The Asian American community comprises over 19.9 million people—a statistic that masks incredible ethnic, linguistic, and sociopolitical diversity—but they are still often treated as a monolith. Public agencies, for example, typically report all Asian Americans’ demographic data as a single group, obscuring the distinct experiences of many Asian American and Pacific Islander subgroups—a problem that continues to manifest in the present day. This kind of lumped-together treatment often becomes the source of many prevailing and inaccurate myths about Asian Americans, especially myths of exceptionalism with regard to both education and income, which are weaponized to nullify the very real experiences of racial inequality. As those myths become baked-in assumptions about “the Asian American experience,” they can end up having real-world consequences.
In her piece arguing in favor of disaggregated Asian American data for the California Law Review, Molly Lao highlighted how identifying the specific circumstances of different Asian American communities is vital to making sure their needs are properly understood and addressed, noting that “[g]rantmakers need specific data in order to properly fund tailored services and connect the dots for resources.”
When demographic data for Asian Americans is collapsed back down into the generic category of “Asian,” the result is poor—or, more often, completely absent—public investment in Asian Americans, particularly for those most in need of targeted public policy. Lloyd Feng, the special projects policy coordinator for the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF) in New York, pointed out that the lack of granular data on Asian Americans often leads to their exclusion from policy-making decisions and funding opportunities.
“Data is the cornerstone [of policy-making],” Feng said. “It’s the first step towards getting good policy.”
As it’s become all too clear in recent years, the importance of good and comprehensive policies that account for the unique needs of a multiracial, multiethnic collective community like Asian Americans can mean the difference between survival and catastrophe, especially in an era of increasing climate change, natural disasters, and pandemics.
More than meets the eye
Mass media often treats Asian Americans as interchangeable, but a closer examination of Asian American demographic data reveals a much more complex story. Asian American communities include more than 40 different ethnic groups connected to areas throughout East, South, and Southeast Asia, as well as over 100 distinct languages. An additional 1.4 million people identify as Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander. Contrary to how the terms “Asian American” and “Chinese American” are often interchangeably used, Chinese Americans make up only about 25% of the Asian American community—roughly the same proportion as both Filipinx Americans and Indian Americans.
When disaggregated along ethnic lines, data reveals that Asian Americans experience some of the starkest sociopolitical and wealth gaps of any racial community. More than half of Asian Americans have at least a bachelor’s degree or higher, yet educational attainment rates are markedly lower for some Asian Americans: Only 27% of Vietnamese Americans, 17% of Hmong Americans, and 11% of Bhutanese Americans have a college degree. In addition, only 15% of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have completed a four-year college degree. Similarly, while the median household income is higher on average for the Asian American community than for any other racial group, nearly half of all income for Asian Americans goes to the top 20% of wage earners, and poverty rates are nearly twice the national average among some Southeast Asian American ethnic groups.
“You need to have really good, really accurate data to capture what’s going on in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities,” Feng said. “For a long time, government data only included us as part of the ‘other’ category. We weren’t being captured in the data.”
For most of American history, data on Asian Americans has been only sporadically collected by state and federal agencies. Even the U.S. census has undergone significant evolution in how it has counted Asian Americans. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, the U.S. census only identified respondents as Asian using a handful of predetermined ethnic identifiers—at times, a mixture of Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, or Hindu were possible responses. Up until the 1950s, these racial identities were applied by census-takers and didn’t necessarily reflect a respondent’s own self-identity. Respondents were only allowed to provide their own racial identity on the census beginning in the 1960s, and it would take another 40 years before respondents could mark more than one racial category. These modern changes led to a diverse array of racial and ethnic responses by Asian Americans in the latter half of the 20th century, as Asian Americans embraced the chance to finally be seen in the census’ data collection efforts.
In the last few years, the fight for better data has become particularly important when it comes to COVID-19, said Lakshmi Gandhi, the communications and outreach coordinator for CACF. Although aggregated national data reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that Asian Americans are less at risk for COVID-19-related hospitalization and death, ethnic and geographic disaggregation of the data has revealed the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Asian American community and highlighted the need for targeted intervention.
A recent pre-published study shows, for example, that contrary to national data, South Asian Americans have the second-highest COVID-19 positivity rate, and Chinese Americans have the highest COVID-19-related mortality rate of any racial or ethnic group in New York City. Meanwhile, Filipinx Americans account for nearly one-third of registered nurses who have died of COVID-19. These distressing statistics are largely invisible in the absence of disaggregated data, making it impossible to tailor public health policy to these groups.
“The pandemic has really exposed the vulnerabilities of AAPI communities,” Gandhi said. “From distribution of Paycheck Protection Program loans to the disproportionate impact of COVID on front-line workers, the last two years have really shown that AAPIs need to be seen, and that we aren’t getting the resources we need.”
The history of the data disaggregation fight
The term “Asian American” came about in the late 1960s, when student activists Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee sought to bring together Asian students of disparate ethnic background into a common pan-ethnic political movement that might engage within a broader, multi-racial progressive coalition. It originated as a deliberately broad tool of political unification and was never intended to replace Asian American ethnic identity, or to overlook or erase the distinctiveness of Asian American ethnic groups. Nonetheless, as the term has become adopted into mainstream usage, there’s been little effort to simultaneously acknowledge and emphasize Asian American diversity, resulting in popular misconceptions that frame Asian Americans as all the same.
In the 1980s and 1990s, it became clear that the practice of collapsing Asian American and Pacific Islander data into the single umbrella category of “Asian” was masking profound public health and economic challenges faced by some ethnic groups. As a result, several national Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander organizations led a coordinated effort to petition the government to recognize Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders as a distinct racial category, separate from Asian Americans. After two decades of work, these civil rights organizations were successful in 1997 when the Office of Management and Budget announced its recognition of “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander” as its own distinct racial category—a decision that led to this category becoming available as a response option in the 2000 U.S. census.
“Data is not something that we see as a political issue,” Feng said. “It’s just the first step towards good governance.”
Despite this historic victory, the fight for data disaggregation has forged on, particularly since many Asian American ethnic groups remain invisible under current data collection practices. Organizations such as the Southeast Asia Resource Center (SEARAC) have spearheaded more recent efforts to frame data disaggregation as a major civil rights issue for the Asian American community. SEARAC has fought to make the unique socioeconomic challenges faced by Southeast Asian Americans more visible by expanding the list of available ethnic identifiers offered in state and federal data collection efforts, and by ensuring that resulting public reports disaggregate Asian American data along ethnic lines.
“When federal, state, and institutional policymakers have access to more detailed data, they can enact evidence-based policies that address inequities, like targeted interventions and student supports,” writes Anna Byon for SEARAC. “In the absence of this data, policymakers are essentially flying blind, resulting in policies that may unwittingly reinforce a status quo that perpetuates the marginalization of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities.”
A hard-won victory in New York
The current data equity movement is a patchwork of grassroots efforts in different states, each facing different localized issues and making varying degrees of progress, said Feng. Bills to disaggregate Asian American and Pacific Islander demographic data have been introduced in several state legislatures throughout the nation, including in Massachusetts, California, and Rhode Island.
In New York, the fight for data disaggregation recently secured a major victory after over a decade of work by CACF and other organizations through their Invisible No More campaign. That campaign helped author and pass AB 6896, which requires that state data for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders be broken down into 14 different ethnic subgroups. Although an earlier version of that bill had passed the state legislature, it had been vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But in December of 2021, Gov. Kathy Hochul—who assumed office after Cuomo’s resignation earlier that year—quietly signed AB 6896 into law.
“We made a major legislative push to really make sure this [bill] was on the [governor’s] radar and that she knew that the AAPI community really needs this,” Feng said.
The bill was the culmination of a considerable amount of collective advocacy. CACF engaged in outreach to community-based partners and allies outside of AAPI communities for additional support, as well as national scale organizations like AAPI Data and SEARAC. Its success opens a wider avenue of support and policy development that can target specific areas of concern for different AAPI constituents.
“Disaggregated data allows Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students to feel seen and supported, especially as anti-Asian bullying and harassment have increased in our schools and communities,” said SEARAC Executive Director Quyen Dinh after the bill’s passage. “By passing this law, New York will be leading the way nationally, expanding the scope of agencies that would disaggregate data compared to all other states. This is to be celebrated and applauded.”
Feng sees data equity as an issue that can and should unite Asian Americans. He emphasizes that the fight is not over, and that CACF is prepared to continue advocating for data justice for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. In New York, the focus will be on ensuring proper implementation of AB 6896, along with redoubled efforts to further expand the list of Asian American ethnic identifiers offered during public data collection. This could have positive ramifications for how policies related to healthcare, voting rights, education, and other social services can be tailored to better reflect the unique needs of different Asian American populations.
Because of how diverse AAPI communities are, Feng said that data equity is essential to ensuring those from all racial and ethnic groups within those communities are seen and acknowledged in greater detail. Data disaggregation offers an opportunity for communities to learn from each other and strengthen empathy and compassion rather than fomenting division and seeing each other as competition. The fight for data to more clearly reflect the distinct, unique needs of different AAPI communities can, in fact, be unifying.
“Data is not something that we see as a political issue,” Feng said. “It’s just the first step towards good governance.”