“Miami is the face of America's future” is a refrain I’ve heard often. It seems a point of pride that Miami is leading the rest of the country in our racial diversity.
But this statement is only true if you disregard people like me, Asian-Americans.
The U.S. population is about six percent Asian-American. Chicago has a slightly higher share, and Boston and New York have about 10 percent and 14 percent, respectively.
Miami-Dade County has less than two percent. That’s lower than the percentage of Asian-Americans for the entire state of Florida.
Why does one of the state’s most cosmopolitan places have so few Asians?
The Asian-American Population
More than half of the adult Asian-American population has a college degree or higher. Compare that to the general adult population of the United States with about 30 percent and to all other immigrant groups at 18 percent.
The median household income of Asian-Americans is also higher, at about $66,600 per year. The U.S. median is around $50,500.
Overall, Asian-Americans are the highest-income and best-educated racial group in the United States - and they are not choosing to live in Miami.
Is it about geography?
No studies look at why Asian-Americans don’t move to certain places, but I could find places with the highest rates of Asian-American growth. And it wasn’t determined by distance or flight patterns.
Traditional immigration gateways for Asians like San Francisco and Los Angeles didn’t see significant change.
The largest growth of Asian-Americans has mostly been in parts of the South and Southwest, in metropolitan areas such as Houston, Texas; Orlando, Florida; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Las Vegas, Nevada. In these Sun Belt cities, Asian-American populations have grown by about 70 percent or more from 2000 to 2010, with Vegas and Raleigh experiencing the highest growth, at over 125 percent.
Compare that to the nation as a whole, which saw around 46 percent growth in the Asian-American population. In Miami-Dade, it was less than half that rate.
Is it about jobs?
Professor of geography and Asian-Pacific American Studies at Arizona State University, Wei Li notes, “In places where the economy is more knowledge-based, these are the places with the fastest growth among Asian-Americans.”
Although Asian-American constitute less than five percent of the American workforce, they represent more than twice that percentage of the workforce in science-technology-engineering and math related industries or STEM for short.
Cities that drew a lot of Asian-Americans tended to have some of the highest rates of STEM job growth. Between 2001 and 2011, Las Vegas had a 26 percent increase in STEM jobs while Raleigh, Houston, Jacksonville and Orlando had about 15 percent growth.
Miami, on the other hand, had about half that rate and has less than the national share of STEM occupations.
On top of that, the big drivers for Miami-Dade’s economy, tourism and real estate/construction, are just not industries where Asian-Americans are highly represented. And those industries don’t rely much on professional-level employees, which make-up the bulk of the Asian-American workforce.
Is it about language?
Of course, Asian-Americans are not just in STEM or professional jobs. They also work in service and retail industries. But here, Asian-Americans don’t have any particular advantage in a market serving a growing Latin American consumer base served by a largely Hispanic business community.
“Cubans perform many of the same things in an economy that the Asians do here in California,” says demographer Joel Kotkin, who’s based in Los Angeles and is author of the book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, “Cubans run the small businesses and provide a lot of the entrepreneurship.”
Miami-Dade County gets about 30,000 to 40,000 foreign immigrants a year, mostly from Latin America.
Add to that Miami’s focus on Latin American markets abroad, and you understand why Spanish is almost the business language here. That makes Miami particularly challenging for entrepreneurs who might not speak Spanish or English.
The Two Percent
With so few Asians in Miami, I can typically tell people whom I’m meeting for the first time that they can find me by looking for the Asian person. It almost always works.
But Ly Nguyen, an Asian-American who lives near Miami, says he sometimes enjoys being unique.
“When you’re not one of a billion, people are interested in you and your background,” though Nguyen adds that he often gets mistaken for being Latino.
“If I wear sunglasses, people come up to me and they immediately start speaking Spanish.”
Nguyen doesn’t mind the error. “It’s so funny… never ever in my life have I ever had to defend or prove my ethnicity other than here!”
That necessity – of having to defend or prove your ethnicity – is what motivated me to look into why there aren’t more Asians in Miami. All of this talk about Miami’s diversity seemed to negate my ethnicity. Asian-Americans were statistically insignificant (the county doesn’t typically report their numbers) and thereby irrelevant.
The Beacon Council, which promotes economic development in Miami-Dade, thinks this all may change. Steve Beatus is executive vice president of the organization.
“As the Port of Miami grows, as foreign trade grows, as our connectivity enhances,” Beatus predicts, “we will see a growing Pacific population.”
That might be true. But Miami would probably also have more Asians if it had less of a reputation for fun-in-the-sun and more professional-level jobs. Then Miami might really live up to the title of being one of the most diverse American cities.