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Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders (AAPI): The Need for Data Disaggregation

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July 6th, 2017

The Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) community is home to a variety of identities and ethnic groups. But most of the time when the media mentions the AAPI community, they truncate it to mean specifically East Asians.

Chinese, Japanese, and Korean are the most commonly referred to demographics when discussing Asian identity in the U.S. Though that list includes three very distinct countries and cultures in their own right, it excludes a large swath of people whose narratives are as distinct and who also deserve a seat at the table when discussing policy and education.

By disaggregating the data surrounding the AAPI community, we can better serve, support and foster a more inclusive learning environment.

For example, in California alone, there are actually more Vietnamese Americans than Korean Americans. According to the Center of American Progress, approximately 711,188 Vietnamese people have taken residence in California as of 2013, whereas only 525,295 Korean people have taken residence in the same time frame. Filipino Americans clock in at about 1,529,086.

Despite these numbers, the media somehow fails to interweave Vietnamese and/or Filipino identity into our overall perspective of Asian identity. This doesn’t seem to be the case with Korean identity or culture.

If we look at the national average, we see a similar trend, regarding population: Vietnamese at 1.87 million as of 2013, Filipinos at 3.6 million, and 1.7 million for Koreans. If we look at the media at the state or federal levels, we’ll find that it doesn’t seem to indicate much visibility for Vietnamese people despite them having just as many people in the U.S. as Koreans, or for Filipinos, who have just above double the amount of U.S. Residents as Koreans.

We need to acknowledge that there exists inequity within Asian populations. One that, from income levels to educational achievement, tempers our understanding of what Asian students “should” be able to do, and one that needs to be systematically dismantled.

Certain Asian populations, specifically Southeast Asian refugee populations, have similar percent averages for acquiring a bachelor’s degree or higher education as average Black or Latinx populations.

According to this AAPI report, “49 percent of Asian Americans currently have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 30 percent among whites; 19 percent of African Americans; and 19 percent of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders, or NHPIs; 17 percent among American Indians and Alaskan Natives, or AIAN; and 13 percent among Latinos.”

At first glance, we note 49 percent of Asian Americans hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.   However, if we dig a bit deeper, and disaggregate the data, we find that Southeast Asian refugee populations have an educational achievement disparity that is quite large compared to the overall average of Asian Americans, and even worse when compared to specific sub demographics.

The same article from above describes the averages for Southeast Asian populations: “Fewer than 15 percent of Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 72 percent of Asian Indians, 57 percent of Sri Lankans, and 53 percent of Chinese Americans.”

Digging further into those graduating high school, the numbers are quite stark: 29 percent of Vietnamese, 32 percent of Laotians, 37 percent of Cambodians, and 38 percent of Hmong in the U.S. do not hold a high school diploma.

Compare this with 19 percent of Chinese, 14 percent of Pakistanis, 9 percent of Indians,  9 percent of Koreans, 8 percent of Filipinos, and 6 percent of Japanese who do not hold a high school diploma, and you’re able to see that not all Asian demographics share the same educational fate K-12.

More disturbing than the fallacies of aggregated data, are the fallacies that seem to erupt whenever Asian Americans are positioned in comparison or contrast to the Black community via the Model Minority Myth. This is the idea that Asian Americans are perceived to be socioeconomically advancing at a rate that exceeds all other racial minority groups.

The idea is that we live in a post-racial American society where if Asian Americans, as a minority, have achieved great educational feats and upward socioeconomic mobility, then why not the Black community? This idea not only silences Black experiences and perspectives, but denies the existence of systemic and institutionalized racism. This is toxic to both Asian and Black Americans and is something that absolutely needs to be acknowledged as not only false but dangerous and harmful to propagate.

The lesson here is to understand that aggregated data can be misleading if that’s the only lens through which we’re looking at inequity. To gain comprehensive knowledge about the needs of specific populations, we need to disaggregate data and be intentional about what information we’re addressing. The short-sightedness of aggregated data isn’t just applicable to Asians. Disaggregating data regarding Black and Latinx populations is also inclusionary and necessary work, if we really want to create space for these populations in the realm of education.

None of this even begins to touch on the intersections of class, gender identity, sexual identity, physical and mental health, religious affiliation, citizenship status and so many other aspects of identity that affect our daily lives, but it’s a good reminder to disaggregate data so that we can generate accurate and realistic information.

The more accurate and realistic our information is, the more likely we’ll be putting into action the work that needs to be done to really make education equitable for every student.


Lee, J. & Ramakrishnan, K. (2017) “Drawing Boundaries Around Who Counts as Asian American.” USC Dornsife. Los Angeles, CA: The Society Pages.

Ramakrishnan, K. & Ahmad, F. Z. (2014) State of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Series: A Multifaceted Portrait of a Growing Population. Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress.

Progress 2050. (2015) “Who Are Asian Americans?” Washington, D.C.: Center for American Progress.

Demographic Data & Policy Research on Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders. (2017) “Various Community Fact Sheets.” Retrieved from

New York Magazine. (2017) The Myth of Asian-American Success and How Invisibility Becomes Institutionalized. Retrieved from


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