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Affirmative Action: Separating Lao America from Asian America

This is part one on a series about how data effects Education and Affirmative Action.

My fellow Lao Americans, it’s time. It’s time we make our grand exit from the rest of Asian America. Not exactly in a physical sense, and not exactly with hostility, but definitively, and with all deliberate speed. By “leave” I mean it’s time we demand to be represented separately from other Asian American groups across social platforms. Why? Because Asian America is sharply divided along ethnic lines, in both social experiences and access to resources – and this division is working against Lao Americans and other Southeast Asian Americans in favor of other groups.

The Great Divide

The Asian American division involves many aspects; Southeast Asia Americans are stigmatized by other Asian Americans for having a) darker skin, b) higher poverty rates, c) more “unskilled refugees” in the community, d) a perceived affinity for gang violence, and e) a bunch of other things. Each of these topics is important (and deserves its own blog post), but the main divide that I want to focus on is education. As I break this topic down, you’ll see why I think drastic action is Lao America’s best course of action.

Asian Americans are stereotyped as being highly studious, top performers in the US school system. These assumptions are supported by the data linking 53% of Asian American adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher. That aggregate Asian American data is in sharp contrast with more specific figures that show a mere 13% degree-attainment rate for Lao American adults. Asian Americans are 25 points above the US average of 28%, but Lao Americans are 15 points below even the US average! That’s a 40 percentage point (gigantic) gap between our Lao American reality and the Asia American stereotype. With that kind of disparity, how could these two groups possibly co-exist in the same socio-economic sphere? The pain and barriers related to this disparity are hidden because Lao American data isn’t big enough to impact aggregate Asian America data. We aren’t getting the awareness we need to fix things, Lao America.

A lot of this disparity can be directly linked to our respective diasporas (earlier Asian diaspora occurring all the way back in the mid-1800’s versus the Southeast Asian diaspora, which is only 40 years old.

Affirmative Action

These issues around data play a huge role in one very contentious topic related to Asian American education: affirmative action. Before I say anything else, let me first offer a crash course in affirmative action. First, read this document from the University of South Florida. Also be sure to watch fellow LGBTQ Southeast Asian American activist Jose Antonio Vargas’ White People. Last (but not least), remember that Abigail Fisher, the White woman who erroneously blamed affirmative action for her failure to get into the University of Texas, simply did not have the academic chops for her dream school. Seriously, check out these links, because the affirmative action debate is heating up again.

Asian American perspectives on the affirmative action debate are particularly interesting because it can be argued that the policies put Asian American students at a disadvantage in higher education enrollment. Why? Because Asian Americans are currently “over-represented” at college campuses across the United States, even though Asian Americans are a numerical minority in wider society. This means that affirmative action does not always include Asian American students, and many Asian Americans feel that they are overlooked for enrollment spots and scholarships when other applicants benefit from affirmative action.

It is inaccurate though, to say that Asian Americans – as a whole- are disenfranchised by affirmative action. The reality is simply that Asian American communities – again, as an aggregate whole – have not displayed a need for affirmative action in higher education. Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are displaying a need for affirmative action, and I am more than happy to see their students benefit. Asian American students meanwhile are championing higher education enrollment even in the face of perceived barriers caused by affirmative action policies.

Data Disaggregation

The fact of the matter is that we can’t get rid of affirmative action because it is helping marginalized and vulnerable groups; please understand this. Still, affirmative action is not always helping everyone who needs it – specifically Lao Americans. Because aggregated data fuels the perception that all Asian Americans are fine without affirmative action, there is almost no knowledge of the educational barriers Lao Americans face, so we are often overlooked for affirmative action benefits. But data specific to our community shows that we need affirmative action. That is why we must demand the disaggregation of Asian American statistics. That is, we must demand that all data collected for Asian Americans be separated by ethnic group.

Now, I understand that the impact of using Asian American data disaggregation to combat misconceptions might not seem useful, because most colleges and universities say that their application process involves some level of holistic evaluation, where all kinds of information about the student (beyond their race) is considered. This information typically includes the student’s home life, talents, passions, socioeconomic status, and (of course) ethnicity. Great! It sure sounds like Asian American students are already being separated by ethnicity and life experience in the college admissions process, right? Wrong.

The reality is that these holistic portions of the admissions process do not preclude the need for disaggregated Asian American data because there is still not enough awareness of the differences between Asian American groups. Without clearly disaggregated data, college admissions offices won’t likely take the extra effort to ensure that the Asian American population of their students is reflective of all Asian American groups. Also, if aggregate Asian American statistics indicate a high level of success and resources for all Asian American students, a college admissions office might not read a Lao American student’s expressions of socio-economic struggles with an adequate level of urgency, possibly writing the student’s essay off as a sob story. That particular student’s story becomes the exception to the perceived Asian-American experience.

Also, when universities report on their data, they typically do so in a quick and digestible way, so the holistic info is often left out and people go straight for the numbers. If the people reading these reports see a high percentage of Asians/Asian Americans on campus, then that’s all they’re taking from the report. If quick pieces of data is the language they’re using, then we must play the numbers game, too.

Now repeat after me, disaggregation of Asian American educational data is a must.

-Timothy Singratsomboune,


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