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.


No comments: