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Opinion: Now is the Time to Count Asian Americans In

Dr. Suchitra Gururaj
Gururaj is the assistant vice president for community and economic engagement in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas.
Dr. Suchitra Gururaj
Gururaj is the assistant vice president for community and economic engagement
in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in Austin, accounting for more than 8% of the population and doubling in the Austin- Round Rock metro area roughly every 12 years, according to the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce. Yet, despite our growing numbers, Asian Americans are often unseen as part of the civic fabric of our communities.

The U.S. Census, a federal mandate to count every single person living on U.S. soil, could change that. It is vital to get accurate data in the 2020 Census in order to ensure government spend- ing on needed resources.

To put things in perspective, an undercount of just 1% in Central Texas could result in a $25 million loss in federal funding, according to the United Way for Greater Austin. In 2010, Census data determined federal spending in Texas for healthcare, education, housing and transportation, and resulted in the addition of four congressional seats.

It’s clear that no one should risk losing these benefits. Yet, according to a 2019 Census report, Asian Americans are the least likely racial group to respond to the Census – or even express familiarity with it. But by not responding, we won’t just lose out on critical resources, we’ll also miss an incredible opportunity to dispel the stereotypes that keep us civically invisible.

Long-held stereotypes paint Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners.” The model minority myth—that we are the “good immigrants,” keeping our heads down—can alienate us in public discourse from other race groups. Both stereotypes also paint an Asian American monolith, eliding our vast cultural and socioeconomic differences.

I’m no stranger to these stereotypes. For much of my life, I’ve dreaded that quizzical look by strangers and the inevitable question that followed: “No, but where are you really from?” Even now, the question unmoors me, undermining my sense that I belong, really, anywhere.

Now is the time for Asian American communities to be counted. As a member of Austin’s Asian American Complete Count Committee, I’m working with incredible leaders to connect with over 130,000 Austin residents of diverse income groups, those who, whether immigrant or U.S.-born, trace their origins to more than 40 countries in broader Asia.

As part of that effort, UT’s Center for Community Engagement recently co- hosted a “Front Porch Gathering” public discussion about the Census to spread the word about resources, such as Census language guides and glossaries in 59 non-English languages, that make it is easier than before for everyone to participate.

We also discussed the committee’s outreach, not homes but to public places, such as ethnic grocers, dance studios, temples, mosques and churches. Because, as committee co-chair Sumit DasGupta stated, “There is nothing this community dreads more than the knock on the door.”

There’s an irony – that in order to differentiate Asian American groups, we have to act as one.

To be sure, Asian Americans speak different languages, we pray in different locations and, with Asian Americans as the fastest growing segment of undocumented immigrants, we may fear the Census, no matter what we’re told. We don’t always agree on politics. We’re not a monolith.

This irony is not lost on the committee. Yet, as committee co-chair Alice Yi stated, “We will change people’s perceptions by getting counted and civically engaged.” Power in numbers gives us voice.

So, if in the spring, 20 million people of Asian origin around the country fill out their Census forms to represent the diversity of language, origin, English language proficiency, religions, citizenship status, and generation status under the “Asian American” umbrella, we will have done something remarkable.

We will have heard the knock, opened the door, and asserted that we’re, in fact, home.

This op-ed, authored by Dr. Suchitra Gururaj, originally appeared in the Feb. 23, 2020 issue of the Austin American-Statesman