Bad statistics lead to racism

There’s an opinion piece in the SMH today from Michael Duffy that really has my blood boiling. The thrust of his piece is that the combination of the last 20 years of emphasis in our immigration intake of Asians, and the much greater educational ability and aspirations of those Asians – “Asians are the first significant group of immigrants to this country to come from, or at least aspire urgently to enter, the middle class” means that “they could form a majority of Australian professionals within a generation or two”.

I have a whole lot of problems with this argument. But I’ll just mention one. The appalling statistical analysis inherent in his main piece of evidence – “For instance, in the 2004 HSC, about 350 of the top 1000 students had Asian surnames. As people of Asian background comprise about 7 per cent of the population, this means they did five times better as a group than other Australians”.

To analyse this statistic properly, you have to first analyse the actual group doing the HSC. Given the proportion of Asians over the age of 50 in Australia is considerably less than 7%, the proportion of Asians aged 17 or 18 is likely to be considerably more than 7%.

I’ve been irritated by this before, and this time I tried to find the answer from the ABS. It, of course, depends on your definition (surprise, surprise, the ABS doesn’t have a category called “asian names as defined by racist columnists”). The best test I could find was second languages spoken at home in the age group 15-24. In 2001, for Australia as a whole, 10% spoke Cantonese at home, 7% spoke Vietnamese, and 7% spoke Mandarin. There are likely to be some who speak Cantonese and Mandarin at home, but balancing that against a whole bunch of asian languages that wouldn’t be included here, such as Hokkien, Laotian, Cambodian, etc etc (only the top 6 were shown in this report), it seems reasonable to say that at least 25% of HSC students might speak an Asian language at home. And there are probably a few more with Asian ancestry, who only speak English at home.

Australia is a nation of immigrants. The population of Sydney is 38% born overseas. If you add second generation immigrants, you almost certainly get over 50%. Surely we should therefore expect that our professional class should eventually be reflective of the population as a whole?

I used to have respect for Michael Duffy – sure a right wing columnist, but I thought a sensible one. No more. This whole column just seems like casual racism to me – he’s invoking the old fashioned yellow peril, but just talking about asians taking over the professions, rather than over-running the country.

  3 comments for “Bad statistics lead to racism

  1. Steve cai
    August 28, 2006 at 12:00 am

    Thanks for your comments. I was a bit upset over such overtly racist underlying theme of Michael Duffy, even if there is an element of truth in there.

    As fot the ABS stats, i happen to be well-versed with them. The stats you are referring talks about proportion of Chinese speakers as a subset of the whole non-english speaking group

    If you look closely, you will find that about 8% are of Asian ancestry in Ausatralia in that particular age gorup 15-24

    You do realise that through family reunion schemes, the propition of asians as part of Australia is roughtly the same across all age groups

  2. August 29, 2006 at 7:44 pm

    You’re right – on a reread of the statistics, I did overstate the chinese speakers. I stand by my original comments, though (although I may have mistated the degree) – even looking at a graph of speakers of a language other than english, there are proportionately more young people speaking all asian languages in the home than there are of all ages. Basically, the younger you are, the less sense it makes to count “asians” (whatever that means) by the number of people born in an asian country. Most “asian” children were born here.

  3. August 30, 2006 at 8:23 am

    Also, I don’t think counting “Asian” surnames is an accurate measure of whether the person is Asian. It is a bit like counting job advertisements to determine how many vacant jobs are out there. I have an Asian surname but I am not Asian. The surname was invented by my Filipino father-in-law and his brother, a respelling of the Spanish surname Par Rocha.

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