Viewing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) as Monolith Is Harmful

Stop Viewing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as a Monolith

By Amy Yee—Aug. 17, 2021

The popular perception of Asian Americans is that they are “doing well” in terms of income, education, and health.

In fact, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are a highly diverse group representing more than 30 countries of origin and many ethnicities, who certainly do experience social problems, especially at the bottom of the economic pyramid. Yet those inequities often get lost in the data, creating a harmful misperception that AAPIs don’t need help.

In the U.S., Asians have displaced Black Americans as the racial group with the greatest income inequality, according to Pew Research in 2018. The gap between the poorest and richest Asians has widened dramatically in recent years. But the plight of vulnerable Asians—low-income, limited English, immigrants, elderly, and undocumented—usually remains invisible.

The Covid-19 pandemic has especially hurt lower-income AAPIs, who suffer from high unemployment, high Covid-19 death rates, and other disparities. By last summer, 83% of Asian Americans in California with a high school education or less had filed unemployment claims, compared with 37% for the general California labor force with the same level of education, according to a UCLA analysis.

Vulnerable Asians also bear the brunt of the recent surge in anti-Asian racism and violence, because many work in service industries such as restaurants and hospitality, can’t shelter at home, and are more likely to take public transportation. This spring a recent immigrant from China who was collecting cans in New York City was beaten into a coma. The man had lost his job at a restaurant when it closed down during the pandemic. And near Atlanta, a gunman murdered Asian women spa workers on March 16. Three of them were in their 70s and 60s.

There have been many other tragic attacks, as well as more than 9,000 incidents of anti-Asian harassment and racism during the pandemic, according to an Aug. 12 report by Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit coalition. And on Aug. 12, Governor Gavin Newsom said he would deploy California Highway Patrol police to Oakland, which has seen a spike in violent crime, in response to requests from Mayor Libby Schaaf and Oakland Chinatown community leaders.

But many of these struggles don’t get attention. One key to addressing them is getting better data about AAPIs. Social problems go unnoticed partly because high incomes of well-off Asians mask the challenges of the vulnerable when they’re averaged together. When data about AAPI are disaggregated, a very different picture emerges. For example, in New York City, 22% of Asian Americans live in poverty. In the U.S., more than 34% of Cambodian, Laotian, and Hmong students do not complete high school, compared with 13% of the general population. Chinese and South Asians had the highest Covid-19 death and hospitalization rates, respectively, in New York’s largest public hospital system from March 1 to May 31, 2020.

The experience of the Marshallese in northwest Arkansas shows what better data can accomplish. Last year, Covid ravaged this unlikely community of Pacific Islanders. Although they’re 2.5% of the region’s population, they accounted for 19% of Covid-19 cases and 38% of deaths. “At one point, we were going to funerals every weekend,” says Sheldon Riklon, a Marshallese physician and professor at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Arkansas is home to about 12,000 Marshallese, the largest population outside the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. tested nuclear weapons in the 1940s and 1950s. The nuclear tests devastated the environment and food supply, which led to long-lasting health problems. In Arkansas, many Marshallese work in poultry processing plants and are more likely than the general population to be low-income and uninsured. Pacific Islanders in the U.S. also have greater underlying health risks such as diabetes, hypertension, and asthma, which make them more vulnerable to Covid-19.

Read more at Bloomberg.

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