The Case for Requiring Disaggregation of Asian American and Pacific Islander Data

The Case for Requiring Disaggregation of Asian American and Pacific Islander Data

This piece is dedicated in honor of the lives lost in Atlanta, Georgia on March 16th, 2021 due to more senseless anti-Asian violence.

All U.S. federal and state entities should disaggregate data on the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Currently, reports divided by racial categories often conceal the major differences in the AAPI population. For example, reports fail to show that Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and other communities are disadvantaged in economic, higher education, and health outcomes. By disaggregating this data, policy makers can better tailor their resources to the necessary individuals. To discover and know disaggregated data is not to separate the AAPI community or help only those in the AAPI community who are suffering. Instead, disaggregated data will acknowledge that this community is not a monolith and enable a better reflection of the AAPI community overall.

It is important to note that using racial and ethnic categories to group people is inherently problematic, because these categories are based on historical and social contexts that operate as a tool to uphold power inequalities and the status quo. This in turn validates the U.S. social caste system. However, as long as the United States continues to use such categories—as it has since the first census in 1790, which differentiated White individuals from slaves and all other free persons—we should be mindful to disaggregate AAPI data to more accurately capture notable differences between particular communities. Different AAPI groups have been added gradually to the census over time: Chinese in 1860, Japanese in 1870, and Filipinos, Koreans, and Indians in 1920. It is time for the United States to count more AAPI groups in nationwide data collection efforts.

The Model Minority Myth and Anti-Asian Backlash in U.S. History

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Vicha Ratanapakdee, and so many others, along with the pandemic-fueled racist epithets thrown at the AAPI community from a former U.S. president and many others, have laid bare the systemic racism that underpins U.S. society. At least 31 percent of AAPI adults have been subject to racial slurs or bodily harm since the pandemic began. Yet the AAPI community continues to grapple with the divisive Model Minority Myth that pits the AAPI community against other communities of color and undermines the existence of structural discrimination. The myth masks hate incidents, trauma, and other disparities that the AAPI community faces, and it is often framed as follows: if Asian Americans can be successful, then other people of color can be. The myth is a simplistic, pervasive stereotype that continues to erase differences among individuals in the AAPI community.

The Model Minority Myth erases the long history of racism that the AAPI community has faced for centuries. Few history books mention the 1871 Chinese Massacre in California, which some have described as the largest mass lynching in U.S. history resulting in the deaths of 17 Chinese men and boys. Nativist sentiment against the AAPI community seeped through American politics and culture throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries with terms such as “Yellow Peril” that depicted Asian individuals as dangers to national security. These attitudes preceded the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and continued past the internment of Japanese communities during World War II and were used to rationalize withholding American citizenship from AAPI individuals.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited skilled and unskilled Chinese Laborers from entering the United States and was the first and only federal legislation that suspended immigration to the United States from a particular country. In 1907, there was also a “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the United States and Japan that limited Japanese immigration to the United States. In 1917, Congress declared India a part of the Asian countries whose people were excluded from immigrating to the United States. By 1924, all individuals from Asian countries, with the exception of Filipino nationals, were denied immigration under the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act remained in effect for over 60 years, until 1943, and even then another law created a quota that permitted the entry of only 105 Asians annually to immigrate to the United States. The civil rights movement spurred changes to U.S. immigration laws in 1965 when quotas for the AAPI immigration to the United States were increased to 20,000 immigrants per country annually. Today, the United States limits permanent immigrant visas to 675,000 each year.

The AAPI Community in the U.S. Context

UC Berkeley students inspired by the Black Power movement coined the term “Asian American” in 1968 as a broad umbrella term for many distinct cultures and ethnicities. In the 1990 Census, there were over 30 different categories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs): 19 categories for Asians and 12 for Pacific Islanders. The U.S. census currently collects data on 23 distinct Asian American subgroups and 21 Pacific Islander ethnic groups, but persistent problems remain with data collection and standardization of such data, and not all U.S. agencies and states collect disaggregated data.

The AAPI community comprises 6.1 percent of the overall U.S. population and is one of the fastest growing populations for any major racial group in the United States. The AAPI population grew by 72 percent between 2000 and 2015 from 11.9 million to 20.4 million. In comparison, the Latinx population grew by 60 percent during the same period. AAPIs are projected to surpass the Latinx community to become the largest immigrant group in the country by 2055.

Approximately 20 million AAPI Americans have origins from 20 countries in South, East, and Southeast Asia with distinct cultures and languages. The largest U.S. AAPI groups are those of Chinese, Indian, and Filipino origin, which total about 13 million individuals, or 24 percent of the AAPI community. Additionally, individuals with Vietnamese, Korean, or Japanese roots each clear the 1 million mark. Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians make up more than one-third of the AAPI community, but are often uncounted in aggregated data.

Economic Indicators

In 2015, the median annual AAPI household income was $73,060, compared to $53,600 for all U.S. households. However, certain AAPI household incomes are well below the U.S. household income, such as Bangladeshi ($49,800), Hmong ($48,000), Nepalese ($43,500), and Burmese ($36,000). Another report highlighted that Laotians have a median income that is just over $15,000. Earning inequality is higher for AAPI workers than it is for any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. The highest paid AAPI worker compared to the lowest paid AAPI worker is a ratio of 6-to-1, compared to 5-to-1 for White, Black, and Latinx workers. Income inequality has risen most rapidly among AAPIs in the past few decades. Essential service workers, such as cleaning, retail, and food service workers, comprise 12.8 percent of the AAPI workforce and often lack benefits such as paid sick leave. There are more AAPI essential workers than White essential workers.

Although Black and Latinx individuals are more likely to be poor than White and Asian individuals, certain AAPI groups have higher poverty rates than the general U.S. population, including Black and Latinx communities. In 2018, 10.8 percent of Asian Americans lived at or below poverty level. Hawaiian Natives and Pacific Islanders fared worse with 14.8 percent at or below poverty level. Depending on the city, poverty levels are worse: in New York, 1 in 4 AAPI individuals lived in poverty, and in Boston 26.6 percent of AAPI individuals lived in poverty. The percentage of the AAPI community living below the poverty line varies from as low as 6 percent of Filipinos to 63 percent of Hmong people. Hmong, Bhutanese, Burmese, and Mongolian individuals have some the highest poverty rates among AAPI communities, at 28.3 percent, 33 percent, 35 percent, 37 percent respectively. On the other hand, poverty rates are lowest among Filipino, Indian, and Japanese individuals, at 7.5 percent, 7.5 percent, and 8.4 percent accordingly. The 2019 poverty rate for the general U.S. population was 10.1 percent, and 18.8 percent and 15.7 percent for Black and Latinx communities respectively.

Those at the bottom economically in the AAPI community fare worse than most other racial and ethnic groups. For every dollar an average White, non-Hispanic man makes, a Taiwanese woman makes more, at $1.23, but a Nepalese woman makes $0.50, and a Burmese woman makes $0.52. Pacific Islanders have the highest unemployment rates of all racial and ethnic groups. Furthermore, as a group, Southeast Asians have been in the United States for over 45 years following their resettlement from the Vietnam War, but nearly 1.1 million Southeast Asians remain low-income with about 460,000 individuals who live in poverty. This is a significant number considering that only about 2.5 million Southeast Asians, 14 percent of the AAPI community, live in the United States.

Educational Attainment

A study of the 7.4 million AAPI individuals in the U.S. workforce, which is 5.3 percent of the total U.S. workforce, found that AAPI workers are less likely than White workers to have a high school degree. A separate report found that Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong individuals have some of the lowest high school and college graduation rates among the AAPI community, with about 30 percent of Laotian and Vietnamese individuals and almost 40 percent of Cambodian and Hmong individuals who have not completed high school. Nearly 62 percent of Bhutanese and 50 percent of Burmese individuals lack a high school degree, which are some of the worst educational attainment outcomes of any marginalized groups. About 60 percent of Hmong and Cambodian individuals live in communities that are linguistically isolated, which further marginalizes these communities in higher education. Cambodians drop out of high school at twice the rate of Cambodians who complete a bachelor’s degree or higher. There are also questions around the adequacy of high school coursework, since Asian Americans and Black individuals have the highest enrollment rates for remedial education courses in the first year of college.

As a group, the AAPI community has a higher level of educational attainment than White, Black, and Latinx individuals, with over half of AAPIs holding a four-year degree or higher. Specifically, 51 percent of AAPI individuals 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees compared to 30 percent of all Americans this age. One report found that approximately three-fourths of Taiwanese and Indian Americans have a bachelor’s degree. But like all the other measures, there are certain AAPI groups that have some of the lowest rates of bachelor’s degree attainment, such as Cambodians (18 percent), Hmong (17 percent), Guamanian (16 percent), Laotians (16 percent), Fijian (15 percent), Samoan (14 percent), Tongan (11 percent), and Bhutanese (9 percent).


Asian Americans have a median age of 36, which means they are also slightly younger than the national average of 37.4 years. 7.4 percent of Asian Americans and 9.4 percent of Pacific Islanders do not have health insurance. Broken down further, 8 percent of Japanese Americans are uninsured compared to 27 percent of Korean, 22 percent of Nepalese, and 21 percent of Tongan Americans. Additionally, Southeast Asians are less likely to have health insurance compared to the general U.S. population and the AAPI population: 8.5 percent and 7.9 percent lack health insurance, respectively.

There are also clear differences in chronic diseases and conditions among the AAPI community. A study found that 10 percent of the AAPI community has diabetes, compared to the 8 percent of the general population. A closer look shows that 47 percent of American Samoans and 20 percent of Native Hawaiians have diabetes. Another study found that 62 percent of the Cambodian refugees studied suffered from PTSD and 51 percent had major depression in the past 12 months. In the general population, 3.5 percent suffer from PTSD and 6.7 percent from depression. Bhutanese experience suicide rates that are twice the national average and the highest among any refugee group alongside higher incidences of depression and PTSD. Vietnamese women have the highest rates of cervical cancer among women of all racial and ethnic categories, and Southeast Asian women have some of the highest rates of cervical cancer. Infant mortality rates have also been found to be markedly higher for Pacific Islanders at 8.4 out of 1,000 births.

Perhaps the most consequential statistics pertaining to health are those that we do not know about because of the lack of disaggregated data for different AAPI subgroups. Because of this gap, practitioners cannot determine appropriate drug dosages for various subgroups, which is important because some treatment plans are different for AAPI and non-AAPI individuals, such as hormone replacement therapy or bone marrow cancer treatment. The AAPI community also has markedly different health risks when it comes to Hepatitis B, cancer, and cardiovascular disease, among other diseases. There are also acute risks for the AAPI community involving the Coronavirus in healthcare, the workplace, and other critical services.

Countering Criticism

There are several factors that contribute to the stark differences in outcomes among the AAPI community. Substantial differences in occupations, English proficiency, linguistic isolation, available guidance on applications, and immigration histories each impact outcomes. Furthermore, the lack of insurance coverage, language and cultural barriers to medical care, and varying risks of certain health conditions lead to disparate outcomes among the AAPI community.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of criticism with each attempt to disaggregate data and deepen society’s understanding of the AAPI community. Some critics argue that AAPI data should be aggregated because there might be inadequate sample sizes for national data, but this can be overcome by oversampling for national studies. Other recommendations include conducting more surveys in more AAPI languages, generating disaggregated data whenever it is possible, researching how to better capture disaggregated data, and creating a central data repository for various communities.

Additionally, some Chinese communities have argued that disaggregated data on the AAPI community could be used to implement policies perceived to harm their community, such as affirmative action. The recent admissions suit against Harvard University by a subset of the AAPI community represents some of the anxiety that such data will be used against other members of the AAPI community. Protesters have questioned why the AAPI community has been singled out over other racial groups, with one protester likening such laws to the Nuremberg laws. However, the data should not be used to target other AAPI groups, but instead to tackle other inequities in higher education such as the fact that over one-third of students at elite institutions like Harvard are legacy students. Furthermore, the data instead can be used to acknowledge that there are clear differences among AAPI subgroups. Advocates for disaggregated data have argued that certain AAPI members should no longer be “invisible” and that disaggregated data is necessary in order to help more AAPI subgroups than it may hurt, if any groups are hurt at all.

Next Steps Toward Data Disaggregation

Data disaggregation has been dubbed one of the top civil rights issues for the AAPI community. Because of the AAPI community’s broad umbrella, current data does not capture the multitude of voices and experiences of the AAPI community. The disaggregated data that does exist, albeit scattered and sparse, suggests that there are clear and wide disparities for different subsets of the AAPI community that require additional resources to address. Grantmakers need specific data in order to properly fund tailored services and connect the dots for resources. For example, knowing that Cambodians face higher levels of poverty than the overall U.S. population will help service providers figure out other crucial information, such as how Cambodians have some of the highest rates of immigration and custom enforcement removals.

A formal, nationwide collection of disaggregated data will lead to more accurate representation and information in different measures. One lawmaker in Massachusetts cited the virtual lack of data on the AAPI community as a reason for adopting a data disaggregation bill. Disaggregating data will help advocates and community members better vouch for policies and budgets that will provide more culturally appropriate services for vulnerable and often marginalized AAPI groups. Without more nuanced data, anti-poverty, higher education, and healthcare advocates will not be able to identify the relevant communities to target their efforts, which will continue to make these groups invisible and uncounted in studies that do not include all AAPI groups.

Efforts have been made on the state and federal level toward data disaggregation. At least five U.S. states have passed legislation for AAPI data disaggregation. California passed a data disaggregation bill—with initial efforts stalling before its successful passage in 2016—requiring California’s Department of Health to break down AAPI demographic data further. However, California’s bill did not require California’s state school systems or its housing and employment agencies to collect such data. New York and Massachusetts went further by requiring all state agencies and entities to disaggregate AAPI data. The Obama Administration began prioritizing AAPI data disaggregation in 2009 through the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, though it is unclear whether the Trump Administration continued those efforts. The U.S. Census Bureau administers the American Community Survey and currently collects disaggregated data as directed by the Office of Management and Budget’s Directive Number 15, but the U.S. government should seek to expand its categories to be more reflective of the AAPI community and to make its data more publicly accessible. The census has been slow to adopt changes; for example, it did not adopt a category for those who identify as biracial until 2000.

The pandemic has highlighted the disproportionate impacts in health, education, and job outcomes that have predominantly affected communities of color. However, because there is little disaggregated AAPI data, it is difficult to fully understand the extent to which the pandemic has afflicted the AAPI community. Data disaggregation in the AAPI community is about painting a clearer picture of the inequalities that exist across all groups and income levels in order to identify the problems and address the structural barriers that certain AAPI subgroups face. With more accurate, disaggregated data, policymakers can better meet the economic, higher education, and healthcare needs, among others, of AAPI communities that are currently invisible in the aggregate AAPI data.


Molly Lao: California Law Review Diversity Editor and Berkeley Law Class of 2021

Molly Lao, The Case for Requiring Disaggregation of Asian American and Pacific Islander Data, Calif. L. Rev. Online (Mar. 2021),

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