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.
One of the watershed moments in my development as an AANHPI race advocate happened at ECAASU in 2003. I was still a student activist, and president of my on-campus Asian American political group. That ECAASU was my first Asian American student conference, and my first real opportunity to interact with politically conscious Asian Americans outside of the gates of my Ivory Tower.
The only workshop I remember is the poorly attended workshop on AANHPI healthcare disparities I attended because mental health disparities were a growing issue on my campus. I emerged undeniably woken up.
An enduring problem for AANHPI racial discourse is the homogenizing effect that results from how the mainstream talks about us, and also from how some of us talk about ourselves. We paint the AANHPI identity with the broad brush of “sameness”, and in so doing we commit two unforgivable sins: 1) we universalize the narratives of East (and to a far lesser degree, South) Asian Americans as if they are wholly representative of the AANHPI identity; and 2) we shortchange the Southeast Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander members of our vibrant and diverse AANHPI community.
As evidence of this mainstream instinct towards AANHPI homogenization, we need look no further than Nicholas Kristof’s recent column in the New York Times, which patronizingly lauded Asian Americans as universally high-achieving. We also need look no further than the angst expressed by Governor Jerry Brown when he vetoed a widely popular California state bill that would have required sophisticated ethnic disaggregation of demographic data for AANHPI people. To date, most AANHPI racial data is aggregated during collection and analysis.
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.