AAPIP Voices

Conversation with 25 Leaders in Action: Karthick Ramakrishnan


To commemorate AAPIP’s 25 years of building a more democratic philanthropic sector, we asked you to help us identify 25 leaders who are making a difference in your local community and/or nationally. The 25 Leaders in Action honorees represent a diverse group spanning a wide range of organizations, years of experiences, roles and sectors.  We invite you to learn about these outstanding leaders, their inspiring work and what keeps them going in our blog post series.


Karthick Ramakrishnan, Professor and Associate Dean, School of Public Policy at UC Riverside, and founder of AAPI Data

1. Why are you so passionate about advocating for the AAPI community?

What makes me passionate about Asian American activism is to make sure that our voices are heard and that our stories are told. The way we do it with the National Asian American Survey and AAPI Data is through survey methods and using demographic data and other official statistics to make a case, to make the narrative, and to make our community more visible. There have been other people doing this for a long time; there have been other professors and demographers within organizations like Advancing Justice that have been doing this kind of analysis. What I feel particularly proud of, especially with AAPI Data, is that we are able to move quickly and focus on some key data points that are relevant to particular debates that are happening. I think there is a flexibility and strategic quality to the data work that we do that I think other groups have found to be useful.

This was particularly apparent during the 2008 primary, when exit polls on Super Tuesday showed that Hillary Clinton got a disproportionally high share of the Asian American vote in California and New York. Based off these polls, we thought the headlines would have read, “Why is Hillary Clinton so popular with Asian Americans?” or “What is she doing to collect Asian American votes?” But instead, the headlines read, “Do Asian Americans get along with blacks?” and “Does Obama have an Asian problem?” The media portrayed the voting disparity as a result of racism among Asian Americans – without any data to back it up!

We thought that this was really problematic, and that we had to get more systematic and reliable data out there to answer this electability question, because otherwise people were going to just rely on anecdotes. Not only was our survey able to debunk this myth, we were able to get much more news coverage on Asian Americans than we had seen in prior news cycles.

The results from our survey work were big achievements because they countered prior news stories that were speculative in nature. But the analysis was also limited in the sense that we only had funding to survey the six largest Asian groups, so we could not reach many Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities. In 2012, however, we were able to include these communities in our survey, and we also had more questions that were useful for community organizations: questions and opinions about the Affordable Care Act, affirmative action, immigration, taxes and spending, experiences with bullying, and personal financial hardship.

All of these things ended up being important because not only were we able to say something about Asian Americans and the election, but there also was an afterlife for the 2012 survey.

2. What do you feel are the most critical issues that the AAPI communities are facing today?

There are all sorts of issues that affect the Asian American community, and chief among them that people naturally think of involve immigration, because immigration is such an important part of the Asian American story. Language access is another one because you still have a lot of Asian Americans who are limited English proficient (LEP) and who need language assistance. People usually think about those issues and they certainly are important.

But then there are issues that consistently come up in surveys, such as access to good public education and affordable access to higher education. That’s something that comes through clearly in the data. We also find a lot of support for social services, like access to health care and support for a decent minimum wage.

And then there are other “sleeper issues” in the AAPI communities that highlight the importance of doing survey research. Environmentalism is a big issue for Asian Americans but there are very few organizations, such as Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), that focus on environmental issues in their outreach to AAPI communities. Another sleeper issue is gun control, where there are some fairly strong and clear opinions on where Asian Americans stand. They want stricter gun control laws.

The reason why I like to point to environmentalism and gun control is because these are not what people typically think of as “Asian American issues.” They typically think of immigration, education, and language assistance as being quintessentially Asian American issues. But environmental protection, environmental justice, and gun control are also important issues for AAPIs.

3. In what ways do you strive to address the unmet needs for AAPI communities? How important is it to have quality data?

In 2012, I was getting phone calls from reporters not only about Asian American voters and what mattered to them in the election, but also about AAPI communities more generally. I realized that it would be helpful to have a centralized place that could point people in the right direction. Many journalists and people in nonprofits and government agencies don’t even know where to begin, and now they can know more about the kind of research being done by academics as well as community organizations.

For example, if you wanted to look about information about health, you would go to places like the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum or AAPCHO. But if you’re outside the community, you probably wouldn’t know that. That is one the biggest things we do at AAPI Data – we serve as a kind of portal to various types of reports, and we give credit to community organizations that do good research and analysis on the AAPI community. This is an important development from the last decade or two that is important to recognize: the research capacity of community-based organizations has improved greatly.

After creating the portal, we started dabbling around and doing some of our own original work, including creating infographics and policy reports. We’re thrilled to see all sorts of people using our work. I’ve seen our infographics used in news stories, and in conference presentations by community organizations. My academic friends say they use them in their lectures. And, out of the blue, a student from Swarthmore College contacted us last year, wanting to come and work as a summer intern. So we are reaching out and having impacts in ways we may not even be aware of, but it’s great to see.

I think one niche we fill is credibility: Credibility not only with journalists and researchers, but also in the eyes of community organizations. We do rigorous research, but we also want to make sure that we’re not framing things in ways that are irresponsible. I think that is something that’s a bit of a challenge, but more and more researchers are finding that sweet spot.

One of the ways that we have credibility is that we are not advocates ourselves, and we try to let the evidence do as much of the talking. But, of course, our work can play a supportive role. For example, an advocacy group can point to our resources and say, “Look, here are some data points that support what we’re doing, or that give context to the issues we’re facing.”

This is important, and I think this is true for many other AAPI groups who they find that they are often doing things on a shoestring budget with much more limited research capacity.

4. What keeps you inspired?

Knowing that we are laying the groundwork for even greater visibility and recognition. Given the importance of data in decision making at all levels of government, groups like ours are doing the kind of the foundational work that is essential in making sure that knowledge about our community is getting to the right places and is part of the larger public conversation. I know that this data work is not just some “ivory-tower” academic exercise; it is actually making a difference in the world of policy.

Karthick Ramakrishnan is professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Riverside. His research focuses on civic participation, immigration policy, and the politics of race, ethnicity, and immigration in the United States. Ramakrishnan directs the National Asian American Survey and is founder of AAPIdata.com, which seeks to make policy-relevant data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders more accessible to a variety of audiences. He is currently writing two books on immigration policy, and is founding editor of the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, and Politics (JREP), an official section journal of the American Political Science Association.

Ramakrishnan received his Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University, and has held fellowships at the Russell Sage Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Public Policy Institute of California. He has received many grants from sources such as the James Irvine Foundation and the Russell Sage Foundation, and has provided consultation to public officials at the federal and local levels.

Ramakrishnan’s articles have appeared in International Migration Review; Perspectives on Politics; NYU Law Review; Urban Affairs Review; Politics, Groups & Identities; Social Science Quarterly; Journal of Social Inquiry; Arizona State Law Journal; and The DuBois Review. His books include Democracy in Immigrant America (2005), Asian American Political Participation: Emerging Constituents and Their Political Identities (2011, with Janelle Wong, Taeku Lee, and Jane Junn), and two edited volumes on immigrant politics and civic engagement: Transforming Politics, Transforming America (2006, with Taeku Lee and Ricardo Ramirez) and Civic Roots and Political Realities: Immigrants, Community Organizations, and Political Engagement (2008, with Irene Bloemraad).

In addition, Ramakrishnan is director of the UC-wide program on AAPI Policy and is an appointee to the California Commission on APIA Affairs (2014-2017).