A debate over how government should identify our ethnicity

Claire Liao, a 10 year old from Fairfield, with Ming Li, a mother of two from South Windsor.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / ctmirror.org

Claire Liao, a 10-year-old from Fairfield, with Ming Li, a mother of two from South Windsor.

Are the racial and ethnic buckets the state uses for education and health data too big for policymakers to make meaningful use of?

For example, can the state education department assume that by-and-large Asian students are doing OK in school since that’s what the overall data show, and focus their efforts elsewhere? Or would a further breakdown of the diverse category of Asian – which includes those from India, Pakistan, China, Japan and many other countries – be more useful?

These are questions facing state legislators.

Two bills take differing approaches to collecting more granular race and ethnicity data. One bill, aimed at preventing what its supporters call an “Asian registry,” would prohibit more detailed ethnic subgroups in education data. Another would require more detailed subgroups to be used in the health realm.

Proponents of allowing more specific data say it is a civil rights issue that disparities are identified – and addressed – and not hidden in a flaw of averages. Opponents say such collection makes them nervous it could be used to discriminate against them, and that they are American before anything else.

How close to look?

The education data bill is a pre-emptive reaction to changes in other states that have adopted or considered using more detailed – or “disaggregated” – subgroups to know which students struggle within the broader Asian and Pacific Islander categories. As a whole, Asians are typically top performers in school, but opponents of the bill worry there are certain subgroups who struggle but are not provided increased attention because they are not identified.

Connecticut has some of the worst racial and ethnic achievement gaps in the country, but the current administration at the state’s Department of Education said it doesn’t have plans for more detailed race and ethnicity data collection than the categories it tracks now. The school data bill aims to keep it that way.

The Department of Education uses the following eight categories, in compliance with federal requirements: American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian; Black or African American; Hispanic/Latino of any race; Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander;  Two or More Races; White; and not reported.

Last school year, just over 27,000 Asian students attended public schools throughout the state, or 5 percent of all students.

Nationwide, about 51 percent of Asian Americans 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree, far higher than the 30 percent for all Americans, according to Pew Research. However, there are significant differences within that group: 72 percent of those of Indian descent hold bachelor’s degrees compared with just 9 percent of Bhutanese.

Indians make up the largest portion of Asians in Connecticut. The Asian population grew 65 percent from 82,000 in 2000 to to 136,000 in 2010, according to decennial Census data. There were 46,0000 Asian Indians living in Connecticut in 2010, about 48 percent more than the next most numerous group, Chinese, at 31,000.

The other bill, S.B. 465, would expand race and ethnicity subgroups used in health care data and make them uniform across all state agencies and commissions that collect demographic data relating to health. The argument for the bill is similar to that for the education bill, that it would allow for health decision-making that is more finely tuned to small populations’ needs.

Concerns of discrimination

“I don’t enjoy being classified specifically on my ethnicity,” said eighth grader Silvia Chen in written testimony for an Education Committee public hearing last Wednesday. “This bill would mean that I would be stereotyped more as a Chinese person, and not American. What’s the difference between us? Both whites and Chinese are born in America each day, yet whites aren’t classified into subgroups like Caucasian and white Hispanic but us Asians are.”

A sign supporting S.B. 359, which would prohibit breaking student data down into more detailed race and ethnicity categories.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / ctmirror.org

A sign supporting S.B. 359, which would prohibit breaking student data down into more detailed race and ethnicity categories.

Hundreds of supporters of the education bill restricting further disaggregation testified at the hearing at the Capitol Wednesday, despite a snowstorm the night before that closed highways and delayed the opening of state offices. State Sen. Tony Hwang, who supports the bill, said that strong showing was in spite of the fact that two buses of people who planned to testify had to be canceled over weather concerns.

Hwang said a broad Asian-Pacific American constituency in Connecticut has driven the call for this legislation.

Emotional testimony expressed fear of being labeled something other than American.  There were references to a history of discrimination and news that the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether Harvard’s admission policies discriminate against Asians. Disaggregation of Asian student data was called “discriminatory” and an “Asian registry.”

“Registries like those that could be created under targeted disaggregation assisted in the infamous internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. This is an extreme, yet relevant piece of evidence when discussing the harm data disaggregation can cause,” Hwang wrote in his testimony. “Although data disaggregation is not always sinister in nature, it opens up the possibility of intentional and unfair targeting of certain groups, and history has shown the potential consequences.”

Wenliang Zhou, an associate research scientist at Yale wrote, “My son is the only Asian in his class in Reggio Magnet School. While other kids filled their data sheets and identified themselves as white or black, my son was reminded to check before ‘Asian.’ He was confused and asked me why I told him that he is an American, while the teacher still thought he belonged to Asia? Isn’t it supposed all kids are equal?”

Zhou continued, “Despite the confusion caused by current data segregation, I cannot imagine how should I answer my kids if someday they bring me a form and ask me why they should call themselves ‘Chinese’ instead of ‘American.’ Recall that recently the FBI director Wray claimed that Chinese is ‘a whole-of-society threat.’ When my kids choose their race as ‘Chinese,’ isn’t it a potential threat to them as well?”

Larry Li of Avon wrote, “My 11-years-old son, Nash Li, was born in this country. He loves having photos taken under our National flag, only speaks English and eats American food. The United States of America is his only motherland. Labeling him as a Chinese, because of the country of my origin, would have detrimental psychological impact on him. Fearing that our son could be discriminated, his mother desperately wants to change his last name to hide his ancestry. It would forever make my son ashamed of who he is. I feel sad for my son that, after generations of civil right movement for equal right and equal protection, I am here to ask for a basic right for my son: to be treated equal.”

House Minority leader Themis Klarides wrote, “When students walk into classrooms across our state, they should feel safe. They should feel welcome, and free to learn and share their ideas, thoughts, and dreams with their peers and their teachers. Our students should never be in a position that they feel different or singled out among their fellow classmates, and by passing Senate Bill 359, we, as a legislature, will be able to assure them that they will not be required to provide specific data regarding their ethnicity.”

Hidden subgroups

Opponents of the education bill, including advocacy groups for health care and education, say prohibiting disaggregation threatens what could be a valuable tool for identifying and addressing otherwise unseen disparities.

“Disaggregated student data allows for a full and nuanced understanding of community needs by making the specific needs of ethnic, national, and racial subgroups visible,” wrote Tanya Kimball Genn, manager of youth services for Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, or IRIS. “Students who identify as Chinese, Afghan, Korean, and Hmong may all have a limited choice on most forms of identifying as ‘Asian,’ though each community is very unique. […] If the ethnic, racial, and national identities of our students cannot be seen, then the students themselves cannot be seen and the long-time, systemic inequities they face will not be visible to those making decisions on their behalf.”

Genn acknowledged the anxiety expressed by supporters of the bill.

“Families are understandably apprehensive of subjecting their children to a sentence of ‘perpetual foreigner,’ but disaggregated data is not the source of inequity. Data collection that recognizes difference is necessary to assess systemic inequity.”

Ban Tran, executive director of the Connecticut Coalition of Mutual Assistance Associations, which also serves refugees, wrote, “Many of our clients have children in the public schools who suffer from educational challenges. Many come to school with gaps in their education and limited English skills. Some of our most recent refugees have some of the lowest test scores, but without data on these smaller subgroups, schools are unable to identify problems that may be unique to them. When data is collected into one large group of ‘Asians,’ for example, the problems of smaller groups remain unseen. This is true for other subgroups as well, such as Hispanics or African Americans.”

Three members of the Connecticut Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, or CALAS, opposed the bill.

“The passing of this bill will prevent educators in addressing our collective moral responsibility to prioritize efforts to eliminate the inequities that currently exist across our public school system and ensure no student is left behind,” wrote Daisy Torres, a school administrator in New London and member of CALAS.

Quyen Truong of Hartford wrote, “I am a first-generation Vietnamese American refugee. My father fought in the Vietnam War and was sent to seven years in re-education camps as punishment. Our family faces trauma particular to the Vietnamese refugee community. My family struggled to survive in the United States, and we are lucky to be where we are today. However, many other refugee families are not so lucky, and ignoring the healthcare concerns and trauma of ethnic communities does a disservice to our educational system.”

Truong argued that fears of discrimination in data meant to identify disparities are misplaced.

“The most vocal supporters of SB 359 argue that the collected data will disfavor their children in elite college admissions processes. But discrimination and quotas of any kind in college admissions are prohibited by the 14th Amendment, and strict scrutiny is used to review discriminatory intent. There is a big difference between collecting data to discriminate, which is unconstitutional, and the public policy aim of disaggregating data to understand how to empower all students to succeed.”

“Moreover, SB 359 creates barriers to educational success for our students. In the last few years, doing the healthcare reform advocacy work that I do on a grassroots level, I have learned that we need data disaggregation to offer targeted supports instead of squandering our state’s resources on overly inclusive and culturally insensitive measures. In this budget crisis, we need to identify specifically where valuable state dollars need to go to address educational and health care disparities, such as achievement gaps in education and overutilizers of the emergency rooms. “

An even-handed approach?

State Sen. Tony Hwang, a proponent of the bill, said he is sensitive to those in the Asian community who feel their population’s needs are overlooked by what is sometimes called the “model minority” label.

Hwang said the language would allow for even-handed disaggregation if it were applied across all ethnicities, rather than specifically targeting Asians or Hispanics for further scrutiny. He’s referring to an exception that says disaggregated student data could be “collected uniformly for all ethnic subgroups among the entire student population in the state.” That’s an exception that many supporters of the bill want eliminated.

“Why should Asian Americans have to specify whether they originate from Thailand or China when white people do not have to specify whether they originate from Germany or Ireland? Applying different classifications and practices toward different groups based on race, ethnicity or national origin is discriminatory,” Hwang wrote in his testimony.

Opponents of the bill, those in favor of allowing more detailed data, say that exception might be unrealistic.

“Given the sheer number of ethnic subgroups that exist, it is effectively impossible to disaggregate data to this level of granularity,” wrote Camara Stokes Hudson an associate policy fellow for Connecticut Voices for Children. “This level of disaggregation would also pose legal concerns in that it may violate [federal] confidentiality regulations that protect the identities of students.”

Privacy laws prohibit the state from releasing personally identifying information on students, including statistical data based on very small groups. As a result, a lot of public data ends up being redacted when it involves fewer than six students, as in the spreadsheet below:

School-level data broken out by the state's broad race and ethnicity categories is often redacted because the number of students in any given group is too small, as in this screenshot of SAT scores from New Milford High School on the EdSight website. Smaller categories would mean more redactions.

School-level data broken out by the broad race and ethnicity categories is often redacted because the number of students in any given group is too small, as in this screenshot of SAT scores from New Milford High School on the EdSight website. Smaller categories would mean more redactions.

Stokes Hudson continued, “We agree that race/ethnicity data can be sensitive information, and support the ongoing and commonplace methods [the state Department of Education] presently uses to protect students’ individual-level data from the public via data suppression and de-identification. But, when race/ethnicity has such an extreme impact on outcomes for students, it is a disservice to students of color to remove one of the most important tools in combating the gap in achievement and access for them.”

A different direction

A different bill, S.B. 465, goes the opposite direction, requiring agencies that collect race and ethnicity data for health purposes to “expand race and ethnic categories of Asian, African-American, Hispanic, regardless of race, and Native Hawaiian and other Pacific islander to include subgroup identities present in the state.” A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for Friday.

Tekisha Everette, executive director of the non-profit Health Equity Solutions opposes the prohibitions on disaggregation in the education bill and supports the passage of 465.

“I am an African American woman born and raised in the south […] I am much more susceptible to hypertension, to diabetes to heart attack, to stroke. But my friend who is Nigerian born and is now an American citizen does not have those same predispositions,” Everette said, offering an example of the need for more granular subgroups than “African American.”

Theanvy Kuoch, executive director of Khmer Health Advocates in West Hartford, wrote in testimony that, “In the health arena, we know that most Southeast Asian American refugees have multiple chronic medical conditions — they suffer disproportionately from diabetes, cardiovascular disease, PTSD and depression.”