Condemn collection of ethnic data on government forms
In a recent Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, FBI director Christopher Wray said that Chinese spies are spreading throughout the United States as part of a “whole-of-society” threat. He claimed that every Chinese person is a suspected spy regardless of their affiliation with Chinese government and called for a whole-of-society response from Americans, according to . He also said that the Chinese intelligence employs nontraditional collectors such as professors, scientists and students. They collected information not only in major cities but also small ones across basically every discipline.
Coincidently, about two weeks before Wray’s ethnic profiling statement against Chinese, a group of Chinese Americans and immigrants vocally opposed “An Act Requiring State Agencies to Collect Asian American Aggregate Data,” in Massachusetts. The bill was considered ethnic profiling by many. I, along with more than 600 Chinese Americans and immigrants, showed up at the Massachusetts State House to oppose the bill. The bill requires all state agencies to seek specific ethnic information from “Asian-Americans.” Asian residents would have to identify themselves as Chinese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian or other specific ethnicity based on their ancestry of origin. If the bill is passed, there will be a Chinese race box on all government forms in Massachusetts.
The claimed goal of this bill, according to the bill sponsor Representative Tackey Chan of Quincy, is to use ethnic distinctions to properly allocate funds and resources such as language assistance. I am one of the organizers of the opposition campaign, which was mostly grassroots people who had zero or limited political experience. I think the bill sponsor exposed a very real problem: inadequacies in the services available to many Asian American residents of Massachusetts. However, the bill tries to solve the right problem with a wrong solution. For example, if said bill is passed and the data showed that on average, Chinese have lower English proficiency, this data cannot help the government distinguish the particular Chinese who need language assistance from the Chinese who are native English speakers. Instead, it creates more stereotypes — Chinese Americans and immigrants speak bad English. Also, believing that knowing a person’s ethnicity can predict what a particular individual may need is built on the racist assumption that all the people in the same ethnic group are the same and need the same thing. Resource allocation should be based on need, not assumptions or generalizations about ethnicity.
In a article and a Sept. 2, 2017 on the issue, the opposition’s likening the bill to racial profiling, the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment Camps were characterized as preying on fear. I find this quite ironic since the bill is calling for a comprehensive “Whole-of-Massachusetts” ethnic data collection on a community with a long history of being suspected as a national security threat. In the meantime, Wray is alerting every loyal citizen of the U.S. to watch out for Chinese spies. The loyal citizens Wray calls upon include the people who are working in various Massachusetts state and quasi-state agencies.
I came to the U.S. as an international student about eight years ago. I have heard similar accusations very frequently. I am not a STEM student, but I have always been very watchful with my words to avoid being suspected as a spy. Every time I applied for the renewal of my F-1 student visa, I had silent prayers that my visa application would not be denied. Many of my fellow international students and foreign worker friends are unwilling to contact any government agencies, federal, state and local alike. Being Chinese reduces our credibility before the U.S. government. The addition of a Chinese race box on all government documents will only make our lives more difficult.
For people like me and other opponents of the bill, adding a “Chinese box” sound like a response to a "whole society threat." The bill was not proposed to practice ethnic profiling by intention, but it resembles the tactic the FBI director is employing. This new FBI accusation should be a wake-up call for not only Asian American communities but also all communities. The Chinese immigrants are not preying on fear. We express our fearful and hurt feelings because ethnic profiling has happened before and is happening to us again.
Similar ethnic and racial profiling happened not so long ago to other racial minorities. In Germany during the rise of Nazism, the government identified persons of Jewish religion or origin on birth certificate data. At the time the requirement was implemented, there was anti-Semitic hatred against Jewish people, but there was little hint of the rise of Nazism. Later on, birth certificate data greatly facilitated the rounding up and persecution of Jewish people. In a submitted by my mentor Professor Frank Sloan, who is the son of surviors of the Nazi’s rule and is currently teaching in the Duke University Economics department, wrote that “A common view is that such things cannot happen here. This is what many Jewish people thought, and they did not want to emigrate from Germany since they believed that the German people would not allow the atrocities of the German government under the Nazis to continue. Yet the atrocities only became worse.”
Another insidious racial profiling practice is the colorblind war on drugs right here in every state. Detailed in Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, the police selectively go to the Black neighborhoods to round up people. Their selection of location is to some extent “evidence-based and data driven,” because the Black people were said to be using crack cocaine, which was listed as the most dangerous drug, while white people use more powder cocaine and other illicit drugs, such as heroin. Though the data shows that many more white people use and deal drugs,, Black people cannot use that data to liberate themselves from mass incarcerations.
In the past six months, many people, including the Chairperson WingKay Leung of Asian American Commission told me during the hearing “Data do not discriminate, people discriminate.” In a meeting, he also said to the opposition that there was little need to be so concerned, because the U.S. is a democratic society and can make sure that data does not fall into the wrong hands. However, when I look back into history, I cannot tell who had the right hand. There are too many human right violations and innocent blood on the hands of people who had no ill intention.
When Anti-Chinese and Sinophobic sentiments are on the rise, many members of the Asian community start to claim that they are not Chinese, but Taiwanese/Hong Kongnese or Singaporean instead. This is why I see this Asian data disaggregation effort as particularly painful. Only the immigrants from mainland China are considered the Chinese, and there is no way out for us.
Shortly after the opposition's passionate testimonies at the State House, the legislators voted down the original bill and created a special commission to investigate and study the feasibility and impact of collecting disaggregated demographic data for all ethnic groups. If this study commission concludes that this data collection is favorable, given the data already collected in and other places after the passage of similar legislations and ethnic background of the calling for the data, it creates the possibility for a Jewish or Israeli box, boxes for people from the so-called Muslim Ban countries and many others. There will be many good and bad hands waiting for that data, and I am not optimistic about it at all.