By Yuxuan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly
U.S. Supreme Court justices are in the midst of hearing a case that sprouted from a controversial affirmative action plan of the University of Texas in 2013. New updates from the Court signal a majority opinion shift against the plan’s legality. If this consensus extends to the final ruling, Asian Americans will probably be the most relieved ones among those who have been striving to remove affirmative action for a long time.
Affirmative action started off to promote underrepresented minorities’ participation in higher education, but in recent years it ironically has encountered the most vehement opposition from Asian Americans. It has become an open secret that colleges set up quotas limiting the number of Asian American students they admit because they think Asian Americans have performed too well to be considered “underrepresented”, statistically speaking. However, this is an illusion conjured by the primitive aggregation of Asian American data. For many years, the umbrella term “Asian” has masked our vast internal differences. As the 2016 Presidential Election approaches, we shall either tackle this issue head on or let it continue to haunt the future of our community.
When you enter the term “model minority” into any search engine, every line of results relates to a single key word, “Asian American”. In 1750, Filipino fishermen, the first Asian Americans, landed on a small settlement in South Louisiana. More than two and a half centuries later, we have beaten all other racial groups in terms of economic and education progress. With statistics like median household income and high education attainment running ahead of any other racial group, we were lauded as the “model minority”, a term that is less an honorable crown than a deceptive myth.
The truth unfolds only when the full picture is shown. Asian Americans are a very diverse community. The identity spectrum of Asian Americans can span 48 ethnic categories. In the public’s eyes, a few groups’ exceptional performance has overshadowed the struggles of the rest. In fact, only 13 percent of native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders over the age of 25 have a bachelor’s degree. Per capita income for Hmong and Laotian Americans is $11,502 and $17,274, which is closer to per capita for African Americans than to whites. Many Asian American subgroups face lots of challenges within their communities, yet this crude practice of data aggregation lumps them together as “winners” and thereby buries their need for external support.
In 2013, I followed my family to move from a small town in southern China to Brooklyn, New York. Like many other immigrants, we lived at the edge of Chinatown because of cheaper housing expense. Earning below minimum wage is a norm for most immigrants, including my parents. The rising influx of illegal immigrants made the labor market even more tilted in favor of employers, squashing the room for wage increase. The national threshold of poverty is a distant dream for many immigrant workers.
People work 12 hours a day just to survive in this foreign land. This is just a short note on tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants’ lives in New York. Chinese Americans are often singled out as an exemplary minority group with substantial achievement in American society. However, even within a “model minority” like Chinese American, socio-economic discrepancy is still striking. If we peek into the lives of Hmong and Laotian who are way behind in terms of statistics, our observations will probably be more disturbing. Yet, politicians still perceive us as a single group “Asian” when making decisions on significant policies.
We have never ceased voicing our demand for disaggregating data, but the echo is feeble. This past October, a data disaggregation bill was passed both in the California Senate and Assembly. While everybody was expecting it to be a law, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it right after it was placed on his table. Our years of efforts were almost murdered by a signature. We know the path towards data disaggregation is strenuous. We ought to continue our fight.
Political debate about the 2016 presidential campaign has already caught fire, but issues concerning Asian Americans have only occupied a minimal portion of the discussion. The Asian American community is a very diverse one. To really unfold the invisible truth about our community, data collection on the policy level should differentiate precise ethnic identities from the umbrella term “Asian”.
Only with these precise identities can the data speak the truth and save us from the myth of “model minority”. (end)