Disaggregation Key to Fighting ‘Model Minority’ Myth for Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians

Updated Feb 10, 2012

For African-Americans in the 20th century, few civil rights challenges took on greater importance than the issue of desegregation.

For Asian-Americans in the 21st century, one of the most important issues in the arena of civil rights is increasingly being summed up in a word that sounds similar and deals with similar things, only in a different way and on an entirely different level.

The word is “disaggregation,” and it is a word that was uttered dozens of times on Friday by a series of speakers — from presidential appointees to professional academics — at a public policy forum titled, “New Research and Policy on Asian-Americans, Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians: Meeting the Needs of the Fastest Growing Group in America.”

In many ways, the primary purpose of the forum — hosted by the Center for American Progress, a progressive, Democratic-leaning policy group — was to provide a platform to promote a special edition of AAPI Nexus Journal, a UCLA Asian-American Studies Center Press publication meant to infuse new energy into Asian American studies departments’ efforts to generate practical research.

The special edition, which touches on topics that range from the toxic hazards faced by large numbers of Vietnamese immigrant women working in America’s myriad nail salons, to the “bamboo ceiling” said to exist for Asian-Americans working in federal government, is titled “Forging the Future: The Role of New Research, Data, & Policies for Asian-Americans, Native Hawaiians & Pacific Islanders.”

The publication was touted as a manifesto of sorts for anyone interested in bringing about better life outcomes for the diverse Asian subgroups whose distinct experiences and unique challenges often get obscured by the “model minority” myth that various panelists said tends to cloud America’s collective view of the plight of Asian-Americans as a whole.

“Only when we have the information to know what problems we have in our community and how to solve those problems can we really help the community reach its full potential,” said Chris Lu, President Barack Obama’s Cabinet Secretary and newly appointed co-chairman of the White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, in support of the new book.

Per executive order, one of the primary functions of the initiative is to “work to improve the quality of life and opportunities for Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders” through federal programs in which they may be underserved, and to “advance relevant evidence-based research, data collection, and analysis for AAPI populations and subpopulations.”

Several speakers at the forum addressed the need for research to confront problems that ranged from housing challenges to health issues.

Part of the difficulty in identifying these problems among the various Asian subgroups lies in the fact that when Asian-Americans as a whole answer government health surveys, census questions and the like, they tend to come from groups that are either over-represented at the high end of education, income and job status, or — as is the case with Southeast Asians, such as Laotians, Vietnamese, Hmong or Cambodians — over-represented at the low-end of those things.

“That makes invisible those at highest risk, because the numbers average out,” said Marjorie Kagawa-Singer, AAPI Nexus Journal senior editor.

“When you disaggregate, you see the great need for better health care, both access and the quality of services,” Kagawa-Singer said.

The U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke of various efforts that are afoot to disaggregate data for subgroups among Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders on national test score data to show problems they might face in the realm of education.

“We all know that all too often, Asian-Americans suffer from that model minority myth,” Duncan said, adding Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are often “not on the radar at all,” and that the high dropout rates among Southeast Asians often get overlooked.

“We have to do better,” Duncan said. “Unfortunately, we find scenarios like those continue to play themselves out whenever good data is not available.”

Though various federal agencies have made or are making varying degrees of progress in implementing new standards to disaggregate data for Asian-Americans, and new research is calling attention to the issue, the panelists agreed that disaggregation is still in its early stages.

Paul Ong, professor at the UCLA School of Public Affairs/CUNY Asian and Asian-American Research Institute, said if the need for disaggregation could be described as a race, it would be a marathon, not a sprint.

“We’re at mile one or two,” Ong said. “We have a long way to go.”