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Disaggregating Data: Passing the State House Bill

News & Features | February 20, 2018

“I promise you you’ve never seen this many people from Asian ethnicities at the statehouse ever.”

Representative Tackey Chan, a Democrat from Quincy, pointed this out in his testimony in support of House Bill 3361 on January 30. The auditorium behind him was packed and there was an hours-long line out the door. Members of many Asian American communities had come from as far as New York to give their opinions on a bill that would disaggregate data collected on people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.

“Our Asian American population is extremely diverse and represents different life experiences, health, and educational needs. I believe the state needs better data on our residents so that we may accurately allocate our limited resources to the people who need them the most,” said Director of Organizing at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition Liza Ryan. “We need H.3361 to raise the level of care in our commonwealth.”

The bill would require all state and local agencies to break down data collected about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders into the five largest ethnic groups in the United States— Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Vietnamese, and Korean. Federal census data is already disaggregated by ethnicity, but this bill would greatly increase the amount of information available about the Asian/Pacific Islander community.

When Chan introduced the bill, no one anticipated that it would become such a contentious issue. His intent was to improve policies and services that affect Asian communities.

“Accurate and disaggregated data is vital for addressing the inequities in opportunity and access, advancing civil rights, promoting civic engagement, increasing multilingual education, and allocating resources to bring change where there is need,” said Vatsady Sivongxay from the Asian American Lawyers Association.

Currently, aggregated statistics on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders imply that as a group, they are a “model minority.” According to the 2010 census, the median income for Asian households in Massachusetts is $76,000, the highest of any racial group. Additionally, 56.85 percent of Asians have college degrees, far surpassing other groups. However, when the data is disaggregated by ethnicity, it paints a very different picture. According to the American Community Survey, the median household income for Vietnamese families in Massachusetts in 2014 was $56,895. In the same survey, only 14.9 percent of Cambodians reported having a bachelor’s degree.

Analysis of the ACS shows that in 2015, 13 percent of Asians did not have health insurance. When broken down by sub-group, however, 22 percent of Nepalese and 20 percent of Koreans were uninsured. Pakistani, Burmese, Thai, and Malaysians all stood at 19 percent. Having that kind of information helps service providers know which languages to translate materials into and which communities in a city as ethnically diverse as Boston to target for insurance enrollment. Health insurance is just one of countless examples. Research shows that in the US, Indians are significantly more likely to die from heart disease compared to those who are Vietnamese, which is vital information for public health officials.

These disparities in the data, and the fact that few statistics are available that provide the same level of detail as the ACS, make it very difficult for providers to target their services. At the bill’s hearing, Dawn Sauma, Co-Executive Director of Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, cited difficulties in hiring staff with the appropriate language skills as well as creating culturally-sensitive prevention and intervention programs. This is because there is little reliable information on the size of ethnic groups in Massachusetts and their specific needs. Additionally, grant applications often require data broken down by ethnicity, something the bill is designed to help provide.

Opponents of the bill, however, claim that the bill would give Asian Americans “perpetual foreigner status” by highlighting their ancestry rather than their American identity. Zhengwei Qu called this racial discrimination, asking in his testimony, “Can you imagine if President Obama’s children, grandchildren, grand-grandchildren need to fill out a form as Kenyan? Can you imagine that President Trump’s children, grandchildren, grand-grandchildren need to fill out a form as German? This is totally unacceptable and absolutely absurd.”

Some who oppose the bill have gone as far as to compare the data collection to the registration of Jews in Germany in the 1930s or Japanese internment in the US during World War II.

Bethany Li from Greater Boston Legal Services’ (GBLS) Asian Outreach Unit pointed out that not only is data on ethnicity already collected by the federal government, but Title XIII and similar state laws protect the privacy of those who provide their data. Additionally, self-identifying ethnicity on government forms is optional. Massachusetts’ effort to disaggregate data is certainly not unique; California, Washington, Rhode Island, and Minnesota have all passed similar bills.

Regardless of prior legislation, there remain individuals who are fierce in their stance against the bill. Many of those present at the hearing on January 30 testifying against the bill are relatively new Chinese immigrants who have organized over the popular messaging app WeChat. They have organized protests calling H.3361 the “racism bill” and resorted to coughing loudly during the hearing to express their disagreement with supporters.

In her testimony, Li called the opposition’s tactics fearmongering. “I would invite the opponents of this bill to stand with us then, when there truly is an issue of racism and discrimination that harms people of color. But they should not be raising red herrings to distract from the very real issues we at GBLS see in our communities today. They shouldn’t waste our time by creating falsehoods about the impact this bill will have. And they should not claim to speak for the aggregate when they alone are not representative of this community,” Li said.

A prominent argument against the bill is that it unfairly targets Asian Americans. To address this, the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight referred the bill, originally designed as a placeholder, to a commission to revise it to include provisions to disaggregate data for all racial groups in the Commonwealth. From the beginning, the bill’s supporters have worked with the Black and Latino Legislative Caucuses to ensure their support.

With collaboration between these groups and support from local community organizations, the special commission hopes to expand and finalize the current bill by the year’s end.