Massachusetts State Rep. faces backlash over ethnic identification bill

By Upstateherd (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Anastasia E. Lennon
BU News Service

BOSTON – State Rep. Tackey Chan, D- Quincy, is again facing backlash over a bill that would require state agencies to collect more specific information about people’s ethnicity rather than lumping them into broad racial categories.

At a packed hearing on the bill Oct. 15, critics of the legislation blasted it as a form of racial profiling and accused its backers of playing into the hands of white supremacists. Other speakers, including the heads of several organizations serving minority populations, said the data sought by the bill would help them better understand and serve the needs of individual ethnic groups.

“Making good policy is about knowing the community and figuring out what their needs are,” said Colin Jones, who works the for Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. “Broad categories may be missing key stories.”

Chan’s bill, called “An Act ensuring equitable representation in the Commonwealth,” would require any state government agency that collects demographic data about Massachusetts residents to allow respondents to choose ethnic subgroups, such as Korean or Japanese, instead of requiring them to select a broad demographic category, like Asian. It would only apply to agencies that already collect the data and would still allow respondents to choose the broader categories.

A previous version of the bill, filed in an earlier legislative session, called only for the disaggregation of Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders for state data collection. Many people who testified against the bill last year were worried about discrimination, so Chan, a Quincy Democrat, broadened the bill’s focus.

“Every single issue in this version of the bill addresses every concern [opponents] had last time,” said Chan. “What is odd is that they are now arguing against their own argument from last time. Arguing that optional should not be optional, it should be mandatory.”

Despite Chan’s changes, opponents filed into the committee hearing Tuesday to voice fears of racial profiling.

“This bill is a continuation of white supremacy,” Peng Zhou testified before the Legislature’s Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. “It is used by white supremacists to divide the Asian community.”

Another speaker, who gave her name only as Sky, said the bill would open the door to new kinds of discrimination.

“This gives them new labels to apply. We try so hard to eliminate all kinds of discrimination,” said Sky, who refused to give her last name. “The original purpose might be for good reasons, but it will have negative consequences.”

Supporters of the bill, however, said it could help government and social service agencies better tailor their services for the groups they serve, particularly for health care, education and housing services.

“There is no single language known as the Asian language,” said Angie Liou, executive director of the Asian Community Development Corporation, a nonprofit that works to create and preserve affordable housing for underserved Asian immigrant communities.

Liou said detailed data is critical to providing good services to clients, especially those in lower-income brackets. She said Asians on the whole may be doing well economically but subgroups, such as Cambodian or Vietnamese communities, may be struggling.

“There’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all solution,” said Karen Chen, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association. “Our community cannot have access to public resource unless we are counted. We need fuller pictures of these communities.”

Sen. Dean Tran, R-Fitchburg, said Chan’s bill would divide the Asian community further and minimize Asian groups, which represent 5.3 percent of the Massachusetts population, according to 2010 census data. Newer data for 2020 is currently being collected.

But Rep. Maria Duaime Robinson, D-Framingham, appeared to question that criticism.

“I struggle to understand the question around dividing the community further … you’ve already divided yourselves in terms of being a specific ethnicity and associating yourself that way,” said Robinson, referring to the the names of organizations in opposition, which included Asian subgroups in their titles.

Robinson said the bill is about more than just Asian communities. Many of her Brazilian constituents in Framingham lack access to proper resources because they have been lumped into a general Latino category, she said.

Rep. Carlos González, D-Springfield, chairman of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, also testified about the effect the bill would have on Latino and black communities.

“We recognize how critical it is for populations to be accurately accounted for in a more acute manner,” said González, adding that such communities will receive more accurate funding and services as a result.

“In the Latino community, whether you are from Columbia, Puerto Rico, or another country, one word can make a difference. It can make a difference between right and wrong. Positive or negative. Especially when it comes to health disparities,” he said.

Chan listened intently for several hours and seemed undeterred by the bill’s many critics.

“I’ve been an advocate for Quincy folks for a long time and it’s important that I have a good understanding of what’s out there so that I can make a better argument for targeted service for different communities,” Chan said.

This article was originally published in the Quincy Patriot-Ledger.

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