After months of increasingly vitriolic debate that divided the AAPI community, California Assembly Bill 1726 (AB1726) was significantly amended on Friday. In its original version, AB1726 was the culmination of years of lobbying work by California’s AAPI advocacy community, and it would have put in place measures to disaggregate healthcare and higher education data to reveal disparities faced by Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the state. Using the same ethnic options offered by the National Census, AB1726 would have expanded the ethnic self-identification choices offered in demographic studies conducted by state departments related to healthcare and higher education.
Last year, AB1726’s predecessor, Assembly Bill 176, passed the California Legislature with near unanimous bipartisan support and the backing of several local California advocacy groups, only to be vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. This cycle’s AB1726 was expected to pass the Legislature with similarly minimal resistance, until it faced inexplicably intense backlash from grassroots Chinese American groups that had originally organized around SCA-5 (and protests against Jimmy Kimmel) in the state. What emerged was a vocal, deeply inflammatory, arguably paranoid resistance to AB1726, wherein opponents suggested while the bill was still in Committees that it would create a “backdoor” to reinstitute race-conscius affirmative action in the state.
How a data collection bill designed was supposed to circumvent California state law prohibiting race-conscious affirmative action in higher education remains unclear to me.
Yet, no one can deny this grassroots conservative Chinese American movement’s growing clout.
Karthick Ramakrishnan has recently compared the growing Chinese American conservative grassroots movement to the Tea Party. I see the parallels, and I humbly suggest a different comparison.
In the 1960’s, conservative citizens organized into a grassroots network that opposed Communism and the rising progressivism of an increasingly multicultural America. Deploying now-standard grassroots tactics, the John Birch Society was capable of rapidly mobilizing its members to participate by the tens to hundreds of thousands in petition drives and letter-writing campaigns in opposition to leftist causes. The Society quickly became a haven for bizarre (even conspiratorial) rhetoric, such as its belief that the US government had been infiltrated by communist agents — and yet, such positions were still able to attract widespread support from the Society’s membership. Despite their extremist and sometimes under-researched radical right-wing and hyperbolic views, the John Birch Society’s ability to mobilize its members to rapid grassroots action ensured undeniable clout among mainstream Republicans forced to contend with (and even cater to) the Society’s radical views.
It’s hard not to draw parallels between the John Birch Society and the growing Chinese American conservative grassroots movement, which is also able to launch powerful mobilization of its membership while it routinely adopts position far to the Right of mainstream Asian and Pacific Islander America (which is, by all accounts, generally moving Left). To be clear, I do not intend to draw that parallel pejoratively, but rather to highlight why this movement has become a political contender for mainstream AAPIs.
Today’s “Chinese American John Birch Society” is characterized by its undeniable strength with regard to rapid member mobilization, even if it too often also adopts frustratingly incomprehensible (oftentimes personally insulting) rhetoric around opposition to affirmative action, support for former NYPD officer Peter Liang, and now, opposition to data disaggregation. For example, a Change.org petition organized by this grassroots network against California’s data disaggregation bill argues that the bill doesn’t provide a mechanism for “verifying the accuracy and integrity of self-reported data” and would “heighten racial tensions,” even though neither issue has arisen in association with National Census methodology, which already uses the proposed ethnic self-identifiers listed in AB1726 and which has relied upon this and other kinds of self-reported information since its inception. In a KPCC radio segment, opposition organizers openly stated their fears that AB1726 was a backdoor around California’s Proposition 209 which outlaws affirmative action, even though AB1726 is a data collection bill focused primarily on public health. Elsewhere, in an official press release, one critical organization attacked the personal character, intellect, and integrity of bill author, Assemblymember Rob. Bonta — a tactic that is virtually unheard of according to conventions of political lobbying. On Twitter, opponents of AB1726 have warned that the bill will invite a new form of Chinese Exclusion, and have likened it to the early days of Germany’s Holocaust. Despite these baffling statements, the anti-AB1726 petition collected over 10,000 signatures in a matter of weeks, and the signature count continues to mount.
I strongly support greater AAPI political engagement. On the whole, I’m happy that these highly politically energized Chinese Americans are participating in the political process, and that our elected officials are listening. However, it has also become increasingly frustrating to find that avenues for presenting reasoned discussion and debate to this grassroots conservative movement around their core positions remain scarce. With regard to the Peter Liang rallies and affirmative action, progressives were routinely subjected to personal attacks simply for supporting Black Lives Matter or higher education access. On Twitter, supporters have attempted to argue the case for AB1726 with the bill’s opponents, to little avail. Echoing frustrations expressed between the mainstream Republican Party and the John Birch Society many decades ago, today there is almost no space for reasoned and respectful disagreement between progressive and conservative AAPIs; there is seemingly no room to learn from one another, or to find some sort of common ground or shared truth.
Sadly, there has also been a relative dismissal of AAPI progressivism by mainstream media and political representatives. Over 120 California-area AAPI groups back AB1726, and many have expressed open support through press statements and tweets; yet that support receives scant attention compared to popular reporting of conservative Asian American opposition to this bill. AB1726 faces head-scratching opposition within some segments of the AAPI community that is effectively drowning out our community’s support for the bill — and it is California’s Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who will pay the heavy price.
We need to prioritize data disaggregation in California. Yet, after discussion in the Senate Appropriations Committee, AB1726 was significantly amended on Friday. Even though California’s state higher education agencies are on-record as being in support of data disaggregation efforts, they have now been removed entirely from AB1726. Meanwhile, the state’s public health agencies have now been given five years — not one year, as originally described in the bill — to implement the additional ethnic self-identification categories described in AB1726; all of this is now contingent upon budget appropriations to enact the measure (which is concerning since the state recently signaled an initial disinterest to secure federal funding for data disaggregation, although a source says they eventually pursued the opportunity). This is not ideal. (See update and correction at bottom of post for more context about this amendment.)
Data disaggregation has been described as the primary civil rights issue for AAPIs today. Even with higher education agencies removed, AB1726 is a necessary bill; data regarding ethnic disparities in public health are rare for Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the AAPI community.
Yesterday, AAPIData laid out the argument for data disaggregation in a series of tweets.
The lack of disaggregated public health data in California and throughout the country is not just an issue of identity politics: this is an issue of saving lives. Every year, thousands of AAPIs die of cancer and complications related to cardiovascular disease, all diseases that have disproportionately high prevalence among certain AAPIs, and for which interventions exist. Many of those lives could have been extended with more, in-language, and culturally-specific resources to increase awareness and early screening for these diseases and their risk factors.
Even were it to pass the California Legislature and to survive calls for a veto by Governor Jerry Brown, to delay implementation of a bill like AB1726 impacts interventions that might improve the health of hundreds, if not thousands, of California’s AAPIs. This is unconscionable.
The stakes for passing AB1726 are, quite simply, too high. I’m dissatisfied with the amendments to AB1726, but frankly we need disaggregated data in California and across the country. Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of California deserve their data. We still need to pass this bill.
To that end, please sign this petition to continue to urge the Legislature to pass AB1726, and to continue to urge Governor Brown not to veto this bill.
Meanwhile, AAPI progressives must take a deep long look at our own mobilization and grassroots organizing tactics. It is increasingly clear that it is not enough to be silent and complacent on issues affecting our community. On the issue of data disaggregation, we have failed our Southeast Asian American and Pacific Islander allies.
On this and other issues, we need to do more. We need to get organized.
This post was written with input from and conversation with Snoopy Jenkins.
Correction and Update: Sources behind AB1726 tell me that the amended version of AB1726 emerged after discussion between the bill’s authors and the governor’s office, and that the amendments represent important and necessary compromises to increase its chances of passage. This post has been amended to reflect those facts.