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ALTHOUGH Asian Americans are the fastest-growing part of the United States population, they remain relatively invisible. The number of Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander descent is still small (7.3 million in the 1990 census); they tend to congregate in ethnic enclaves; and they have not been politically assertive.

General awareness of the Asian population in the US too often has been filtered through stereotypes. The earliest stereotypes were demeaning - like that of the pigtailed Chinese laborer or laundry worker of the 19th century. Today, another stereotype, though more flattering, still deprives Asian Americans of their individuality and rich diversity: the image of the "model minority."

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While many Asian Americans have succeeded in the US as entrepreneurs, professionals, and students, that's only part of the story. Asians frequently are victims of prejudice. And many Asians - especially refugees from Southeast Asia - live in poverty without sufficient access to social services.

In a special report today that begins on Page 9, the Monitor looks at some of America's Asian communities. As the US increasingly recognizes itself as a Pacific Rim country, other Americans need to become better acquainted with the Asians and Pacific Islanders who live among them.

This is the final installment of a series of special reports on America's largest minority groups. A report on black Americans appeared March 8, and a report on Hispanic Americans appeared May 21.

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