Lessons & Consequences of US Racial and Ethnic Data Collection

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Beware the Unintended Consequences:

Government Transparency, Racial Data Collection, and Minority Rights in the United States and Abroad

by Lia EPPERSONProfessor of Law and Associate Dean of Faculty & Academic Affairs, American University - Washington College of Law.

For several decades, the United States government has encouraged transparency by collecting data that details the nation’s racial and ethnic composition. The stated purpose of this data collection is to identify racial discrimination and create measures to promote equality. Today, most progressive American policymakers, advocates, and scholars see this effort as a necessary and positive tool for combating racial and ethnic discrimination and promoting civil rights. By gathering statistics on the status of racial and ethnic minorities, the federal government is able to track disparities in a host of areas where systemic racial discrimination continues to impede equality, including education, housing, and employment opportunities. The data also serves as a way to track potential discriminatory behaviors in areas like law enforcement and can illuminate racial disparities in arrests, criminal prosecutions, and sentencing.

Many European nations, including France, however, have eschewed such data collection for political and cultural reasons as well as concerns regarding privacy and data misuse. This is true despite rising calls from policymakers and academics in EU member states to collect racial and ethnic statistics to address long-standing racial and ethnic inequality. Yet, even in nations like the United States where the government has been relatively transparent in its collection, research, and reporting, racial data collection has had unintended negative consequences of the sort contemplated by the very nations opposed to this form of collection. Understanding these historic and contemporary challenges may help shape how nations collect such sensitive information in the future, and can support government efforts in enforcing civil rights protections through the use of such data.




Historic Lessons of Racialized Record-Keeping

Since the nation’s founding, it has been relatively easy to track racial disparities and inequality in the United States. Though there are undoubtedly strong justifications for racial data collection as part of civil rights enforcement practices, the historic basis for and uses of state-sponsored racial data collection in the United States are more troubling. By examining the historic uses of racial data collection alongside some of the present day consequences, the benefits of state-sponsored racial data collection become shadowed by the specter of reinforcing inequality.

Although the word “slavery” is not mentioned in the United States Constitution, the framers crafted the document as an elaborate compromise between Northern states and Southern slave-holding states regarding the continuation of the slave enterprise and the power of slaveholders in the new democracy. The Constitution required the collection of racial data to determine the power and representation that slave-owning states would have in the new nation.47 In 1790, the United States Census office collected data distinguishing free persons from slaves for the purpose of apportioning taxes and representation in the national legislature. Rather than simply distinguishing free persons from slaves, the Census distinguished white persons from all other free persons and slaves.

One of the most insidious uses of U.S. Census data in recent history dates back to the Second World War. The government engaged in a practice that is strikingly similar to the practices of the Vichy regime in France. Although detailed evidence did not emerge until 2007, the United States government used individual census data to facilitate the identification and internment of Japanese Americans in the wake of Pearl Harbor. The United States Census Bureau provided neighborhood information to the United States Secret Service, which then used the data to locate and imprison Japanese Americans in internment camps in California and six other states. While the U.S. Census Bureau is legally forbidden from sharing individual names and addresses to other government agencies, the Second War Powers Act of 1942 provided an exception to the prohibition. In Washington, DC such “microdata” was used to locate individual Japanese Americans. In 1944, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the practice of “interning” the Japanese in the United States. Thus, rather than flushing out inequality, the government used racial data to entrench racial inequality and subordination, lending credence to the concerns raised in France and other European Union states.

While the collection of racial data is seen as a foundational mechanism for civil rights enforcement protection today, those in the civil rights movement first viewed such efforts as a threat to equality and a lever for entrenching segregation. Given such historic uses of racialized data in the United States, it is not surprising that civil rights advocates and other liberals in the 1950s and 1960s questioned the benefits of such data in the hands of the government. Many of the opponents of racial data collection in the European Union echo the concerns of American civil rights advocates in the mid-twentieth century. Initially, advocates viewed this kind of data collection as antithetical to principles of anti-discrimination and equality, much like contemporary criticisms in France and other European nations.

Given the strong concerns of activists at the time, both the federal executive and judiciary branches eschewed some forms of state-sponsored racial data collection. Amidst pressure from civil rights groups, President Dwight Eisenhower banned the practice of racial record-keeping in 1955. President John Kennedy reaffirmed the prohibition against racial record-keeping in agency employment records in 1962. At the same time, federal courts were slow to embrace the notion that racial and ethnic data collection should be required, particularly in areas where it appeared such statistics could be used to further establish discriminatory policies. In 1963, the Supreme Court barred the compulsory designation of race on a ballot on the grounds that it constituted “the placing of power of the State behind a racial classification that induces racial prejudice at the polls.” In a similar ruling one year later, the Court invalidated laws that separated voting and property records based on race.

Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest and largest civil rights organization, came out in opposition to government sanctioned racial identification. In presenting testimony, the chief lobbyist explained:

The history of the reason why we do not include this is sadly and surely proven, that the minute you put race on a civil service form, the minute you put a picture on an application form, you have opened the door to discrimination and, if you say that isn’t true, I regret to say I feel you haven’t been exposed to all of the problems that exist in this country.

The NAACP continued to oppose the practice for some time after the United States Secretary of Labor reversed the government prohibition on racial data collection in employment records in 1966.

Contemporary Consequences of United States Racial and Ethnic Data Collection

The areas of education and criminal justice, the very sectors where racialized data collection has proven beneficial, also exhibit some of the dangers associated with state sponsored data collection. The example of data collection in the realm of education provides an interesting counter to the prevailing theory from the American left that racialized data collection is an unmitigated good. Enacted in 2001, the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires that student performance data be collected and disaggregated into subgroups so that the federal government may track the progress of the most vulnerable student populations. These included racial minorities, students with disabilities, and students for whom English is a second language. While in theory, the data should prompt schools to create policies promoting equal opportunity for the most vulnerable populations and provide increased services for the student populations with the greatest need, in some areas the law had the opposite effect. If the data showed that students from more vulnerable populations did not perform as well on standardized tests, instead of supporting those students, some school districts sought to eliminate those students from the school populations altogether. In other words, rather than directing efforts to specifically aid the vulnerable groups, schools sought to eliminate them in order to boost their overall achievement scores.

Furthermore, in the criminal justice arena, the United States government currently employs racialized data collection measures that trigger the serious privacy and equality concerns highlighted by EU member states. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, the United States government has increased its use of biometrics and the collection of data that targets minorities. The government collects even more detailed racial and ethnic data as part of President Obama’s new Deferred Action for Child Arrivals policy (DACA), which offers a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants. DACA requires undocumented persons to “register” with the federal government. Such information provides the government with the type of detailed information that could facilitate the deportation of those individuals if the American electorate chooses a president whose views on immigration are antithetical to those of the current administration. As Professor Margaret Hu has noted, the advent of “big data” collection by the United States government is a civil rights issue in its potential to be used to further entrench disparities. Racial and ethnic minorities are the groups most likely to be subjected to government surveillance, and thus most likely to be stifled by the potential negative consequences of such surveillance.


Beware the Unintended Consequences:

Government Transparency, Racial Data Collection, and Minority Rights in the United States and Abroad

美大学招生 人口最多白人只分3类 亚裔却细分10类


美国亚裔教育联盟(AACE)9日致信大学“共同申请组织”(Common Application Organization),要求停止将亚裔细分为十个类别。联盟认为,细分的目的就是搞非法的种族配额,勤奋学习、成绩优秀的华人和其他亚裔孩子,将成为族群细分后的最大受害者,将会严重降低大学录取学率。




美国亚裔教育联盟主席赵宇空指出:“所有孩子,无论在美国出生或是归化入籍,都是美国公民,都应该受到平等对待。在大学申请过程中对亚裔申请人细分,这是非法、不道德并造成种族分化的行为,只会给那些歧视亚裔孩子的大学,便于非法限制勤奋学习和成绩优异的亚裔孩子的录取机会。该共同申请组织应立即停止这种歧视性做法。所有亚裔孩子都应该抵制这种对他们隐私权的非法侵犯,拒绝选择这些具有分裂性质的细分类别。 ”


(MA) 2018 参议员候选人 Dr Shiva Ayyadurai 在反亚裔细分集会上的讲演 | 中印社区联合起来反亚裔细分


Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai speech on MA protest against Asian American Data Aggregation bill - Aug 27, 2017

(Boston, MA) 中印社区联合起来反亚裔细分 - 8/27/2017

(Boston, MA) 中印社区联合起来反亚裔细分 - 8/27/2017

(Boston, MA) 中印社区联合起来反亚裔细分 - 8/27/2017

「為何只細分亞裔?」 波城聚2百多人反歧視

介绍一位印度裔大牛: Shiva Ayyadurai, 本周末见他去!

(Boston, MA) Jany 8-5-2017 反亚裔细分演讲


(8/07/2017 @徐菁)

CAPA-HC received a media request for comments on DOJ potentially investigating college affirmative action policies. CAPA board passed a vote to send the following responses:

We welcome the news of the DOJ investigation. It is long overdue for Asian American community. Asian Americans as a minority group have endured racial discrimination throughout the history of our nation. The Chinese exclusion act of 1882, the first law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States, was only repealed in 1943 after many Chinese men served in the US army, fought for and even died for our country. The Japanese Americans
were forced to the internment camps during the WWII. Now Asian American applicants are suffering from discriminatory college admissions practices such as illegal use of blunt racial quotas and racially-differentiated standards. Like the originators of the Chinese Exclusion Act, these colleges use same excuse for their discrimination: there are too many Asians (Chinese). There are better ways to achieve diversity than the use of race-based discriminatory policies and practices. Asian Americans deserve equal education rights just like any other ethnic group.

(8/07/2017 @小迷糊)

Very nice reply. 顺便给哈维的CAPA-HC做个广告。全称哈维华人家长联合会 Chinese American Parents Association - Howard County 欢迎大家加入(https://www.capa-hc.org/membership-hnsxf, 徐菁是chair), 会员有普通(general, 免费)和资深(senior, $25一年)两种,senior member 有投票权。

Arizona亚裔联盟 就亚裔细分议案与州参议员 Kimberly Yee 沟通 - 7/20/2017

今天会议纪要(Frank 版)

7月20日下午, 亚利桑那亚裔联盟(AZAA)就SCR1012(亚裔细分)议案与州参议员Kimberly Yee (余艳芬)在州参院会议厅举行了沟通会议。来自大凤凰城地区的多个华裔社团代表及侨领以及民众60余人参加了会议。此次会议的促进者之一,来自Chandler的华裔市议员黄馨民(Sam Huang)也出席了会议并发言表明反对立场。会中,亚利桑那亚裔联盟(AZAA)副主席张传东就亚裔细分的危害进行了精彩论述。张传东引经据典,旁征博引对该议案逐条刨析,深刻揭露了其声东击西的险恶本质。




Chinese Americans Lashing out at Asian Dis-aggregation Legislation

(7/20/2017 Rhode Island) "照片中的孩子们都是本地人带来的,很多父母开始觉悟"


"这几个娃以后可以载入华人维权史册了,要reaching out 到普通美国人民得到共鸣"

"人同此心 心同此理,美国是代代传承的移民国家,来自五湖四海的,我们想要的也是这个国家的主流意识"

(Arizona) Andy Zhang on Radio Lashing out at Asian Dis-aggregation Legislation and Arizona SCR1012

"谢谢@张传东-AZ 的得力领导和组织!  亚利桑那州初战告捷:Senator Yee 已经明确表达不会继续支持提出任何类似的Bill。她说也已经看到这么多的反对意见,她不可能再支持了。她说她是教育口的,坚决支持 merit base。亚利桑那州亚裔细分法案在华人同胞的努力抗争下终于不复存在!"  

Andy Zhang VP of AZAA Lashing out at Asian Disaggregation Legislation and Arizona SCR1012(Original)

亚利桑那亚裔联盟与Senator Kimberly Yee (余艳芬)沟通纪实


雨尘一说 | 反细分 吼出华裔的心声