ON August 6, when thousands of state legislators from all over the US gathered at the Westin Boston Waterfront hotel for the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual legislative summit, more than 100 Chinese Americans staged a protest in front of the venue. For the past few years, an awakening sense of their rights has been triggering more protests from within the Asian population, a group once known for being silent. But this rare protest, which was not aimed at countering a racist comment or an unjust action against Asian people, was instead an attempt to influence the legislative process.
The trigger for the protest, a bill pending in the Massachusetts state legislature that would require state agencies to collect data about individual Asian subgroups, has sparked three such protests in the state this summer. But the bill is not the only concern of protesters in Massachusetts. Similar bills have been sprouting up in several other states and cities, and have prompted many protests in recent years, mainly from Chinese immigrants.
The escalating battle was initially ignited by the California Senate Constitutional Amendment No.5 (SCA-5), a bill introduced by State Senator Edward Hernandez in 2012 that aims to repeal a state law prohibiting government agencies from considering the racial, gender and ethnic backgrounds of an applicant in employment, education and government contracting.
The bill did not pass, but Chinese people were alerted. When it evolved into another bill in 2015, which would require government agencies to collect data on Asian people working in areas such as medicine, housing and education, it faced a round of stiffer resistance from the Chinese. The bill once again was shot down and only passed last year with the education portion removed.
Chinese people who fought against the bill consider this a victory. But bills calling for government agencies to disaggregate data for Asians have been passed in several other states, although none achieved passage without facing protests from Chinese people.
Chinese skepticism about these bills is understandable. Having been in this country for more than 100 years, the Chinese are more established than many other Asian groups in many fields such as education and finance.
Their achievements are respected but sometimes are punished too. For example, top universities in the US have been applying affirmative action in their admission process. And Asians, who have already made up a substantial portion of those attending these schools, see their chances of getting in diminished for the politically correct purpose of campus diversity.
This, in particular, means Chinese and Koreans, who are more competitive than others. Many Chinese parents worry the disaggregated data proposals are indeed aimed at further suppressing education opportunities of their hard-working children.
Some protesters also brought up the issue of the unity of a community, worrying that data disaggregation would turn Asian subgroups against one another. While these are legitimate concerns, they are nevertheless oversensitive in this circumstance. The concept of an Asian community was formed only in the 1980s after a young Chinese man, Vincent Chin, was mistaken for a Japanese person and beaten to death by a duo of revengeful white autoworkers in Detroit whose jobs were threatened by the competition from the Japanese auto companies.
The incident and the subsequent lenient sentences of those convicted helped Asians realize the need for unity in the face of discrimination, despite their differences.
But as the only racial group that is not united by a primary language or even facial features, the union of Asians has been an artificial one from the beginning. The “fighting together” spirit seen in the Chin case does not always materialize.
More often than not, a subgroup would stand up for its own people with others in the arbitrary Asian community watching with indifference.
The concept of Asian community is further complicated by the diverse needs of subgroups. For example, while more than half of Chinese, Koreans and Sri Lankans in the US have bachelor or higher degrees, the percentages among Laotians, Hmongs and Cambodians is fewer than 15 percent. While Indian Americans had a national median income of $92,418 in 2011, the figure for Bangladeshi Americans was $45,185.
Disaggregated data can help policymakers see the different needs among this diverse group and direct funding accordingly. This is what legislators initially intended with the bill – to help those subgroups in need, not suppress others that were not.
Of course data can be used in different ways depending on the political atmosphere. But a possible misuse of data should not be the reason to prohibit creating the data itself.
To the Chinese who are confused by this, the idea of data disaggregation among Asians may be easier to understand if put in the frame of a familiar concept – it is indeed about “letting some people achieve prosperity first” versus “common prosperity.” Chinese people should be proud of their achievements. But decision-makers have to consider how to get everyone else moving forward.
However, a pure Darwinian mind-set could eventually hurt the Chinese as well because, despite everything, we are still a minority in the country.
[The author is a New York-based journalist. [email protected]]