Wilton columnist: A time to unite, not divide
The article “Caring for Connecticut’s Southeast Asian-American Communities during COVID-19” (CT Mirror, April 7th, by Jason Oliver Chang), hereafter referred to as “the article,” begins by discussing the severe consequences of COVID-19 and, specifically, its impact on the Southeast-Asian population in Connecticut. My heart goes to all who suffer, and hats off to those who are battling the pandemic fearlessly.
I can’t help noticing though, that the article digressed from its title and focused almost entirely on other marginally related issues, some controversial or even divisive, which raised questions regarding its intent.
Ethnicity data disaggregation (or “Asian Registry”)
The most noticeable advocacy of the article is for the government to collect finely defined ethnicity-specific data, especially on the Asian-American population, and to formulate public policies based on this data.
Ethnicity data disaggregation, as frequently referenced in legislative language, is a controversial practice of mandating government agencies to collect data on ethnicity, ancestral country of origin, and sometimes language, from residents including school children. This is in addition to the data based on commonly used racial groups. In recent years, this issue has increasingly become a focal point of debate, statewide as well as nationally, as exemplified in the Connecticut General Assembly where opposing legislation (e.g., 2018 SB 359, 2018 SB 465, and 2019 HB 851) was proposed, albeit none has been passed or enacted.
Proponents of ethnicity data disaggregation advocate that the commonly used racial groups are inadequate and should be subdivided into numerous subgroups based on ethnicity, ancestral country of origin, and perhaps language. The push mainly focuses on subdividing the already small Asian- American population (5% of the national population) into even smaller finely defined subgroups, thus earning the colloquial name “Asian Registry.”
Ethnicity data disaggregation or Asian Registry is divisive, unnecessary, and wasteful of public resources. Its underlying goal can be traced back to the desire of certain advocacy groups for securing more government funding through a narrative of disparity and inequality. It has triggered strong opposition, noticeably from Chinese Americans, even in our small state.
Regardless of where you stand on the controversial Asian Registry, the issue is certainly far from a top priority to be addressed during the current crisis.
COVID-19 is tearing through Connecticut like a wildfire. It hurts the disadvantaged population even more than it does the rest of us. In this scenario, however, the disadvantaged population includes those who are old, in poverty, living in over-crowded inner cities, or suffering from background health issues. More resources should definitely be provided to the disadvantaged population; however, the age, health, and socio-economic factors should not be comingled or confused with race, ethnicity, or ancestral country of origin. Within any ethnicity group, there are disadvantaged people, all of whom deserve equal attention regardless of their ethnicities.
Making use of the COVID-19 crisis, the article maintained that the Southeastern-Asian population in Connecticut should be separately recognized in government data collection. Its reasoning was that the Southeast-Asian people are distinct from other more “privileged” Asian-American populations such as those with origins from India or China, who allegedly fit better to the “model minority” pattern due to their higher academic achievements, technical skills and higher incomes.
Unfortunately, this type of gross generalization, or more accurately, stereotyping, is inaccurate and misleading. No ethnic group is homogeneous, and the disparity among individuals within any group is always greater than the collective disparity among different groups. For example, many immigrants from Fujian, a province in mainland China, have come here undocumented, mostly speaking limited English if any at all, and working low-paying jobs in the kitchens of small Chinese take-out restaurants. Under the Asian Registry scheme, nevertheless, these folks and their children would be inappropriately placed in a “privileged” bucket using the ancestral country of origin criterion, assuming Chinese Americans are somehow considered privileged.
The article made references to the historical legacy of war-time trauma suffered by many immigrants from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and suggested that the way to alleviate the problems caused by past suffering would be to have the Southeast-Asian population distinguished from other, more “privileged,” Asian-Americans for government data collection purposes.
While I am very sympathetic to victims of war atrocities, it needs to be recognized that Asian Registry or any kind of Ethnicity Data Disaggregation is not an effective or practical means of remediation. Many ethnicity groups have suffered from historical trauma. Examples include the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, Rwanda genocide, and the atrocious Chinese cultural revolution. Nevertheless, Armenian, Jew, Tutsi or Chinese have not been disaggregated for most governmental data collections. For sure, historical trauma needs healing and reconciliation, and the society has the obligation to help. However, making finer and finer distinctions on governmental data collection based on ancestral countries of origin simply does not address the issue, and would not be practical to broadly cover all historically traumatized ethnic groups.
Data does provide a foundation for public policy. However, the issue is that ethnicity and ancestral country of origin are not relevant, but rather divisive, data. Instead, socio-economic status would be a much more meaningful criterion for formulating public policy.
I truly believe that people should be treated as individuals and not thrown into politically convenient categories that capture only an infinitesimal part of what makes each individual who he or she is.
I wish that one day the citizens of this nation need only fill in one box to identify themselves: American.
The article also made references to an increase of “racially based attack towards Asians” during the current pandemic, stating that more than 1,000 incidents have been reported in February across the country. While the accuracy and statistical significance of the above statement warrant further review, it is admittedly an unfortunate reality that racially based attacks do occur. Although, based on my personal experience as an Asian-American, there has been an abundance of tolerance, support, and a strong sense of community during this pandemic.
The article further asserted that “Racist language, scapegoating, and conspiracy theories continue to be a part of the Trump administration and GOP response to the COVID-19 pandemic, fueling racial violence and hatred of Asians…” I have been following the news stories. It is true that President Trump fought back with direct, bold language after an official of the Chinese Communist Party had accused the U.S Army for bringing the coronavirus to China. While it might be debatable to some whether the President had chosen the best wording, his rebuttal on the vicious, absurd accusation from CCP was clearly powerful and justified, and proved very effective in stopping that accusation. In this regard, he was defending America.
Together, we win
During the current battle against COVID-19, I have witnessed many residents and communities, regardless of their races, ethnicities, ancestral countries of origin, or political party associations, caring for each other, supporting the medical and emergency workers, and striving together with the government. Asian-American communities throughout the state have been very active in collecting and donating PPE, food and other supplies to our frontline warriors. Hopefully we, together, will get out of this mess soon.
It is a time to unite, not divide.
Monty Du is a resident of Wilton.