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COMMENTARY: One-size-fits-all labels don’t work for America’s minority populations

The word “disaggregation” does not roll off the tongue easily. But the concept of separating a whole into its distinct parts is one that we should embrace when it comes to statistics about minorities.

The time when it was sufficient to break out data by simple race or ethnicity segments has past. Demographics and new sociological and scientific understanding about the people that make up the broad categories of black, Asian and Hispanic tell us that these labels are becoming increasingly blunt instruments when we look at public health and education policy.

For instance, what do we miss when we talk about health in the black community if we neglect to understand that the share of foreign-born black people, largely from Africa and the Caribbean, has grown from 3.1 percent of the black population in 1980 to 8.7 percent in 2013? According to the Pew Research Center, by 2060, 16.5 percent of the U.S. black population will be foreign-born.

A 2011 study from the University of Michigan found that in order to track racial disparities in health, more attention needs to go to understanding the different groups.

Researchers found that African-Americans, U.S.-born Caribbean blacks and Caribbean-born blacks had significantly different self-ratings of their health and self-reports of being diagnosed with a chronic physical health condition. And it’s only logical that there might also be differences for migrants to the United States from Africa.

Last summer, Asian-American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander civil rights organizations in California helped pass legislation requiring the state’s institutions of higher education and public health to collect, analyze and report data for up to 42 subgroups of those three broad categories since the disparities among national-origin groups are so dramatic.

Without more nuanced collection and reporting of subgroup data, for example, differences such as those between older adult Chinese and Vietnamese elders (who have the most chronic health conditions) and Japanese elders (who have the least) may potentially mask the reality that Japanese women are nearly twice as likely to die of cancer as Asian Indian women.

These distinctions are as important in Hispanic populations, which can be separated out into foreign- vs. native-born, country of origin and language preference.

A recent study by minority health researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that cardiovascular disease presents itself differently in Latinos from the three largest Hispanic subgroups, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans.

More Mexicans (19.5 percent) and Puerto Ricans (16.4 percent) died at a young age (25-49 years) vs. Cubans (5.3 percent) and non-Hispanic white people (6.6 percent), according to mortality data. But while cardiovascular disease was the leading cause of death in all subgroups, a higher portion of deaths in the Cuban subgroup (37.6 percent) were a result of heart disease.

“Differences in [cardiovascular disease] mortality across the three largest Hispanic subgroups in the United States (Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans) are particularly intriguing because these distinct groups vary widely in immigration histories, socioeconomic status, culture, lifestyles and risk factors,” Dr. Fatima Rodriguez of the division of cardiovascular medicine at Stanford and colleagues wrote. They concluded that “aggregation of Hispanics as a single group fails to capture important differences in [cardiovascular disease] outcomes for this increasingly important and growing segment of the population.”

This plays itself out in education, as well. For years now, Asian advocacy groups have been trying to break the stereotype of the “model minority student” because it fails to take into account lower-income segments of the population such as the Vietnamese and Cambodians. When lumped in with traditional high achievers like the Chinese and Japanese, students with fewer resources can miss out on the educational support necessary to succeed.

A recent Stanford University and Economic Policy Institute study found that while Asian students generally attend schools that have lower levels of poverty even than those attended by white students, poor Asian students are much more likely to attend high-poverty schools than poor white students.

The same study found that non-English-language-learner Hispanic students perform nearly as well as their white counterparts of similar socioeconomic background.

On a 100-point test, these Hispanics were only the equivalent of 5 points behind in eighth-grade math tests in 2013.

Comparing gaps in quality-of-life factors between minorities and whites will always be an effective gauge of disparity or progress. But neglecting wide-ranging differences within the individual groups will only worsen inequality in America.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

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