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Proposed bill to categorize Asian-Americans stirs debate

A State House effort to categorize Asian-Americans into specific ethnic groups is clashing with a vocal and well-organized opposition that has likened the effort to racial profiling.

A bill by state Representative Tackey Chan urges “all state agencies, quasi-state agencies, entities created by state statute, and sub-divisions of state agencies” to identify Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, as defined in the US census, in all data they collect and report.

But critics say Chan’s efforts would “subdivide Asian-American ethnic groups” and likened it to a registry to track Asian-Americans.

Emotions were high during a packed State House hearing on the issue last week, when at least one opponent carried posters with an image of Chan wearing a Hitler moustache.


“It’s gotten out of hand,’’ said Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, which supports Chan’s bill.

The opposition’s language and tactics have confounded Chan, who is of Chinese descent, and befuddled Asian-American advocates who have been asking for such data for years to better serve their community.

“There are a lot of inaccuracies’’ out there, said Chan in an interview in his office. “They are using inaccurate facts. And they don’t speak for all of us.”

Tricia Liu, a critic of the bill, said the disadvantages outweigh the benefits, adding that even a bill with good intentions can be misused.

“The thing that bothers us the most is: Why is this [only] targeting Asian-Americans?,’’ asked Liu, who said she is a strategic adviser to a group called Asian Americans for Equal Rights, which has been fighting the data collection issue. “We feel that Americans should not be asked again and again ... where they are exactly from.”

She argued that such questions from the government insinuate that there are two sets of Americans: The “more real Americans” and the “less real Americans.”


“We are proud of our heritage ... [but] where does it end?” for second and third generation Asian-Americans, she said.

Chen, the advocate, said the bill only targets Asian-Americans because Asian-American advocates, particularly in health care, asked for the data.

A House committee is still examining the more than 1,500 pages of testimony on the bill and will issue a report Wednesday.

The controversy playing out at the State House is putting a special focus on Asian-Americans, a fast-growing and diverse group in the state. Their ancestry has roots in a vast continent that has various ethnic groups who speak different languages and have different cultural norms.

The hubbub comes as the US Census Bureau is proposing to begin asking white respondents to write down their ethnic origins. In addition to checking the box that says “white,’’ respondents on the proposed 2020 Census would be asked to write down whether they are of German, Irish, English, Italian, Lebanese, or Egyptian origin, the census said.

Similarly, blacks would be prodded to note if they are African-American, Jamaican, Haitian, Nigerian, Ethiopian, or Somali, the Census said.

Chan, a 44-year-old Quincy native and Democratic lawmaker, said he is simply following the census’ lead on a local level. The census has long asked Asian-Americans or Pacific Islanders to check off if they are Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Filipino, or Asian Indian.

Over the past 30 years, he said, Asian-American advocates and lawmakers in states like California, Michigan, and Rhode Island have been seeking such disaggregated data to advocate for better health care, educational opportunities, and cultural programming.


Now that effort is catching on in New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, he said.

Under Chan’s bill, the five largest “Asian-American and Pacific Islander ethnic groups living in the Commonwealth shall have individually reported data as part of the total Asian American Pacific Islander reporting.’’

The ethnic information is voluntary. And any other racial group can also seek out similar information, Chan said.

The data would help organizations like Dorchester’s Asian American Resource Workshop advocate for appropriate funding, language access, and appropriate programing for Vietnamese youth, said Carolyn Chou, the executive director.

Chan added that the needs of the Cambodian population in Lowell are far different from those of the Chinese immigrants in Quincy.

Some Asian-American immigrants are refugees, with deep emotional wounds from which to heal.

“Every group has different issues, and [we need to have] different conversations about what the government can do for them,’’ he said.

“Asia is not a language,” Chan stressed. “Asia is not a culture. And Asia is not a food. It’s a continent. ... Why shouldn’t we all take pride in where we are from in our culture, our heritages and our languages?”

Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, described the opposition as primarily composed of a new Chinese immigrants who are largely conservative. They mostly voted for President Trump, he said, are distrustful of government, and are skeptical of the Census.


He noted that there is real fear among the opponents who may have relatives who can still recall the Cultural Revolution and data the Chinese government kept and used against its own people.

“But I think those particular fears are being preyed upon [by the opponents],’’ said Watanabe, a political science professor who has followed this issue closely.

Liu countered that she is of Chinese origin and is a US citizen. Her mother, who Liu said lives in Wellesley, is from Hong Kong and her father is from mainland China.

“According to this bill, I don’t even know which box I should fill out,’’ she said.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com.