The Nonsensical “Asian American” Classification

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Kao Lee Yang, a Hmong American neuroscience PhD student, was recently nominated for a prestigious fellowship for students who are members of “groups historically excluded from and underrepresented in science.” The fellowship committee determined that as an Asian American, Yang was not from an “underrepresented” group. The committee therefore refused to even consider her application.

Yang took to Twitter to vent: “While some Asian Americans are academically successful, others like the Hmong are underrepresented in STEM and academia in general… name me just one Hmong American woman you know who is a neuroscientist. I would love to connect with her if she is out there.” She added, “I am an example of the consequences resulting from the continued practice of grouping people with East/Southeast/South Asian heritages underneath the ‘Asian American’ umbrella.”

Yang blamed her predicament on the “model minority myth.”  Her ire would have been better targeted at the federal Department of Education. For over forty years, its Office of Civil Rights has required educational institutions to collect and report demographic data about “Asian Americans,” with no differentiation among the many national-origin groups. The educational establishment, in turn, has grown used to treating Asian Americans as a uniform racial group.

Of course, one can object that no minorities should be given special consideration for fellowship. Or that only African Americans should be given such consideration, but not groups composed mostly of post-1965 immigrants and their descendants. But it’s pretty hard to argue that an Argentine American of Italian descent should be eligible for a minority fellowship because she is “Hispanic,” but a Hmong American should not because she is “Asian.”

You can read more about how our modern racial and ethnic classifications developed in my recently published article, The Modern American Law of Race, or you can wait for my book, Classified: The Untold Story of Racial Classifications in America, forthcoming July 2021.

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