Asian-American Data Collection Proposal Roils Massachusetts Residents

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BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers considering a bill that would direct state agencies to demand more specific nation-of-origin information from Asian-Americans will be running afoul of the United States Constitution’s Equal Protection clause, opponents of the proposal tell New Boston Post.

State Representative Tackey Chan’s (D-Quincy) legislation calls for “all state agencies, quasi-state agencies, entities created by state statute and sub-divisions of state agencies” to “identify Asian-American and Pacific Islanders as defined by the United States Census Bureau in all data collected,” in addition to gathering personal data on “the five largest Asian-American and Pacific Islander ethnic groups residing in the commonwealth.”

“I’m not a lawyer but I understand the Constitution,” George Shen, a Newton resident who specializes in data and analytics for IBM, said in an interview Monday. “The bill selectively collects data from racial group, one minority group, and you can’t just single out us Asians.”

Lei Zhao, a Newton-based attorney originally from China who has lived in the United States since 1994, said the proposal could lead to Fair Housing Act anti-discrimination complaints. She pointed to a Massachusetts Appeals Court decision that upheld a Superior Court ruling awarding a Venezuelan couple a lofty settlement after they filed a complaint with the Boston Fair Housing Commission after a real estate broker asked about the couple’s country-of-origin.

“This bill even calls for quasi-state agencies to collect that data,” she said. “That scares me.”

Chan, in testimony delivered to the State Administration and Regulatory Oversight Committee last week, was quoted by State House News Service saying that Asians “should be able to identify ourselves to you as who we are, as opposed to having other people identify for us.”

“I promise you — not an Asian person, not a Chinese person, not a Japanese person — no one created the concept of Asian, it was kind of like created around us. I never heard it before in my childhood and into adulthood,” Chan said.

Backers of Chan’s bill have argued that census-style individualized boxes where Asians are separated, such as Chinese-Americans from Indian-Americans, would provide improved data sets. At last week’s hearing, which drew large crowds to the State House, Dr. Elisa Choi of Harvard Medical School  testified that breaking down the data by country would improve the health screening process.

Shen, however, argued that new disparate sets of data — collected by multiple state and quasi-state agencies — will lead to chaos.

“The U.S. Census Bureau gathers data under one agency, at one given time, and once every ten years,” he said. “They use one data entry point.

“If all these agencies start collecting data from many entry points it will result in a data overlap — triple-counting, tabulation problems — this is an unscientific and imprudent way of collecting very sensitive data.”

Swan Lee of Brookline agrees, and in an interview she added that the proposal could also create a “Southeast Asia versus East Asia narrative” in addition to fueling other divisions.   

“What they [supporters of Chan’s legislation] really want is data with no privacy protection,” she added.

Shen said the proposal also serves as a reminder of old wounds, such as World War II-era Japanese internment camps and efforts to limit Chinese immigration.

Angie Tso of Acton told New Boston Post that while the bill “may have good intentions, it is still unconstitutional.”

“It treats one party different from the other parties,” she added. “That’s the very definition of discrimination.

“If I am Latino, or any other non-Asian-American, how would I feel if this were happening to me?”

According to the State House News Service account of last week’s packed hearing inside Gardner Auditorium, opponents of Chan’s legislation, toting signs denouncing the bill, vastly outnumbered supporters. The report noted that opponents teamed up to conduct loud coughing fits while Chan was testifying.

The bill has yet to receive a recommendation from the committee.