Karthick Ramakrishnan: The collection of detailed ethnicity data is essential for the justification of government programs that benefit Asian-Americans
New Asian immigrants and elected officials are not on the same wavelength, which has prompted protests opposing such data collection, says Ramakrishnan
Editor’s Note: Karthick Ramakrishnan (@karthickr) is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Riverside and is the founder of AAPI Data. He was a member of the California State Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs when it endorsed state legislation that would provide Asian ethnicity data in health and public higher education. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
A group of about 50 Chinese Americans, many of them children, gathered on the steps of the State House in Rhode Island last week to oppose a new law on collecting detailed origin data on Asian-Americans. The organizer of the protest compared the law to “Nazi Germany’s 1935 Nuremberg Law that singled out Jews in the pretense of data collection, only to be conveniently used as a basis for genocide in the following decade.”
This is not the first time Asian-American data collection has gotten pushback. Similar protests in California erupted with the proposal of a bill that sought to increase the specificity of ethnicity data collected by state education and health agencies. Opponents there ominously warned that the bill may be the first step to Asian exclusion and internment.
These assertions are outrageous, and they ignore the purpose and history of Asian-American data collection, which dates back to the 1970s when a wave of Southeast Asian refugees joined a growing number of Asian immigrants who were coming to the United States. Most of the Asian immigrants who came after 1965, when the United States ended its restrictive national origin quotas, were high-skilled immigrants such as doctors, nurses, and engineers from countries like India, China, South Korea, and the Philippines. By contrast, most of the refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos lacked college degrees, and many did not even have a high school diploma.
Asian-American community leaders quickly realized that government statistics on education, poverty, and English proficiency could not simply be provided for the racial group as a whole. Such data tended to show Asian-Americans as a “model minority,” a relatively prosperous and highly educated group that did not need any public assistance. But by gathering more detailed ethnicity data, they could make the case for targeted government programs on matters ranging from poverty alleviation to language assistance and mental health services.
Since 1980, this detailed data has been essential to the justification of programs that benefit Asian-Americans – so essential that data and research on Asian-American subpopulations was a high priority for the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders when it was created in October 2009, and it remains an important issue for the initiative today.
Why, then, are we seeing protests against Asian-American data collection today? It seems to be mostly due to a socioeconomic and cultural disconnect between recent immigrants from mainland China, who constitute the largest group of immigrant arrivals to the United States since 2008, and prior waves of Asian immigrants and the organizations that serve them. These newer immigrants are highly educated and upwardly mobile, with little awareness of the services that Asian-American organizations provide to disadvantaged populations.
Compounding the problem is a communications gap. Most of these recent immigrants use WeChat, a social media platform that allows them to communicate in Mandarin. WeChat is a particularly effective tool for political organizing among Chinese immigrant communities, as was evident in the nationwide protests supporting former NYPD officer Peter Liang. As Shue Haipei, the founder of the National Council of Chinese-Americans, told Wired, WeChat has become a major factor in political activism. “WeChat has come in at a perfect timing as a revolutionary tool…(It) revolutionized how to form a group.” Chinese-American blogger Xie Bin – who with a group launched the WeChat page “The Chinese Voice of America,” aimed at influencing Chinese-Americans to vote for Trump – agreed: “If I publish on WeChat I can get thousands of hits,” says Xie. “If readers see something of their topic (of interest), they are going to spread it quickly to all their groups.”
But based on community forums at the Asian-Americans Advancing Justice conferences, it seems that many Asian-American elected officials and community leaders are absent on WeChat, which may be because they are either English-dominant or have limited Mandarin proficiency. They are thus unable to convey the history and importance of better data collection to these new immigrant populations.
Perhaps even more consequential, the absence of Asian American organizations and leaders on WeChat has allowed conservative groups such as Chinese Americans For Trump to use the platform to promote a range of causes. The latest: opposing ethnic data collection by state governments.
Identifying the problem, however, also points to a possible solution. If Asian-American elected officials and community organizations had a greater presence on WeChat, they would have a much better understanding of these new immigrant populations. And by hiring staff members who are bilingual in English and Mandarin, they could use the platform to explain the benefits of ethnic data collection, such as allowing for the justification of government investments in programs including ballot language assistance, bilingual education, and language support in county hospitals.
For example, Kathy Ko Chin, president and CEO of Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum noted in a statement supporting the collection of detailed ethnicity data in California, “We have long supported the collection and reporting of data by disaggregated (Asian-American) and (Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders) subgroups in order to reveal unique health disparities and develop tailored solutions to address them among our groups.” Community leaders could use similar arguments on WeChat to explain that student ethnicity data is typically absent in high school transcripts, and that racial quotas in college admissions are unconstitutional.
Absent this dialogue and engagement by Asian-American leaders, WeChat political forums will continue to be dominated by a narrow range of activist voices. And, as a consequence, Asian-American organizations risk losing the support and understanding of an entire new generation of Chinese immigrants.