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.


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