On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Asian American Identities: A National Story,” Yale History & American Studies Professor Mary Lui joined Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman to discuss the complexity of Asian American history and ethnicity in light of the the back-to-back mass shootings last month in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, which tragically affected diverse Asian American populations. Similar conversations about AAPI identity emerged in the years surrounding the 1990 Census, when California Representative Bob Matsui fought for a more detailed count of Asian Americans. 

Sacramento-based Democratic Representative Bob Matsui had a long road to Washington. A third-generation Japanese-American, Matsui was interned in 1942 with his family in Northern California’s remote Tule Lake camp when he was ten months old. After their release at the end of World War II, the Matsuis lost the grocery they had operated before the War.

Matsui graduated from San Francisco’s UC Hastings College of Law in 1966 and opened a law practice in Sacramento. In 1971, at just 29 years old, Matsui was elected to the Sacramento City Council. He arrived in Washington as a Democratic Congressman eight years later. Matsui quickly gained a reputation as a dealmaker on economic legislation, using his perch on the House Ways and Means Committee to play a large role in brokering the bipartisan compromises that formed the backbone of the Tax Reform Act of 1986. 

From the time of his arrival in Congress, Matsui also worked toward pushing for official federal apology and compensation for the internment of more than 125,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. In April 1986, Matsui made headlines for his emotional House speech recalling the pain of his own internment experience. He led efforts to ensure House passage of the Civil Liberties Act, which granted $20,000 to each surviving internee. 

As Matsui was shepherding the ultimately-successful Civil Liberties Act in 1987, he was confronted with a new issue: The Census Bureau was changing how they were counting Asian Americans for the upcoming 1990 U.S. Census. 

The 1980 U.S. Census had offered nine ethnic categories for Americans of Asian descent: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Korean, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Hawaiian, Samoan, and Guamanian. 

After the count, however, Census Bureau officials revealed that many Americans not of Asian heritage had utilized the “Other” designation confusedly. Some Cambodian-American and Thai-American respondents had also crossed out the “Vietnamese” category and had handwritten their own nation of origin in its place. 

In an attempt to limit these inconsistencies, the Census Bureau thus proposed replacing the nine major Asian ethnic groups with an all-encompassing “Asian and Pacific Islanders” identifier and an optional fill-in-the-blank space.

To get more specific data on Asian American demographics, the Bureau intended to send a sample questionnaire to one out of every six American households asking more specific ethnic questions and then applying that data to the whole country. 

Matsui began to mount an opposition to the census changes. In September 1987, Matsui wrote to Census Bureau Director John Keane about his reservations with the new census plan: “I am concerned that such a dramatic change will prevent the compilation of specific demographic and socio-economic data for each of the ethnic groups included in this broad category.”

Inaccurate data, Matsui feared, could mean misallocation of much-needed public assistance and social programs for particular groups within the Asian American umbrella. 

In December 1987, Matsui acted, introducing a bill designed to compel the Census Bureau to provide separate ethnic designations for Asian American groups. Matsui’s co-sponsor, the Trinidad-born Californian Democrat Mervyn Dymally, was well-positioned as the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Census and Population. 

Another California ally was Nancy Pelosi, who had joined the House after winning her seat seven months earlier in a San Francisco special election. “Because we in California are aware of the diversity of the Asian community, we must insist that specific census statistics represent the richness and individuality of the different cultures,” Pelosi told the press.

Matsui built a decidedly bipartisan group of supporters. California Republican Senator Pete Wilson – who would, contradictorily, go on to traffic in anti-immigrant rhetoric as governor – co-sponsored the Senate version of the bill. 

Matsui also teamed up with Asian American community leaders across the country. Henry Der, the executive director of San Francisco-based employment advocacy organization Chinese for Affirmative Action, acknowledged that the 1980 check-off system was flawed, but argued that improving the layout of the ethnic designations made far more sense than eliminating them: “We don’t doubt that the check-off system was less accurate because the modified 1980 version was pretty jumbled.” 

Der also argued that the collapse of more specific ethnic identities within the white population had led to a lack of sensitivity toward ethnic differences in other communities: “The question is really anthropological acceptance. In mass society whites tend to melt together.”  

In the early months of 1988, Matsui’s coalition grew. By the start of March, the House bill had 42 co-sponsors and support from the Hispanic Caucus, who also lodged complaints about the lack of specificity in their ethnic designations.“The bipartisan support that has amassed in the short time since the bill’s introduction is impressive,” Matsui told Asian Week. “Congress is beginning to see the potential injustice that could develop if the bureau is allowed to perform an incomplete count.”

The Census Bureau, however, was non-committal, arguing that the difficult logistics and timing of the change might make alterations impossible. Matsui was undeterred, however, and stepped up his attacks on the Bureau. In April 1988, he spoke to the Los Angeles Times of the diversity of the Asian American community: “We are not homogeneous. To us, the differences are obvious, but obviously not to the Bureau.” 

Matsui’s tactics worked. In Fall 1988, the House and Senate both passed his bill, which required the Bureau to list eleven national designations, including – in a particularly hard-fought battle – Taiwan. Maryland Republican Congresswoman Constance Morella offered a seemingly benign amendment to include an additional Census question about home heating and cooling systems to help dictate energy policy. The Census Bureau agreed in principle to the changes. 

Then, on November 8th, 1988, the day that George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis for the presidency, outgoing President Reagan used a pocket veto to shoot down Matsui’s bill. Reagan argued that the cost of the fixes would outweigh the benefits, particularly critiquing Morella’s heating and cooling questions as a scapegoat: “These changes would increase administrative costs and add to the paperwork burden imposed on the public by the census.” 

Reagan also argued that the push for further Census questions and categories was a slippery slope: “There are always more questions proposed for the census than can be accommodated; the administration has proposed a questionnaire that represents a careful and reasonable balancing between the nation’s need for information and the reporting burden the census places on respondents.” 

Matsui’s California colleague Norman Mineta was born in San Jose to Japanese immigrants who were barred from citizenship, interned as a teenager at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, and eventually served as San Jose’s mayor. After the veto, Mineta stressed the importance of ethnic-specific data in his mayoral tenure, and argued that Reagan did not appreciate the value of this information in creating equitable policy: “The president is apparently unconcerned with accuracy and fairness, which means we’ll have to work that much harder to ensure that our rights are protected and incorporated into the census system before the 1990 count gets underway.”

The Census Bureau also began to backtrack on their initial agreement to Matsui’s bill. “The Bureau can only say that in the wake of the presidential veto, the whole matter is under review again,” the Census Bureau’s Assistant Public Information Officer Maury Cagle told the press. 

When Congress reconvened on January 3rd, 1989, Matsui introduced a follow-up bill. Less than three weeks later, the Census Bureau formally agreed to the proposal without waiting for any legislative action. “This is a great victory for all Americans,” Matsui said after the Bureau’s announcement. “At stake was a fair and equitable Census.”

After the Census, however, another problematic measure for the Asian American community surfaced. A “post-enumeration” survey followed the Census; census-takers visited 150,000 homes across the nation to check for inconsistencies and to adjust their ethnic data post-facto. In the initial planning, however, white and Asian American respondents were lumped into the same strata. 

Los Angeles officials calculated that Asian Americans were undercounted by 7.3% in the 1980 census, and 3 million Asians had immigrated to the U.S. in the interim. Whites, meanwhile, were overcounted in 1980, so the coupling made likely an even more severe misrepresentation of AAPI groups.

Matsui again sprang into action, coordinating with community leaders in California, where almost 10% of the population was Asian American. 

On July 2nd, 1990, shortly before the post-enumeration survey was set to begin, California Secretary of State March Fong Eu appeared at a press conference. Eu’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from China’s Guangdong province, and her parents had run a laundry in California’s Central Valley. A dental hygienist by training, Eu was elected Secretary of State in 1974, becoming the first ever Asian American woman to be elected to a state constitutional office in the U.S. and beginning an almost twenty-year term. 

At the presser, Eu stressed the long battle that Asian American political figures had waged to make Washington appreciate the complexity of the community. “In the last decade Asian Americans have fought two presidential administrations to ensure a correct count,” Eu said. “Now the Asian community is back at ground zero.” 

Eu was joined by recently-elected Monterey Park Mayor Judy Chu, a psychologist whose father was a Chinese American World War II veteran and whose mother was a war bride from Guangdong. Chu governed a city that was 63% Chinese American and 17.4% Japanese American in 1990. 

“There’s absolutely no justification to exclude Asians,” Chu said at the press conference, highlighting that recent immigrants – due to language and cultural barriers – were actually far more likely to need specific post-enumeration attention: “In fact, there’s even more justification to include us. Immigrants are not familiar with the census-taking process and may have undercounted family members.” 

In September 1990, Matsui and Mineta appeared at a House Subcommittee on Census and Population hearing on “1990 Census Coverage Evaluation Operations.” Matsui did not mince words about the post-enumeration problems: “It appears, once again, that Asian Americans will suffer actions by the Census Bureau that not only contribute to an undercount of Asian Pacific Islanders, but which also demonstrate a continued insensitivity on the part of the Bureau toward Asian Americans as minority groups.” 

Just over a month after Matsui and Mineta’s appearance, the Census Bureau agreed to separate out Asian American data from the post-enumeration survey. “It was bad foresight,” Assistant Census Bureau Director Peter Bounpane admitted to the Los Angeles Times. “In retrospect, it would have been wise to do it for Asians.”

Mineta praised the Bureau for their belated recognition of their error: “The Census Bureau has finally recognized the importance of the Asian Pacific communities, and the damage that an undercount in these communities would do to California and the entire Pacific region.” 

Despite the successful mobilizations surrounding both the Census checking-off system and the post-enumeration survey, many of the gains won by Matsui, Mineta, and their allies were undone in July 1991, when Commerce Secretary and longtime Bush ally Robert Mosbacher – the ultimate authority over Census decision-making – overrode the Bureau and declined to adjust the 1990 Census to account for undercounts. Estimates suggested that there was a 5.3 million person undercount. 

Henry Der summed up the disappointment with Mosbacher’s decision in Asian American communities: “It’s a loud message that they don’t want us to be fully integrated in American society.” 

Matsui was undeterred, however, and continued to advocate throughout the 1990s for a more accurate and inclusive 2000 Census. He died of a rare bone disease in 2005, and his wife, Representative Doris Matsui, assumed his seat and continues to fight for AAPI representation today – a quest that now, just as in 1990, reflects the larger fight for a more equitable American democracy. 

For more on AAPI diversity and identity in late 20th century life, read sociologist Dina G. Okamoto’s 2014 Redefining Race: Asian American Panethnicity and Shifting Ethnic Boundaries

And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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