A controversial Massachusetts bill, the Asian Data Disaggregation Act (H.3361), is under consideration by the state legislature. If enacted, it would require “all state agencies, quasi-state agencies, entities created by state statute and sub-divisions of state agencies” to identify Asian American, and only Asian American, people based on their country of origin or ancestry.
The bill is a senseless approach to a sensitive issue. In fact, it will essentially create an Asian Registry and has many unintended consequences.
H.3361 is a form of racial profiling because it singles out Asian Americans, down to their nationality even if they are born in the United States. Disaggregation means separating something into its component parts. No matter the intent, the outcome is obvious. Not only the first generation of immigrants, born in a foreign country, need to identify themselves by their country of origin, but also their children who were born in the U.S. and their children’s children by the country of origin of their ancestors. Theoretically, there’s no end to the generations this could affect.
First, let’s look no further than America’s own history. The hyphenated American was a commonly used term from 1890 to 1920 to disparage Americans of foreign heritage. President Theodore Roosevelt was an outspoken anti-hyphenate. And he said “There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. Some of the very best Americans I have ever known were naturalized Americans, Americans born abroad. But a hyphenated American is not an American at all.” And he continued, “The one absolute certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.” Under the proposed bill, there will be many hyphenated Americans with Asian heritage, boxes for Chinese-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Indian-Americans, Cambodian-Americans and Korean-Americans, etc.
Second, to be perfectly clear, H.3361 is not a form of census because the U.S. Census requires all races and ethnicities to be classified and surveyed, not just Asian American. Moreover, the U.S. census is granted by Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution and administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, under very strict data collection, data security and privacy rules and regulations. More important, H.3361 is not a scientific method of collecting data. Census data is gathered by one federal agency at one given time through a single standard census form. It’s a snapshot of the entire population at a point in time. But under H.3361, the racial, ethnic or ancestry data would be collected by many different agencies at many times using many different data entry points, which will result in redundant effort, data overlap, double counting, as well as vast data tabulation, normalization, correlation, reconciliation, consolidation and cleansing issues. It is an unscientific as well as imprudent way of collecting sensitive personal data.
Potentially, the disparate datasets from different agencies could be unreliable, inaccurate and unusable for policymaking due to its flawed data collection method. It is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and a waste of the state funding and resources.
Third, the mental and psychological impact on hundreds of thousands of Asian immigrants and their children can’t be underestimated. Many Asian Americans are keenly aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, the long suspected hidden Asian quota in many top American colleges and universities which echoes the Jewish quota of 1920s, not to mention the Nazi concentration camps as well as the Jewish Registry created by Nazi Germany from 1939 ethnic data collection and which led to the identification, prosecution and ethnic cleansing of Jews. Since H.3361 was introduced, racial tensions, angers, resentments, anxieties, and fears among Asian communities have been running high. There were half a dozen protests and demonstrations held in the last 6 months by various Asian organizations and groups.
The bill also reinforces a perpetual foreigner mindset and stereotype. It would alienate many patriotic Asian Americans by reminding them of an Asian Registry. It would solidify discrimination and racism against Asian Americans, many of whom were born in this country. It’s a wrong approach. If we disaggregate Asian Americans, by the same logic, should we disaggregate European Americans into German American, Irish American, Italian American, Jewish American, or Scandinavian American, for instance? Should we disaggregate African Americans into Somalian American, Ethiopian American, Egyptian American, or Ghanaian American?
And what about people with parents from different countries, different racial or ethnic lines? How many boxes do they have to check? This is dividing, not uniting, our country.
The U.S. has racially and culturally progressed faster than some of our lawmakers’ abilities to comprehend. Interracial marriages and multiracial kids are quite common nowadays even if some lawmakers are still stuck in last century.
Ironically, the bill is sponsored by State Rep. Tackey Chan, D-Quincy. He and his supporters argue that having disaggregated data on Asian Americans could improve awareness of the needs of the different Asian populations, help target local and state funding and resources for underserved Asian minority subgroups. Some also claim that data collected on specific Asian American subgroups means distinctive medical and disease conditions can be identified, leading to appropriate and better diagnoses and treatments.
But H.3361 isn’t the solution. The better alternative is to provide social, financial, or language education assistance to anyone, especially the first generation of immigrants, based on an individual’s economic or linguistic needs regardless of one’s race or country of origin. There are socioeconomically disadvantaged families and kids across racial and ethnic lines from any country, all of whom need help. Fundamentally, such assistance should be need-based according to income level and language proficiency, not race or ethnicity.
As to the demographic data for research and diagnosis, many medical experts dismiss the notion that the differences between Asian subgroups are more statistically significant than the differences between European or African subgroups on a biological or genetic basis. The decennial U.S. Census data and estimates in-between provide better datasets for research and analysis. And there will be a fresh U.S. Census dataset in 2020, including statistics on all racial and ethnic groups.
Finally, the cost of H.3361 clearly outweighs any potential benefit. Selectively collecting data on racial and ethnic minority groups is culturally insensitive, morally objectionable and legally contentious. It’s unconstitutional. Why single out Asians? Can we do this to the Jews or Arabs? Where does this end? This kind of legislation continues the unfortunate path of identity politics, a losing cause for any individual or any group, and especially for this great state and our nation. Racial profiling or any form of identity politics does a disservice to our humanity. H.3361 needs to be stopped.
George Shen, of Newton, was born in China and is a naturalized citizen of the United States who has lived in Massachusetts more than 20 years. He is an associate partner at IBM, Cambridge, specializing in data analytics & Watson solutions. His technical papers on data management include “Big Data, Analytics and Elections” in Analytics Magazine, and the cover story,“Unplugged – The Disconnect of Intelligence and Analytics,” in Information Management Magazine.