Since the 1960s, America has vaunted Asians as the nation’s model minority. Simultaneously overrepresented at Harvard (relative to the general population) and underrepresented in stories about poverty, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) have indeed achieved many traditional markers of American success. What these statistics obscure, however, is just how unevenly AAPI success is distributed. For instance, 75.7 percent of Indian-Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 26.4 percent of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders. 62 percent of Cambodian adults have PTSD, and one in three Hmong, Laotian, and Cambodian adults has never completed high school–although more than half of AAPI have graduated from college. The difficulty is that unlike Hispanics in America, who are largely Catholic and Spanish-speaking, Asian-Americans speak different languages, practice different religions, and come from different cultural backgrounds, and the consequence of that heterogeneity are unequal outcomes.
Data disaggregation is a relatively new phenomenon. In 2000, the United States Census introduced the option for survey respondents to identify themselves as biracial. Fifteen years later, the federal government moved to collect disaggregated data on major AAPI subgroups: Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Other Asians, and Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders. At the same time, state-level pushes for disaggregation of AAPI data have been slowly making their way across the nation, notably in California, Minnesota, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. These data collection efforts are a necessary step towards developing public policy that acknowledges and responds to the unique needs of historically marginalized AAPI subgroups.
One example of how data disaggregation can shed light on new issues lies in health care, where use of single aggregated data is especially problematic. For example, despite the fact that only 14 percent of AAPI lack health insurance, this statistic can be disaggregated down to eight percent of Japanese-Americans and 27 percent of Korean-Americans lacking insurance. Without this information, it would have been difficult to argue for a campaign to increase rates of insurance among AAPI; with this information, policymakers would have data they need to argue for a targeted campaign aimed at Korean-Americans. Supporting a Massachusetts bill that would apply federal standards to statewide AAPI data collection (H3361), Harvard Medical School faculty member Dr. Elisa Choi argued that AAPI data disaggregation would “give voice… [to the] Asian-American community so that… we can achieve health equity.”
Unfortunately, efforts to disaggregate have been derailed by opposition from the Chinese-American community. For instance, when California proposed in 2015 to collect data on the ethnicity of students enrolling in and graduating from public campuses, NBC reported that the bill faced “vociferous protests” from some in the Chinese-American community, most of whom were more recent immigrants. The opposition argued that the data would be used to bring back affirmative action, made more plausible by the fact that the bill targeted Asians, instead of requiring disaggregation of educational data for all racial minorities. Eventually, a revised version of the bill passed in 2016—but excluded mention of educational disparities and only asked that the state Department of Public Health collect demographic data on topics such as rates of pregnancy and major disease.
In a similar case, Massachusetts’ H3361 faced “vitriolic” opposition when it was introduced in 2017, with opponents calling it an “Asian registry,” an “attempt to legalize racial profiling,” and of “singularly [targeting] Asian-Americans by a fundamentally flawed categorizing system which is not applied to any other identified ethnic groups.” In response to such overwhelming hostility, H3361 failed to pass and the state legislature is currently looking into writing new legislation that would require collection of detailed demographic information on all racial groups. And when Rhode Island passed the “All Students Count Act” last summer, which asked schools to use separate categories for different AAPI subgroups in their educational reports, protestors (including Brown professor Zhijin Wu) showed up to express their disapproval. One protestor even compared the newly minted act to Nazi Germany’s 1935 Nuremberg law.
This panic is among the Chinese-American community is, in many ways, warranted. In 2014, a coalition of Asian-Americans brought a suit against Harvard University, accusing the school of practicing race-based discrimination to artificially limit the proportion of Asian students admitted. Their suit rested primarily on the fact that the proportion of Asian-Americans at Harvard has remained constant (around 20 percent) over the past 20 years despite massive increases in Asian-American applications, and the comparatively higher scores required for admission—Asian-Americans need to score 140 points higher on the SAT to be on par with identical white applicants. Meanwhile, at University of California, Berkeley, which is banned by state law from factoring race into admissions, the proportion of Asian-Americans is 42.3 percent. And at the California Institute of Technology, where admissions is blind to race, legacy, and athletic accomplishments, it is 42 percent. The fear is that if elite universities have an unspoken quota for Asian applicants, and disaggregated data reveals disparities between Southeast Asian-Americans and East Asians, more of those slots will be allocated for the former at the expense of the latter. However, it does not have to be this way – it may be that colleges will simply allocate more space for AAPI as a group with the understanding that not all AAPI come from backgrounds with economic or educational privilege.
However, struggles on the college admissions circuit do not justify blocking Southeast Asian-American communities from achieving long-overdue progress towards social parity. And in many ways, these issues which look so similar on the surface have fundamentally different applications. While the disaggregation of University of California applicant data could have led to negative affirmative action to reduce the proportion of Chinese, Korean, and Indian Americans, a local government that notices disparities in access to English language acquisition between Indian-Americans and Filipino-Americans will probably, at worst, fund the creation of a community learning center staffed by bilingual speakers of Tagalog and English.
Support for disaggregation of AAPI data exists on many levels: federal, academic, state, and local. A 2016 report by the US Department of Labor called for disaggregation to “gain a grasp of what individual challenges these [AAPI] communities continue to face [in the labor market].” A 2015 NYT contribution by Kathick Ramakrishnan, professor of public policy at University of California, Riverside, argued that disaggregation would be especially useful when in helping different groups “[access] health care or [find] affordable housing.” The failed California bill to disaggregate data on AAPI students attending University of California campuses passed 40 to 0 in the Senate and 77 to 1 in the Assembly, and the Rhode Island “All Students Count Act” was roundly praised by the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, whose executive director Quyen Dinh said the disaggregated educational data was a civil rights victory which would “[dismantle] systemic barriers…[and] uncover long-standing disparities that have been invisible too long for Southeast Asian-American communities.” On balance, data disaggregation may be a loss for Asian-American students with high hopes for college. But the rewards—progress towards health and educational equity for all AAPI groups—is worth the price.
Correction: April 13, 2018
An earlier version of this article stated that one in three Vietnamese adults has never completed high school. This statement is based on data from the 2010 census; as of 2016, the U.S. Census estimated that one in four Vietnamese adults has never completed high school.