Asian-owned businesses who could be creating and expanding jobs themselves and ensuring that those jobs are family-sustaining jobs.”
The CAAL data, Black says,” gives us the chance to help policy makers, to help foundations understand communities in a different way, and then start to invest dollars in ways that are unique and different — and start to drive wealth creation in new ways that might need to look different ethnic group to ethnic group, racial group to racial group.”