Political Scientists Elevate Data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

jwong-headshot-2015Political Scientists Elevate Data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

Janelle Wong (), Professor, American Studies, Director Asian American Studies Program, University of Maryland

In many circles (not Political Science!) conversations about data induce glazed eyes and a sudden interest in the latest entertainment news on cell phone screens. But for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, discussions about data have become a call to political arms, at times a site of deep intracommunity conflict, and forced reevaluation of what representation means in our multiracial society.

These themes were clearly present at a recent convening co-sponsored by the White House Initiative on Asian Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI) and AAPIData.  The latter is an online data repository founded and directed by Political Scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan (UC Riverside). Together, these two organizations sponsored “Elevate: A Data Challenge to Elevate AAPI Data,” a national, open competition to elevate data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. There were more than 50 entries and each was judged on a range of criteria, from appropriateness of analytic approach to visual appeal.

Though Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing racial group in the United States, government data on this group are scarce and often of questionable quality because data collection tools often miss those who are Asian-language dominant.”   

On Friday, October 6, in Washington, D.C., contestants, WHIAAPI staff, representatives from government agencies, such as the Department of Transportation, the Census, and HUD, as well as academics, journalists, non-profit leaders and staff, and other stakeholders watched presentations by contestants and participated in panel discussions. Contestants included high school student Jason Fong, who presented data on college admissions to support race-conscious admissions policies to Charmaine Runes, of the Urban Institute, who emphasized the importance of stories and compelling infographics with her data on “disconnected” Southeast Asian youth,  Christina Phang from Blue Raster, a GIS analyst, who presented a stunning set of easy-to-read maps that highlighted the impact of Section 203, the language access provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Why so much interest in data in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community? Data, particularly data that allow for the disaggregation of specific national origin groups, has been at the heart of the community’s quest for political representation and visibility in public policy-making.  Though Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing racial group in the United States, government data on this group are scarce and often of questionable quality because data collection tools often miss those who are Asian-language dominant.

Perhaps more importantly, under the umbrella category of “Asian American and Pacific Islander” are more than 24 distinct national origin and ethnic groups, each with a unique immigration history, language, culture and settlement pattern in the United States. The most socioeconomically challenged are Cambodians, Hmong, Laotians, Bangladeshis, Bhutanese, and Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders. These groups are routinely lumped in with larger groups that have benefited from selective immigration policies that render the aggregate population, particularly the largest Asian American groups – Indians, Chinese and Filipinos- among the highest educated and highest earning populations in the country.  Here we see the power, and potential dangers, of data that obscures smaller Asian American and Pacific Islander groups under cover of the “Model Minority Myth.” Political will and resources must drive the data collection necessary to reveal the needs of smaller Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, many that demonstrate higher drop-out rates and poverty rates than any other racial group in the U.S. Some Asian American and Pacific Islander groups have been fighting for more than three decades to make their voices heard on the pressing topic of better data collection and data disaggregation.  The convening was an opportunity to make that case again to Washington policy-makers.

Political Scientists can learn much about making their data accessible and thereby more impactful from their colleagues working at non-profits, advocacy organizations, and in the commercial vending world.”

Another important topic covered by panelists was the link between academic research and the work of those in government agencies and non-profits. Political scientists have led the effort to collect data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders with studies like the 2001 Pilot National Asian Survey and the National Asian American Survey (fielded in 2008, 2012, 2016).  These data allow us to confront popular assumptions about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders:

  • Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders do not resist taxes, but embrace “Big Government” programs and spending on the Affordable Care Act and other social programs
  • The Asian American political agenda is much broader than education-related policies, but encompasses strong and consistent support for environmental protections and gun control
  • While a majority of all Asian Americans oppose a proposed ban on Muslim immigrants to the U.S., certain Asian American groups are more willing to support a proposed ban than others – notably a significant proportion of Chinese Americans support such a policy, even though historically Chinese were formally excluded from the United States themselves

At the same time, Political Scientists can learn much about making their data accessible and thereby more impactful from their colleagues working at non-profits, advocacy organizations, and in the commercial vending world.

Those at the convening have no doubt that the collection of and access to data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders is deeply political.  In California this past summer, some Chinese Americans vocally opposed legislation that would require certain educational and health agencies in California to break up demographic data for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community by ethnic and national origin subgroup. The rationale was that this disaggregated data might be used to identify Asian and Pacific Islander populations in the state that have low rates of college-going and might benefit from programs to increase their numbers in state colleges and universities.  Opponents feared such programs might negatively impact Chinese American admissions advantages.  Other Chinese Americans in the state, as well as long-standing civil rights organizations pressed for the bill to collect detailed data on underrepresented Asian American and Pacific Islander groups.  In the end, the bill was watered down to apply to only public health agencies, though it was signed into law.

Data is not always glamorous and it certainly doesn’t capture the public imagination like a tweet from Donald Trump, but the Elevate AAPI Data Challenge was an important moment for the Asian American community because it left no doubt that without data, political representation suffers and our voices are lost.