Friday, March 25, 2011

Two Reasons: How "Asian Pacific Islander" data hides Pacific Islander Underrepresentation

Two posts ago, I explained that since 1997, there has been a federal policy recognizing that Pacific Islanders (or "Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders," to use the exact term in that policy) are a unique racial group, which should not be lumped together with Asians for the purpose of data collection. In this post, I'd like to explain why Pacific Islanders should not be grouped together with Asians when reporting data on things like college graduation rates.

If I had to sum it up in one paragraph, I'd say this: data that groups Asians and Pacific Islanders together does not accurately reflect what's happening to Pacific Islanders. It doesn't even average out the differences between Pacific Islanders and Asians. Instead, the "Asian Pacific Islander" category hides Pacific Islander data behind data on Asians. It also creates the illusion that Pacific Islanders and Asians have identical rates of poverty, income, and other socioeconomic indicators. This is especially true in the case of college graduation rates, where huge differences exist, but you wouldn't know it if you only looked at "Asian Pacific Islander" data.

**I'll do a numbers-heavy post later so you can check my math. For now, I'll try to keep this post short and stick mostly with words.**

Why does this happen? How does a data category perform the magic trick of turning an entire minority group relatively invisible? It comes down to two reasons:

Reason 1.) 14 Asians for every 1 Pacific Islander: When data is reported on "Asians and Pacific Islanders," generally 14 Asians have been counted for every 1 Pacific Islander. (This isn't a conspiracy, it's just math -- according to recent U.S. Census data, the Asian American population is well-over 14 times bigger than the Pacific Islander American population.) To illustrate how this causes data on Pacific Islanders to be hidden behind Asian data, consider another 14-to-1 possibility:

The Situation: Two equally matched basketball teams square off in a game.

The Commonsense way to Count: Each time a team gets a basket, they score one point. This is true for both teams.

The 14-to-1 way to Count: When Team A gets a basket, they get 14 points. When Team B gets a basket, they get 1 point.

In the end, even if both teams get an equal number of baskets, Team B will never come close to taking the lead. And how could they? When you're counted 14-times less than another group, how are you supposed to have a fair chance?

Now this isn't basketball (and it's not a competition between Asians and Pacific Islanders), but my point is this: just as it's unrealistic to expect Team B to ever compete when they get 14-times fewer points per basket, it's unrealistic to expect that data on "Asians and Pacific Islanders" will ever accurately reflect Pacific Islanders, when the Asian American population is over 14-times larger. (And thereby counted 14 times for every 1 Pacific Islander.)

This difference in size wouldn't be a big deal if Asians and Pacific Islanders had similar socioeconomic conditions -- but they don't. Asians and Pacific Islanders differ significantly in terms of several indicators, especially college graduation rates. While Asians have the highest college graduation rate among any of the major racial groups, Pacific Islanders have one of the lowest. This gets to reason number two:

Reason 2.) Big Difference in Graduation Rates: According to statistics used by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011, the college graduation rate for single-race Pacific Islanders was 14 percent. By comparison, the single-race Asian college graduation rate was 50 percent. That's a huge difference: Asian Americans are three-and-a-half times more likely to graduate from college than Pacific Islander Americans. But when you lump the two groups together and look at "Asian and Pacific Islander" college graduation, the number is roughly 48 percent -- almost the same as the Asian rate, but over three times higher than the Pacific Islander graduation rate.

That very significant difference is obvious when we compare Asian and Pacific Islander college graduation rates, which is only possible when we view the data on both groups separately. When all you have is the "Asian Pacific Islander" data, those differences disappear before our eyes. Of course they don't really disappear - they just get ignored, because it's hard to solve a problem if you don't see that it exists.

In the next post I'll show more of the math behind these figures, using recent Census data.


Sunday, March 13, 2011

Don't Blame Asians

One of the themes in our last post, as well as the next few entries, is that grouping Pacific Islanders with Asians in the "Asian Pacific Islander" category produces misunderstandings and misleading data. In this post I want to prevent a different type of misunderstanding before it occurs: the misunderstanding that Asian Americans are at fault for Pacific Islander exclusion from underrepresented minority (URM) academic programs.

Are Pacific Islanders excluded from most URM academic programs, even though we're underrepresented? Yes.

Does the misleading data that comes from grouping Pacific Islanders with Asians as "Asian Pacific Islanders" have something to do with that exclusion? I believe so, because when people assume that "Asian Pacific Islander" data accurately represents Pacific Islanders, they assume that Pacific Islanders, like Asians, aren't underrepresented in higher education.

But should Pacific Islanders focus our energy on blaming Asians for our exclusion from URM academic programs? I don't think so.

Don't blame Asian Americans - we don't.

At the risk of over-explaining, I want to be clear: the Pacific Islander Access project does not hold Asian Americans responsible for the fact that Pacific Islanders are excluded from most URM academic programs. We believe that Pacific Islanders and Asians should continue to work together for the betterment of both communities, and for our nation as a whole.

Here's the PIA project's stance:
  • We can get more done by focusing on who we need to educate, not who we can blame: Yes, it's a problem that Pacific Islanders are being mis-judged because of the use of "Asian Pacific Islander" data. And that misleading data plays a role in our exclusion from URM academic programs. But our focus should be on solving this problem. We will do this by focusing on who we need to educate, not who we can blame.
  • We don't hold Asian Americans responsible for Pacific Islander exclusion from URM academic programs: In fact, there are Asian American leaders, scholars, and organizations that have worked to raise awareness about Pacific Islander American underrepresentation in higher education. We would like to see more organizations that say they advocate for both Asians and Pacific Islanders speak up about 1.) the negative impacts of lumping the two groups together for data collection, and 2.) the need for URM academic programs to recognize that Pacific Islanders are underrepresented. But at the same time, we recognize that the leadership should come from within the Pacific Islander community.
  • We believe that Asians and Pacific Islanders should keep working together. We also don't think that every single "Asian Pacific American" organizations should automatically drop the "Pacific" from their names. If an organization represents and serves both Pacific Islanders and Asians, then I don't have a problem with them referring to both groups in their name. (If they claim to serve both groups but ignore Pacific Islanders, that's another story.) The PIA project will do more to reach out to Asian American and "Asian Pacific American" organizations this year, and I believe that we will find them to be some of the strongest supporters for ending Pacific Islander exclusion from URM academic programs.
Mahalo for reading.


Sunday, March 06, 2011

Pacific Islander Americans are ... Pacific Islander Americans

In an earlier post, I mentioned three factors related to the exclusion of Pacific Islanders from most academic programs for underrepresented minorities. Today I'd like to expand on one of those factors: the grouping of Pacific Islanders with Asians.

My main point is this: Pacific Islanders are Pacific Islanders. Pacific Islander Americans are not Asian Americans. (I know that's obvious, but bear with me.)

Classification by Race and Ethnicity
Since the 1970s the federal government has used a detailed, written policy on how to classify people by race and ethnicity for the purpose of data collection. This data standard is known as Statistical Policy Directive No. 15 (or just "Directive 15").

The Office of Management and Budget, which is responsible for Directive 15, explained its rationale for setting this policy in the 1970s by saying this: "Development of the data standards stemmed in large measure from new responsibilities to enforce civil rights laws. Data were needed to monitor equal access in housing, education, employment, and other areas, for populations that historically had experienced discrimination and differential treatment because of their race or ethnicity."

1970s: Federal Policy Groups Pacific Islanders with Asians
In the first version of the data standard, Directive 15 grouped Pacific Islanders with Asians in the "Asian and Pacific Islander" category. This was not the first time that Pacific Islanders were grouped with Asians in public policy, and it undoubtedly played a role in how people view and mis-understand Pacific Islander Americans.


Because people see statistics on "Asian Pacific Islanders" and think that those stats accurately reflect what's happening to both Pacific Islanders and Asians. But those stats do not reflect what's happening to both groups. (I'll explain why this happens in an upcoming post. For now, I'll leave it at this: when you group Pacific Islander Americans together with Asian Americans, Pacific Islander data is essentially hidden.)

1990s to Present: Federal Policy Recognizes Pacific Islanders as Distinct Group
When Directive 15 came up for review in the 1990s, the federal government determined that it was inappropriate to group Pacific Islanders and Asians together as if they were one group. Rather than describing the rationale, I'm going to copy a portion of the recommendation on the policy to this post, then link to the entire thing so you can read it for yourself. Here's one of the sections pertaining to our topic:

Recommendations from the Interagency Committee for the Review of the Racial and Ethnic Standards to the Office of Management and Budget Concerning Changes to the Standards for the Classification of Federal Data on Race and Ethnicity SHOULD THE "ASIAN OR PACIFIC ISLANDER" CATEGORY BE SPLIT INTO TWO CATEGORIES? IF YES, HOW SHOULD THIS BE DONE?
The issue is whether to retain the current Asian or Pacific Islander category, or to split the category into two separate categories, one for Asians and one for Pacific Islanders. The argument in favor of such a split is that the current category places two peoples who have few social or cultural similarities. It is argued that having separate categories for Asians and Pacific Islanders would result in more homogeneous groups, which would increase the comprehensibility and logic of the entire classification scheme. In addition, the two resulting groups are dissimilar on a number of measures. For example:
  • Education -- Although approximately the same number of Asians and Pacific Islanders graduate from high school, far fewer Pacific Islanders (about 11 percent of persons 25 years of age or older) than Asians (about 40 percent) obtain bachelors degrees.
  • Income and employment -- According to 1990 census data, 5.2 percent of Asians over age 16 were unemployed, compared with 7.3 percent of Pacific Islanders. Median household income was $41,583 for Asians and $33,955 for Pacific Islanders.
  • Poverty -- The poverty rate was 13.7 percent for Asians and 16.6 percent for Pacific Islanders.
(Here's a link to the full document: link)

Since that determination was made in 1997, federal policy has been to recognize that Pacific Islanders (also described as "Native Hawaiians and Other Pacific Islanders") are a unique racial group, which should not be lumped together with Asians for the purpose of data collection and categorization. Unfortunately, even though it's been almost one-and-a-half decades since then, some people still don't realize that Pacific Islanders and Asians are two separate groups. This, along with the continued practice of lumping the two groups together, leads to misleading data and misunderstanding.