Southeast Asian American and Pacific Islander advocates have said that data disaggregation is one of the core civil rights issues of our time. I believe this statement to be wholly true. I am also deeply frustrated that our legislators do little to prioritize the fight to disaggregate AAPI data, and reveal the deeply ingrained socioeconomic inequities that aggregated AAPI data mask.
It takes so little to disaggregate AAPI data. The cost to state and federal institutions are minimal, and the Census has already provided a clear road map for the kind of ethnic information that states can and should collect. Meanwhile, the payout for adding just a few more crosstabs to demographic data is astronomical: with disaggregated data, we can get a better sense of how certain AAPI groups are struggling, and what kinds of public policies should be enacted to best address those communities.
So, I need some help here: why the hell does data disaggregation still face such strong political resistance?
The AAPI community is a big tent that encompasses people whose backgrounds span over forty different Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic identities. Our pan-ethnic AAPI identity has facilitated a robust interethnic solidarity central to most of our history’s shared political victories. Yet, while we recognize the many benefits of this convenient and coalitional AAPI identity, we must also refuse to allow anyone with whom we share this tent to be erased or silenced.
Contrary to stereotypes of monolithic Asian American sameness, the AAPI community is strikingly diverse. Chinese Americans make up the largest single ethnic group within the AAPI umbrella, and many naively assume the terms “Asian” and “Chinese” are synonymous with regard to either culture and/or political experience; yet while Chinese Americans occupy a great deal of space within AAPI discourse, we represent only 20% of all AAPIs.
By contrast, Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up more than one-third of AAPIs, yet too often these folks find themselves invisible, underserved, and uncounted.
Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown took a stance against the ethnic disaggregation of state-collected Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) data, and in so doing positioned himself against California’s AAPI, Black, and Latino communities, and against the recommendations of many of the institutions directly affected.
In a brief letter, Gov. Brown announced he would be vetoing Assembly Bill AB-176, which called for new state-wide guidelines for the collection of AAPI demographic data requiring at least the inclusion of categories for Bangladeshi, Hmong, Indonesian, Malaysian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Taiwanese, Thai, Fijian and Tongan people; currently, California collects disaggregated data for some “major” Asian groups (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Indian) but folds the remainder into a category labelled “Other Asian”, rendering these populations largely invisible in demographic analyses. Yet, these populations make up to as much as 15% of the national AAPI population.
Last year, I wrote about the story of Hong Yen Chang, a Chinese immigrant and law student who received his law degree from Columbia in 1868, and who moved to California to practice law in 1890, only to be barred from admission into the California State Bar because he was “Mongoloid”. Federal law at the time prohibited anyone of Asian descent from naturalizing as citizens.
Chang was one of the country’s first Chinese American Ivy Leaguers, and he had already made history after graduating from Columbia when he fought for his right to practice law in the state of New York; he challenged the initial decision to deny him entry into the New York State Bar, and won his case before the New York Supreme Court to become the first Chinese lawyer in the United States.
However, when Chang moved to California to serve the state’s growing Chinese immigrant population — many of whom endured systemic racial discrimination under the state’s growing spate of racist anti-Asian laws coupled with prohibitions against non-Whites from testifying in their own defense in court — Chang was denied permission to take California’s State Bar Exam. Chang challenged the California State Bar in California’s Supreme Court, but that Court — unlike in New York — ruled against Chang, citing the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act as evidence that Chang was ineligible for US citizenship on the basis of his race, and a state law that barred non-citizens from practicing law in the state of California. That decision later became known as one of California’s most historically racist Supreme Court decisions.