A member of the Asian American Coalition for Education has launched a campaign to remove sub-Asian race options in the 2020 census form, calling it “racially discriminatory.” The petition demands that the option to confirm if the person’s race is Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, etc., should be collapsed under the label Asian.
The campaign claims that the legacy of sub-Asian categorization “eventually led to the infamous, racist, and inhumane Chinese Exclusion Act spanning from 1882 to 1943, which among other terrible abominations, banned U.S. residents of Chinese descent from having children or getting married.” Sub-Asian race responses are a way to ensure that Asian Americans are “perpetual foreigners,” by collecting “intrusive personal ancestral origin data.” Over 56,000 people have signed the petition on Change.org.
Speaking as an Asian, of all the injustices to hold accountable, I contend that this one holds little water.
Fear of being labeled a foreigner and revealing personal ancestral origin information should not be the criteria for Asian origin subsumption, since Asians, by virtue of our skin color, Asian features and names are easily identifiable as being from another country. Even among the major Asian sub-categories, it is easy to surmise if a person comes from India or Japan, for instance. A check mark on a form is not nearly as revelatory as it is imagined to be.
The implicit fear for many, however, is about why race information is collected and what is done with this data.
The decennial census identifies who resides in America, and is the most important set of metrics that will determine the disbursement of funds for schools, highways, social services as well as political representation for the state.
Privacy concerns are legitimate and reflect the times that we live in. At a meeting around census confidentiality, Sonny Lee, the partnership specialist at the census bureau in San Francisco, said that he is often asked about privacy. His answer is that the responses to the 2020 Census are safe, secure and protected by federal law, and the responses are used to “produce statistics” and cannot be shared with any other government agency, not law enforcement, not the CIA, DHS or ICE, he confirmed.
The very first census in 1790 had only three race options: Slaves; Free White Females and Males; and All Other Free Persons. In 1870, Chinese was added to the census and then two decades later, Japanese was added alongside Chinese.
Till the late 1900s Chinese, Filipino, Japanese and Korean were the only Asians listed on the census form. More recently, in the 2010 census, there were 7 Asian sub-categories: Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Other Asian.
Historically there were indeed instances when racial data was used to identify and create policies for the segregation of certain ethnicities. During World War II, the federal government collected racial data to identify and locate people of Japanese descent in order to segregate them into internment camps. However, this fear of history being repeated should be evaluated against what’s compromised for individual communities when their needs are collapsed into a larger whole.
Race identifiers are important for many federal programs, including equal employment opportunities and “racial disparities in health and environmental risks,” states the Office of Management and Budget. Beyond research for particular policies, including civil rights and anti-discrimination laws, race data is used for planning purposes.
Even the label “Asian” is opaque. It packs certain assumptions, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of political science at UC, Riverside, at a briefing in Los Angeles, recently. There is a persistent tendency to assume that all Asians are from East Asia, originating from China, Japan and Korea, he said.
Immigrants from Asia are very diverse with widely differing skill levels and attributes. “Detailed origin reporting is critical, especially when we plan for the specific needs of communities,” said Ramakrishnan.
According to a National Geographic story on south Asians in America, fewer than 8 percent of Indians in America live below the poverty line, compared to 35 percent of Burmese and 32.5 percent of Bhutanese. When it comes to educational attainment, 40 percent of Indians, 32 percent of Sri Lankans and 27 percent of Chinese and Malaysians in America have advanced degrees. On the other hand, 82 percent of Bhutanese and 65 percent of Burmese have no degree beyond high school.
This data points to the fact that many Indians and Chinese are part of the STEM workforce and Hmong, Cambodian, Nepalese, Laotian, Mongolian and Burmese have the largest numbers of unemployed.
These differences present a problem in the way we think of Asian Americans as a composite whole. “Take a group like Chinese Americans. If you look at language needs, Chinese Americans are at the top of the list, though they may not need educational attainment,” said Ramakrishnan. Chinese immigrants have vastly different needs as compared to Thai or Nepalese and Indian immigrants as a group differ greatly from Burmese or Bhutanese.
“We need a multi-faceted strategy to tackle census data. We need to be disaggregated in the way we think of Asians,” said Ramakrishnan. Data disaggregation is the key to ensuring that the issues facing all Asians and Pacific Islanders are addressed, he argued. “Misinformation on data disaggregation is harmful to the community,” he warned.
The petition merely fuels fear of the government and achieves no real objective. Collapsing sub-Asian options into one Asian category is a case of one size incapable of fitting all.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan