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Asian-Americans are an incredibly diverse group. Now some states are passing laws to help capture that diversity and requiring state agencies to collect more detailed data about Asian-Americans. But those policies are facing protests. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports on a controversy brewing in Massachusetts.
HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Democratic state Representative Tackey Chan says he didn't expect a backlash over his bill about data collection.
TACKEY CHAN: Yeah, I was - have to be honest with you, I was rather surprised by that.
WANG: If his bill is passed, state agencies in Massachusetts would be required to identify Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in surveys about health, schools and employment, for example. And that data would have to be broken down by ethnic groups, such as Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese.
CHAN: We are a data-driven society. It's hard to make public policy without data. And if you don't have data, you can't advocate.
WANG: Chan says there's little to no information at the state or local level about the country's fastest growing racial group. States including California, Minnesota and Rhode Island have recently passed similar laws. Lawmakers say more data can help pinpoint needs that can be hard to see. But some demonstrators disagree.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Stop the racist bill.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Stop the racist bill.
WANG: About 60 protesters waved picket signs and American flags recently on the steps of the Massachusetts State House in Boston. Andy Liu, a computer engineer from Sharon, Mass., helped organize the protest.
ANDY LIU: The fear is, you know, how you can guarantee the demographic data collected will not be abused or will not be misused for other purposes.
WANG: Almost all of the demonstrators were immigrants from China, including Linglan Zhang of Lexington, Mass.
LINGLAN ZHANG: (Speaking in Mandarin).
WANG: "This is obviously discrimination against Asian-Americans," Zhang said in Mandarin. She questioned why Massachusetts' bill calls for detailed data only for Asian-Americans and not for other racial groups. Protesters in other states have also raised that concern, according to Karthick Ramakrishnan. He's a political scientist at the University of California, Riverside, who's been following the activism against the data collection laws. And he says this debate shows the divide between a new generation of Chinese immigrants and more established Asian-American groups who've been calling for more data for years.
KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN: These mainstream Asian-American organizations are nearly completely absent from the spaces where a large and growing number of Chinese immigrants are active.
WANG: Ramakrishnan is a longtime advocate for more Asian-American data. And he says a main issue driving this fight over data collection is affirmative action. He says many of the immigrants from mainland China, who are protesting, are worried about their children's schooling.
RAMAKRISHNAN: The belief is that by killing any kind of data collection on race, these Chinese-Americans might have a fair shot getting into Ivy League schools. That's the theory.
WEN ZHAO: They use those data in education, in college admissions and even in workforce. That's not fair.
WANG: Wen Zhao of Westford, Mass., says she's concerned that separating data by ethnic groups would further divide Asian-Americans. But for service providers, like Anh Vu Sawyer of the Southeast Asian Coalition in Worcester, Mass., more data could mean more help.
ANH VU SAWYER: I have to have data to let them know there's a need right here.
WANG: Sawyer says many of the grant-makers that could fund services to immigrants from Vietnam, Burma and other countries, they need data. Still, Sawyer, who was a refugee who escaped the Vietnam War, says she understands the privacy concerns in a political climate that doesn't seem to welcome immigrants.
SAWYER: This is a very interesting time because after 40 years in this country, I thought I'd never have to deal with fear again.
WANG: Sawyer adds she does hope the Massachusetts bill will pass, but there's no clear timeline. Another protest against the bill, though, is set to take place in Boston later this month. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.
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