via Savenaca Gasaiwai

Throughout college at the University of California at Irvine, Savenaca Gasaiwai was used to being the only Pacific Islander in his classes.

In 2013, his junior year, Gasaiwai went to the registrar’s office and asked how many Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders (NHPI) there were on campus. The answer? Twenty-eight out of 28,000 students. That fall, only 104 NHPI freshmen had enrolled in any of the University of California’s nine undergraduate campuses—even though the state boasts an NHPI population of 340,000.

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These numbers confirmed what Gasaiwai, who’s originally from Fiji, already knew. “Large numbers of my Pacific Islander brothers and sisters are falling through the cracks,” the 23-year-old said.

But looking at combined data for Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AANHPI), you wouldn’t know it.

Data disaggregation, or collecting separate data for different ethnic groups, has been called the foremost civil rights issue for AANHPI today. Although it doesn’t sound very sexy, data disaggregation can yield powerful insights. In California, for instance, 70% of Indian Americans 25 years or older hold a Bachelor’s degree, while only 10% of Laotian Americans do. But under an umbrella AANHPI category, the two groups are lumped together, and their differences overlooked; this perpetuates a “model minority” myth that casts all Asian Americans as successful and highly educated.

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In January, Filipino-American Assemblymember Rob Bonta introduced the controversial bill, Assembly Bill 1726, into California legislature. It called for AANHPI data disaggregation, with the aim of quantifying gaps in healthcare and educational attainment between different AANHPI groups. Such gaps often exist between members of the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian communities—many of whom recently immigrated to the U.S., seeking refuge from war, genocide, or centuries of colonialism—and other Asian Americans who’ve been in the U.S. for longer or came here to pursue higher education.

Last week, after months of dispute, the bill finally passed both legislative houses and reached California Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk on Friday (he must sign or veto it by Sept. 30). The version presented to Brown, however, is considerably different from the one Bonta first proposed.

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A major amendment

Originally, Assembly Bill 1726, also known as the Accounting for Health and Education in API Demographics (AHEAD) Act, called for California’s public health agencies and higher education institutions to collect self-identified data for 10 AANHPI subpopulations outlined in the national census; these included Bangladeshi, Hmong, Indonesian, Fijian, and Tongan Americans. In late August, however, the bill was amended: Education was taken out of it entirely.

Although there’s been organized opposition to the AHEAD Act—most conspicuously from a group of radical Chinese-American conservatives—Brown seems to have requested the changes himself.

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“It was recommended by the governor’s office that we would have a better chance at the governor not vetoing if we took the provisions of education out,” said Nkauj Iab Yang, who directs California programs and policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, one of four AANHPI advocacy organizations listed as sponsors on the bill.

Last year, Brown vetoed a similar bill, Assembly Bill 176, which Bonta also authored. The move came as a surprise since it sailed through both houses with only one dissenting vote. Calling the bill “unnecessary, or at least premature,” Brown said in his veto statement, “I am wary of the ever-growing desire to stratify. Dividing people into ethnic or other subcategories may yield more information, but not necessarily greater wisdom about what actions should follow."

In its original form, the AHEAD Act received widespread support, with 120 California-based organizations and all three of California’s public college systems backing it. In light of this support, Brown’s continued wariness comes as a disappointment to the bill’s proponents.

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“We feel that the governor and his staff could possibly learn a bit more about our communities,” said Calvin Chang, director of policy for Empowering Pacific Islander Communities, another organization co-sponsoring the bill. AANHPI populations are very diverse, and “pretending that diversity doesn’t exist by not collecting data is not going to help them,” he added.

Disaggregation in action

In 2011, Utah’s health department reported that the infant mortality rate for the state’s AANHPI was particularly high. After breaking down the data, however, it was clear that Pacific Islanders were behind this trend; in their population, the infant mortality rate was 8.4 out of 1,000 births, compared to a statewide average of 4.4.

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In response, Utah performed the first-ever statewide health survey of Pacific Islanders in America, running focus groups with more than 600 participants in three languages: Samoan, Tongan, and English. The study revealed that Pacific Islander women as a whole were receiving inadequate prenatal care, and many held misconceptions about practices like breastfeeding and nutritional supplements. These findings led, in 2015, to a pilot program to increase awareness about birth outcomes among Pacific Islanders in Utah.

With targeted data on Pacific Islanders, Utah policymakers successfully identified a public health issue and introduced culturally relevant solutions, Chang explained.

“Each of our communities has their own cultural history, cultural traditions, and languages,” he said. “Without this data, how are institutions going to know how best to outreach to these communities?”

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Advocates say the same logic could be applied to educational outreach and support in California.

Statewide, the numbers are stark. According to census estimates compiled by national advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, 49% of Asian Americans 25 years or older hold a Bachelor’s degree in California—that’s higher than any racial group in the same age range, including white Californians, who clock in at 40%. Meanwhile, among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, the rate is 15%. And for some Southeast Asian subgroups, like Hmong and Laotian Californians, the rates are closer to 12%.

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Growing up among Pacific Islanders in Los Angeles, Gasaiwai knew firsthand how people in his community struggled to make ends meet. His mother worked long hours at the airport ticket counter, while his father served in the U.S. army. Surviving required a group effort, so when his father was deployed abroad—or at home but struggling with PTSD—Gasaiwai took on extra responsibilities, like looking after his younger sisters.

But when it came time to enroll in college, Gasaiwai, a first-generation college applicant, couldn’t turn to family for help. Unfamiliar with how to navigate higher education, Fijian parents often emphasize more practical options, like getting a job, or if all else fails, joining the military.

Gasaiwai didn’t have other resources, either: no lifelong mentors who knew about the process, no network to consult, no test-prep classes. He didn’t even know the differences between applying to the University of California, California State University, and the California Community Colleges systems. A friend had to tell him about the SAT Subject Tests.

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Savenaca Gasaiwai.
via Savenaca Gasaiwai

Disaggregated data could improve support programs for Pacific Islander students and their families, Gasaiwai explained, whether that’s providing tailored test-prep courses to students or language-specific workshops on the college-application process for parents.

“For most people whose parents didn’t actually get a formal education—with school as expensive as it is—just the thought of going to school scares them,” said Gasaiwai, who graduated from UC Irvine this past spring and is now a master’s student at the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.

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“If parents knew the resources available to them, though—if they knew about scholarships and financial aid—I think they would have made more informed decisions.”

The debate

But not everyone supports the AHEAD Act.

Shortly after Bonta introduced the bill, it generated harsh backlash from a grassroots group of Chinese-American conservatives, called the Silicon Valley Chinese Association (SVCA). The group formed in 2014 to protest another bill, Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5, which sought to repeal California’s ban on affirmative action. And this February, SVCA rallied in support of Peter Liang, the Chinese-American NYPD officer who shot unarmed black man Akai Gurley during a public housing sweep.

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SVCA members saw the AHEAD Act in its original form as a backdoor effort to reinstitute race-based affirmative action in California, which they worry would threaten college admissions for overrepresented AANHPI groups, like Chinese Americans. With disaggregated data, groups like “Laotians and Cambodians will join the Latino and African-American groups and say, ‘We want affirmative action, too,’” said Kai Zhu, a Chinese-American attorney who’s part of SVCA.

Other critics of the bill have made controversial historical comparisons, claiming that ethnic data fueled events like the internment of Japanese-Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the Holocaust.

But proponents argue that it’s unfair to block broader educational support over fears of affirmative action, which is already outlawed in California, according to Empowering Pacific Islander Communities’ Chang. “We feel the concern about affirmative action has been a huge distraction from the real fight, which would be to more heavily invest in California’s public education institutions in general,” he said.

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What’s more, according to Southeast Asia Resource Action Center’s Yang, California already collects data for 11 major AANHPI groups, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Indian, and Korean Americans; the numbers just don’t exist for other smaller groups.

“There are a lot of smaller communities who feel really invisible because our data are not disaggregated,” said Yang, who is Hmong American. “These are the communities we want to make sure are seen and better understood by policymakers.”

As for the historical comparisons, Karthick Ramakrishnan, a public policy professor at UC Riverside, called them “inflammatory and unhelpful.”

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“You have these people who are saying ‘If you want to collect data on race, you must be racist,’” said Ramakrishnan, founder of AAPI Data, a website that aims to make data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders more accessible. “But racism doesn’t exist just because someone has a form where they might check off a box.”

“And we know that if you don’t collect data on race, you actually don’t understand what problems society has.”

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AAPI Data recently made its own case for data disaggregation on Twitter:

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To be continued

Although the AHEAD Act was amended, advocates aren’t fazed. They see the bill as one piece of a larger fight for data disaggregation that’s been going on for decades across the U.S.

On a state level, Washington, Oregon, and Minnesota have already passed legislation for disaggregating data. On a federal level, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders has prioritized data collection for AANHPI subpopulations since 2009.

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Proponents of the AHEAD Act also said they’d support other data disaggregation efforts, such as collecting data specifically for Middle Eastern and North African ethnicities, which fall under the white racial category on many demographic surveys.

As for AANHPI communities, the movement’s just getting started.

Policymakers and AANHPI community members would benefit from having disaggregated data on all sorts of issues, including poverty, homelessness, unemployment, incarceration, deportation, and more, according to Yang. It’s already known through census data, for instance, that Hmong, Mongolian, Cambodian, Tongan, and Laotian Californians experience the most poverty among AANHPI—at rates similar to those of Latinx and Black Californians.

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“This is something we’re going to continue working on,” she said. “It doesn’t end with just health and education.”

Steph Yin is a freelance journalist based in New York.