In what may be the most sweeping state-level effort of its kind in the nation, Massachusetts will begin collecting more-detailed data on dozens of Asian, Pacific Islander, Black, Latino, and white ethnic groups, a change that proponents say can help sharpen policy makers’ understanding of the needs and challenges of a diversifying population.
With little fanfare, legislators tucked the so-called data equity provision into the state budget that Governor Maura Healey signed this month. It requires state agencies that already collect figures on race and ethnicity — be it the demographics of those receiving food stamps or COVID-19 boosters — to capture a more granular level of information.
That includes collecting data not only on Asian Americans as a whole, but also more than 20 “major” Asian or Pacific Islander groups that fall under that broad umbrella, such as Chinese, Cambodian, Filipino, or Native Hawaiian residents, according to the new law. Besides collecting data on residents who identify as Black, they must also now do so for those who are Jamaican, Haitian, and Nigerian, among others. Data on Latinos must also include those on Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Cuban residents; figures on white groups must be disaggregated for German, Irish, Italian, and others.
The measure has been hailed by academic researchers, legislators, and others as a potential sea change, particularly for groups that, while bundled together in current data, may not speak the same language, share the same culture, or face the same economic or social hurdles.
“If we’re able to break down that data, we can target messages better, we can understand where there are disparities in health, disparities in education,” said Gary Chu, chairperson of the state’s Asian American & Pacific Islanders Commission. “No group is a monolith.”
The measure has also stoked fear among some Asian Americans, particularly those of Chinese descent, who say the more detailed data could make them targets for racial profiling, including by the government itself.
Many in the Asian American community were already unnerved by a surge of anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic. But some Chinese Americans fear that being identified by their country of origin will make them targets at a time when many in the United States “don’t differentiate Chinese Americans from Chinese citizens or Chinese citizens from the Chinese government,” said Helen Yang, vice president of the Asian Americans for Equal Rights.
“Anytime the Chinese government does something wrong, we get blamed,” Yang said.
Yang and others also argue that similar data is already being captured at the federal level by the decennial Census.
“It poses a big threat to different ethnic groups, particularly at politically sensitive times,” said Houze Xu, president of the group Chinese Americans of Lexington, of the new law. (Asian Americans account for a third of the population in Lexington, the largest share of Asian Americans in any town or city in the state.) “For all these agencies, they’ll have this data if they want to go after the individual.”
Proponents argue those concerns are overblown. The law notes that any personal identifying information must be confidential, and that any data is bound by state and federal privacy laws. An earlier version of the bill from 2017 that expanded data collection for Asian American groups only was criticized as racist at a State House protest. But, lawmakers say, it remains voluntary for anyone to fill out a race/ethnicity question on a state form.
“This [law] is not meant to pinpoint any individual. The opposition on this is way out of hand,” said Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston. Watanabe said those opposing it tend to come from a “well-organized conservative element” that also supports barring universities from considering race in admission decisions. (Members of Asian Americans for Equal Rights disagreed with that characterization, arguing there has been bipartisan support for their position.)
There are legitimate questions about how it will be implemented, Watanabe said. “The issue is whether people who report the data report it accurately.”
State officials face a long and intensive process of putting the new law in place. Healey’s budget office must create regulations and guidelines by January 2025, while the law itself won’t take effect until January 2026, a full 2½ years after its passage, a significant runway for a new policy.
State officials said it’s unclear how much it will cost the state to put the new requirements in place, but it’s expected to go beyond any other recent efforts. Matt Murphy, a spokesperson for Healey’s budget office, called the new law the “largest coordinated enterprise-wide expansion of race and ethnicity data collection in recent memory” in the state.
It’s also the most comprehensive in the country, said state Representative Tackey Chan, a Quincy Democrat and one of the bill’s primary sponsors. Other laws passed in recent years in New York, Rhode Island, or Minnesota, for example, focused solely on expanding data for Asian and Pacific Islander groups, or in some cases, those collected by specific departments.
“We are the most expansive one in the country, by far,” said Chan, whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong. He became one of the first Asian Americans to serve in the Massachusetts House when he was elected in 2010. The current approach to data collection, he said, “skews the data to make invisible smaller demographics that probably aren’t doing as well. Over a long period of time, there will be greater clarity of where we need to target our resources.”
That, proponents say, can make a difference in a variety of areas. It can help officials make better decisions about what type of translators to deploy to hospitals or other emergency responders. School officials can gain a deeper understanding of disparities lurking among different racial and ethnic groups. Health care professionals may be able to better pinpoint the extent to which different groups seek care, and for what.
“COVID is the biggest example of why disaggregated data was needed,” said Lorna Rivera, director of the Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy. Having a better understanding of where particular ethnic groups live or how they access services can change how officials try to reach or educate them, particularly on efforts to increase vaccinations, she said.
“This is a way to mobilize resources,” Rivera said.
It’s also not perfect. Simply identifying someone’s country of origin won’t tell their whole story, nor have state agencies proved adept at showing how data influence policy making, said Virginia Benzan, director of racial justice advocacy for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. But capturing more detailed data is an attempt “to improve the system,” she said.
“Everyone wants to be seen and heard,” she said. “This is a way to shine a light.”