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Saturday, June 23 Local

A preemptive strike against an Asian Registry in Connecticut

HARTFORD — Kevin Lu told a legislative committee he wants to be known as an American first, before Asian-American, or Chinese-American, or even Mandarin-American.

Being forced to check a box that somehow sets him apart from other Americans based on his ancestry is not something this freshman at Amity High School in Woodbridge ever wants to do, he said.

“It undermines American values,” Lu said Thursday, adding that he worries that people who view that checked box will think they know who he is and be wrong.

So, he like hundreds of others, crowded three hearing rooms at the state Capitol in support of a bill to prevent what they consider an “Asian Registry.”

Measures requiring data to be collected on ethnic subgroups of the population have passed in California, Minnesota and most recently Rhode Island. They have not been passed — and have not been suggested — in Connecticut.

State Rep, Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the education committee, made it clear the state has no intention of collecting any more data than is required by law.

But in response to what some fear is a national trend to label Asians, a bill drafted by Republican Senators in Connecticut, including Tony Hwang of Fairfield and George Logan of Ansonia, would prohibit the collection of separate student data on any specific ethnic subgroups unless required by federal law.

Still, Hwang and others say they remain concerned, given what is occurring in other states.

“I see a lot of anxiety among members of the Asian community,” Gaeton Stella, a retired Woodbridge schools superintendent who lives in Trumbull, told lawmakers. “Data is good if it is used for the right reasons but we are drowning in data.”

Throngs of support

Many who came to testify this week carried American flags or wore American flag scarves. Some came with children in tow on what for most was a snow day.

Ye Pogue, director of research of Asian Americans for Equal Rights, told the committee that collecting ethnic subgroup data “damages the trust and collaborative relationship between parents, teachers and school authorities.”

Salman Hamid, a teacher in Hamden, called the collection of subgroup data bad if for no other reason than he knows what it is like to feel like the “other.” He was born in Pakistan and immigrated to America at age 3.

Commissioner of Education Diana Wentzell told the committee some demographic data collection is important and not just because the state would lose millions in federal grants if it didn’t.

“We use the data to make sure all the kids in Connecticut are getting what we promised them,” Wentzell said. “Maybe when we get to the point when our African-American students and our Hispanic students seem to have the same chance to succeed as other students, maybe then it would be OK to say we are not going to look at race and ethnicity data any more.”

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Brandon L. McGee Jr., D-Hartford, assistant majority leader, also argued for some data collection.

“Without data we won’t know specifics of problems,” he said, particularly in a state with so many racial ethnic inequalities.

Although data collection is useful in attempts to identify and fight achievement gaps between students, Hwang said the fear is that it can also be used to single out Asian-Americans who may be perceived as overachievers.

“For Asian-Pacific-Americans particularly, there is a heightened distrust of a registry because this country has not always been favorable to (us),” Hwang said. “It is the only ethnic group to have been subjected to an exclusionary act. The only ethnic group to have been interned during the course of war.”

The main concern, critics of subgroup data collection said, is fairness.

“There is a history of discrimination that frames this debate,” State Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, said. “Just last week or two weeks ago, the FBI director said that Chinese-American scientists are by their very nature suspect or somehow not to be trusted.”

Not entirely

But the committee also heard from some who see the benefit to identifying problems specific to particular ethnic Asian groups.

Theanvy Kouch, executive director of the Khmer Health Advocates, called identifying subgroups necessary, particularly as it relates to health and education of refugees from Hmong, Cambodia and Laos.

It took data, she said, to prove that trauma to Southeast Asian communities has lead to diabetes, heart disease and depression.

“We have been invisible for too long,” Kouch said. “Knowledge is power.”

Angela Rola, education chair of the Asian Pacific American Coalition of Connecticut also opposed the bill, saying details are essential to reduce disparities in areas of education, health and employment.

“In Connecticut 20 ethnic groups make up approximately 160,000 Asian Americans,” Rola said. “They have distinct experiences and needs that can’t be seen when they are lumped into one category.”

Linda Conner Lambeck|Education Reporter

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