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White House adds new initiative for Asian American, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian visibility

As communities slowly recover from the pandemic's devastation, advocates hope the new initiative will help with data disaggregation and language access for federal programs.
Image: People participate in a Stop Asian Hate rally at Columbus Park in New York
A protester at a "Stop Asian Hate" rally in New York City on April 3, 2021. Jeenah Moon / Reuters file

The White House announced a new initiative Thursday, bringing to the table items that grassroots organizers have long been pushing for — among those, disaggregation of data under the ‘Asian’ umbrella and a more diverse array of language options in federal programs. 

Spearheaded by Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders also aims to address the impacts of Covid-19 on Asian American livelihoods, including businesses that suffered disproportionately throughout the pandemic.

“The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to tackling a wide scope of challenges impacting communities that have been historically overlooked and underserved,” Becerra said in a statement

Asian American civil rights organizations commended the move and hope the initiative will be used as a tool to support lower-income, underrepresented AAPI communities. 

“At a time when many Southeast Asian Americans are grappling with the physical, mental, and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing systemic injustices, this is an important opportunity for our voices to be included in the decisions that impact our lives,” Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, said in a statement. 

Community leaders said they hope the initiative will foster inclusion and education of the general public on historical and present-day issues impacting these communities. Tracking hate incidents, providing career opportunities and focusing on the unique needs of LGBTQ Asians are also high on the priority list, they said. 

“While Covid-19 has hit all Americans with unprecedented challenges, we appreciate the Administration’s recognition of the difficulties that are unique to Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders,” Marielle A. Reataza, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse, said in a statement.  Community-building and rebuilding are truly necessities during this time, and we look forward to the progress needed to serve and heal our communities.”

Data disaggregation, one of the issues mentioned in the announcement of the White House’s new initiative, has been an ongoing conversation for scholars of Asian American issues. The Department of Education currently requires schools to aggregate student data across 48 ethnicities under the label “Asian,” according to AAPI Data

But looking at it this way can paint over the issues that each community faces, activists say, and feed into the myth Asians are generally successful and in less need of federal support. A lack of disaggregated data has also diluted the severity of the pandemic’s impact on individual AAPI groups. 

It can make it harder for Asians in need to access pandemic resources, because they simply aren’t advertised as much in their neighborhoods. This is a particular problem for groups such as Hmong Americans, Indo Caribbeans and Native Hawaiians who experts say can be erased without looking deeper into Asian data.

“I call this the ‘gaslighting of the Asian American population,’ and it has been going on for decades, for every single health condition that I can think of,” Tung Nguyen, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told NBC Asian America in October 2020. “It is an example of anti-Asian structural racism.”

In some cases, even aggregated data has shown a disproportionate level of suffering. 

Southern California, for example, saw Asian-owned businesses hit the hardest through the pandemic. Customer-facing operations took huge blows in general, on top of the racism that kept people out of immigrant neighborhoods, Paul Ong, a professor and researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, said in September. 

“Many Asian American entrepreneurs are immigrants,” he said. “They can speak English, they have some rudimentary command of English, but not necessarily at the level that one needs, particularly if the information is only supplied in English.”

Older business owners who didn’t know programs like the Paycheck Protection Program existed and couldn’t get their services online fast suffered the most, Ong said. 

“There seems to be a double whammy,” he said.