Publishing research and getting grants is highly competitive, and peer reviewers and funders reject paper and grant proposals for many reasons. But researchers who study Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities can face another barrier: gatekeepers who downplay social inequities that affect AAPIs and dismiss studying them.
For instance, the Midwest Longitudinal Study of Asian American Families, the largest study of its kind, delves into mental health challenges among more than 800 Asian American families in metropolitan Chicago. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) this year rejected a grant proposal to expand the study, which began in 2014. Three reviewers made broad comments that diminished anti-Asian racism or that the struggles of Asian Americans were “not as bad as for Blacks and Latinos,” says David Takeuchi, co-investigator of the study and a professor of sociology and social work at the University of Washington.
Unfortunately, these kinds of comments are common. Takeuchi recalls submitting a paper to a prominent sociology journal when he was a graduate student in the late 1980s. A peer reviewer said his analysis of low academic performance among 8,000 AAPI students in Hawaii was “really fascinating.” But the reviewer also made a comment to the effect of: “‘Too bad this is about Asian Americans. If this had a Black sample, we might think about publishing it,’” says Takeuchi. “I was discouraged, so never submitted the paper again for publication.”
Could myopic gatekeepers stymie research on AAPIs? It seems likely, especially considering data shows a stark gap in funding for research on AAPIs. A 2019 study in JAMA Network Open found that clinical research focused on AAPIs and funded by the NIH comprised just 0.17 percent of its total budget, based on 529 projects between 1992 and 2018.
Without funding, there are fewer resources for research, thus creating a vicious cycle of omitting AAPIs from influential scholarly work. There is also a chilling effect on researchers who want to study AAPI issues but implicitly know there might be more barriers to funding and publishing their work.
Even when researchers can analyze data on AAPIs, they face roadblocks from dismissive academic peer reviewers.
“We face discrimination as researchers. We hear that Asian Americans don’t count, they don’t have health disparities,” says Stella Yi, assistant professor at N.Y.U. School of Medicine. “Even when we have data, people still come back with these stereotypical tropes about healthy Asians: tai chi, soy sauce. It’s crazy.”
The lacuna extends beyond health research. Sociologists of Asian descent were 74 percent less likely than white sociologists to receive government funding, including from NIH and National Science Foundation (NSF).
In addition, Asians are not considered an underrepresented minority group by NIH and NSF so Asian investigators are not eligible for supplements aimed at increasing diversity in research, says XinQi Dong, professor at Rutgers University.
Without funding and research, urgent social problems among AAPI related to everything from health disparities and mental illness to poverty and crime are not even acknowledged, much less studied and addressed. “We have all heard about, and personally experienced or witnessed, reviews that have been clouded by the model minority stereotype: ‘Asians are doing great, we don't need to study them,’" says Tiffany Yip, professor and chair of the psychology department chair at Fordham University.
They remain invisible although Asians in the U.S. have displaced Blacks as the racial group with the greatest income inequality in the country, according to Pew Research. Social inequities among nearly 20 million AAPIs, the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S., are neglected. To be clear, calling for attention and research on AAPIs should not take away from resources for Blacks, Latinos, Indigenous and other marginalized communities in need. Rather, efforts to reduce social inequities must also include AAPIs.
AAPIs who are low-income, limited-English-speakers, immigrants, elderly and undocumented are especially vulnerable to social problems but suffer in silence. Ignoring them in research could contribute to their erasure in press coverage, policy and philanthropy—and vice versa.
Consider that AAPIs were the focus of media stories on racial and economic inequality less than 4 percent of the time in an analysis of some 380 articles from 2019, according to a report from Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy (AAPIP). Even if research did include data about AAPI inequality, media articles omitted it 37 percent of the time.
It has taken a surge in anti-Asian racism and violence during the pandemic for many to recognize that AAPIs do experience bigotry and social inequity. Otherwise, poor, elderly Asians collecting cans in New York and San Francisco don’t make it into headlines—until they are beaten into a coma on a busy street. Low-income Asian salon workers fly under the radar—until they are murdered, as in the Atlanta spa shootings this March.
Part of the problem is that even if data on AAPIs are collected, the information gets lumped together. This aggregation masks deep disparities. The troughs experienced by vulnerable AAPIs are hidden by the peaks of high-income Asians. The diverse, bumpy landscape of AAPI communities becomes flattened.
When AAPI data are disaggregated, the results can be striking. Incidence of liver cancer is seven times and nine times higher for Laotian men and women, respectively, compared with non-Hispanic white adults.
More than 34 percent of Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong students do not complete high school, compared with 13 percent of the general U.S. population. Crime research with disaggregated AAPI data is rare, but one study showed youth arrest rates were highest for people of Samoan ethnicity, followed by Black, Laotian and Vietnamese people, in Alameda County in the San Francisco Bay Area.
In New York City, a study of Chinese immigrants showed high rates of diabetes and pre-diabetes at 38 percent. Filipinos in California had higher prevalence of obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, or asthma. The same study showed that Japanese had 40 percent higher odds of being obese or overweight that whites. South Asians are four times more likely to have heart disease or diabetes than the general US population. More surprising data about Asian disparities remain largely hidden and unaddressed.
It’s a frustrating chicken-and-egg scenario. Myopic gatekeepers convinced that AAPIs don’t experience health and social problems reject efforts to study these issues, which renders inequities invisible. The irony is that gatekeepers, who are experts in public health, medicine, social science and other fields, contribute to systemic racism through their preconceptions and biases.
Lack of attention can translate into a big gap in social services for AAPIs in need. In New York City, about 22 percent of Asian Americans live in poverty, according to a government report. Asians comprised nearly 15 percent of New York City’s population, yet just 1.4 percent of city-based agency contracts were awarded to Asian American social services providers over 13 years, according to a 2015 report from Asian American Federation.
Across the U.S., only 0.20 percent of foundation funding for work in the U.S. is designated for AAPI communities, according to an AAPIP report. In other words, for every $100 awarded by foundations, only 20 cents go to AAPIs.
In March, NIH announced its UNITE initiative to end structural racism in health research. Including AAPIs must be part of efforts at NIH, as well as at other agenda-setting institutions. More staff and grant reviewers with expertise on AAPIs should be recruited and given anti-bias training. They can also simply be open-minded that social inequities exist among AAPIs. And they can take a trip to food banks and overwhelmed social service agencies that serve thousands of low-income AAPIs every week.
The need is obvious—if only gatekeepers choose to look and listen. It’s a travesty that it takes a mass shooting and racist attacks to make AAPIs worthy of attention and finally impossible to ignore.
This is an opinion and analysis article; the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.