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Good Communities Come From Data Disaggregation

Even though we’ve come a long way, as Southeast Asian American refugee communities getting ready for our 45th year in the US, there are still many hurdles for us. Recently, the Chinese have been actively mobilizing to undermine the strides we’ve made by making national efforts to eliminate the collection of statistics and data so necessary to understand which policies have been effective in narrowing the educational achievement gap, and which have not. It should be obvious just saying it aloud: Good communities come from good data.

In an era when everyone is concerned about the abuse of our social safety nets and education systems, as well as fake news, we should all be committed to gathering the most accurate information about our success and challenges. We should be more than willing to invest in the collection of data that ensures we’re seeing the real picture of how some communities succeed and others do not. Lao Minnesotans are among the many who have a direct stake in this issue.

The phrase most commonly associated with this process of collecting data for our specific Southeast Asian American communities these days is disaggregated data. It is currently not uniformly collected across the US. Many communities are fighting against great difficulty to get their state schools to collect this information. That we have to fight for this at all stinks worse than grandma’s padaek or Mrs. Olson’s lutefisk.

In Minnesota, the law was known as the “All Kids Count Act,” initiated by Sen. Susan Kent and Rep. Rena Moran. It was first implemented in 2017 to help us collect vital information in several reasonable categories for the Minnesota Department of education: specific ethnicities who count a population over 1,000, the students’ home language, immigrant or refugee status, and the students’ history with foster care. With over 12,000 residents in Minnesota, enough to form a city the size of Monticello, the Lao community is among those with a significant stake in the “All Kids Count Act,” especially in light of 2012 educational findings released by the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans that demonstrated significant Lao student achievement gaps.

The Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans has suggested in the past that several smaller Minnesotan AAPI communities may be at risk because they don’t meet the population threshold, notably the Bhutanese, Bangladeshi, Indonesian, Malaysian and Sri Lankan communities. Hopefully in the years ahead our legislators will see the wisdom of including their data as well.

If we collect the data in a way where all students from Asian nations are lumped into one, we get results like the 2010 census which would say: “48.9% of Asian students graduate college.” Which can be a useful figure for some to cite on several projects.

However, when we consider that in that figure, there’s a dramatic difference of 13.2% Lao, 16% Cambodians, 14.8% Hmong,, and 25.5% of the Vietnamese who graduate college? A difference of 31% fewer Southeast Asians graduating then East or South Asians seems like a significant issue to address.

Photo: SEARAC

For the Lao, as a refugee-experienced community, we do not have generations of family wealth and stability, a tradition of higher education, homeownership, or established support networks. Many are experiencing formal education for the first time with its structural and institutional barriers and challenges. The same can be said for our Vietnamese, Karen, Khmer, Hmong and other Southeast Asian Minnesotans who’ve been on similar journeys.

Unfortunately, since at least 2016, Chinese Americans who’ve been likened to the John Birch Society have sought to stonewall data disaggregation efforts. In recent weeks, Lao Minnesotans saw unconscionable attacks on the Asian American community by our legislators such as the A87 amendment, offered by Representative Newberger for the Education Finance Omnibus bill to allow local school boards to limit race and ethnicity reporting, or Senator Chamberlain’s efforts to eliminate the “All Kids Count” law entirely.  Although the amendments were withdrawn, it’s likely others will attempt to introduce similar bills in the future. We’ve seen these efforts in Massachusetts already. But will Lao Minnesotans and others be able to make their voice heard definitively? What will it take to settle this issue once and for all?

There will be times when it’s useful to go with the pan-Asian aggregate statistic. No one is saying we can’t keep using that number when the scenario calls for it. But under the proposed amendment in Minnesota, that could potentially be the only number we could have.

After four decades, Southeast Asians who came as refugees to the US still have a much higher rate of poverty than the average American (11.3% in poverty). If we use only the overall “Asian” stat, you get a figure of 9.3%, or the toxic Crazy Rich Asian stereotype. As Lao Americans we can and must ask for better data.

In reality, the 2010 Census showed that 12.2% of the Lao, 18.2% of the Cambodians, 27.4% of the Hmong, and 13.0% of the Vietnamese were at or below the federal poverty line. There may be valid cases where it could be great for some people to say, “All Asians are alike and share solidarity on particular policy issues.”

As Conor Hunyh and Janelle Wong recently discussed at Pivot, the efforts to eliminate data disaggregation are a slap in the face to equality. They noted “Chinese immigrant voices dominate opposition to the collection of detailed data on Asian Americans. Yet, even Chinese Americans and other advantaged Asian groups stand to benefit from these data. It is only because of detailed data collection that we know that Chinese Americans are more likely to die of chronic respiratory issues or influenza.

Disaggregating data allows us to better address health issues, tailor treatment plans, and cater to specific needs. It gives us more accurate data, which is arguably “better data.”

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, but our ability to celebrate as Lao Americans has been considerably dampened by the efforts of those who would throw Southeast Asian American refugees and others under the proverbial bus. We absolutely must not tolerate these efforts at erasure. Far too many of our elders gave their lives in our journey for us to remain silent.

For those of us who are trying to leverage education to escape multigenerational poverty, it will be disastrous when our policy makers do not understand that not all of us operate from the same zones of privileged experience. This is one of many consequences ahead if we do not have the ability to access accurate data. Good data ought to drive good policies if we value equity and opportunity.

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