The Census

I received my census form the other day, and fortunately it was the short form.  That spared me from a lot of questions I wouldn’t dream of answering.  Unfortunately, it didn’t get me completely out of the woods.

As most readers probably know by now, Question 8 asks whether we are “of Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin?”  If we are, then we are invited to be more specific, distinguishing Mexican ancestry from Puerto Rican, Cuban, etc.  Question 9 then asks for each person’s race, offering us 14 specific options followed by “Some other race.”

I hate these questions.  For one thing, it seems to me there are now large numbers of people who have parents or grandparents in at least two of the Census Bureau’s 14 “race” boxes. What box are they supposed to check?  What box is President Obama going to check?  During the campaign, people used to write a lot of nonsense about whether he was too black, hardly black at all, not black enough, etc.  It was somewhere between unseemly and repugnant then, but now it seems the Census Bureau really wants an answer.

Second, I can’t for the life of me discern the Census Bureau’s theory about what counts as a “race.”  A bold-faced “NOTE” before Questions 8 and 9 states, “For this census, Hispanic origins are not races.”  But why is that, exactly?  I searched the Census Bureau’s website for some explanation, but in vain.  The premise of Questions 8 and 9 seems to be that racial differences matter, but differences in national origin don’t really matter unless they involve a country that speaks Spanish.  Whether your skin is black or white is presumed to be a difference not of degree but of kind.  Hispanic origin — well, sure, that’s really interesting, but it’s not a different “race” or anything.  And whether you came from Germany or Russia?  Who cares?

Because Hispanics aren’t a separate “race” according to the Census Bureau, we actually end up with three categories of ethnic information being requested:

  • Category 1 is information about national origin that does not count as a racial difference but is nonetheless mandatory to report, such as whether a particular respondent is a Hispanic from Argentina, Bolivia, or Cuba.
  • Category 2 is information about national origin that is so irrelevant that there is no way to report it on the form.  For example, in Question 9, the Census Bureau doesn’t even ask whether a particular “white” came from England, France, Germany, Hungary, or Israel.  All of them are “white,” and that’s all that matters.
  • Category 3 is information that does count as a racial difference, apparently on the strength of differing national origins.  According to the Census Bureau, Japanese respondents are a different race from Korean respondents, and since Japan is an island I suppose there could be a significant difference in those gene pools.  But are Cambodians really a different race from Vietnamese and Laotians? And besides, last time I checked, Cuba and Puerto Rico were also islands, and those differences are deemed non-racial.

Who made these decisions, and on what basis?

Most importantly, why?  Ostensibly, the Bureau is trying to collect demographic information about certain minority groups so that it can make the information available to the public — here, for example.   I can understand an academic interest in that information, but is a government-mandated questionnaire the right way to collect it?  The short form is ten questions long, and two of them deal with race and national origin.  Does even the most ardent multiculturalist think that “race” and national origin are among the ten most important things the government might like to know about everyone living here?  More important than marital status, for example?  Or religion?  Level of education?  Hell, more important than citizenship?

I would probably feel better about these questions if the letter I received from the Census Bureau a week earlier had not made it so painfully clear why it was important to answer every question:

Your response is important.  Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need.  Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.

In other words, fill in the form or your neighborhood won’t get as much loot as it’s got coming.  What reason would I have to think that this rationale for the census does not apply to the 2 out of 10 questions dealing with race and national origin?

There are worse possibilities.  As David Kopel wrote for Cato back in 1990,

During the 1940 census, American citizens of Japanese descent dutifully noted their forebears’ ethnicity on the census form. Those Japanese-Americans believed the Census Bureau assurance that their answers would remain secret. But in 1942 the federal government began rounding up citizens who were of Japanese descent and imprisoning them in concentration camps. How did the Justice Department know where to find Japanese-Americans? The Census Bureau told them.

It’s worth emphasizing that the Census Bureau maintains that answers to these questions are legally required, with failure to answer punishable by a fine of up to $5,000.  Others have pointed out, however, that the “Enumeration” called for in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution is directly and exclusively linked to the purpose of apportioning Congressional representation; it does not appear to be an all-purpose mandate for interesting sociological investigations.  As David Boaz has said, “All the government needs to know from me is how many people live in my house. And I will tell them.”

UPDATE (March 20): I think I know how to answer Question 9 on race.  I’ll check “Some other race” and write in “Human.”

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5 Responses to “The Census”

  1. Rod Apfelbeck Says:

    From a collection I keep: Dr. Venter and scientists at the National Institutes of Health recently announced that they had put together a draft of the entire sequence of the human genome, and the researchers had unanimously declared, there is only one race — the human race. NY Times – 8/22/00

    • Mark Grannis Says:

      That’s good authority standing behind common sense. It’s all phenotype!

      I’m reminded of the conversation we had when my son first learned that the law used to forbid black people from marrying white people. He told his mother, “That would mean that you couldn’t marry Dad.” Why? “Because he has brown eyes and yours are blue!” Completely logical.

      So the Census Bureau is already ten years behind NIH. How much longer will it take?

  2. Clara M Says:

    As to your first point, I believe the census rules and instructions direct you to check “one or more boxes” so those of multiracial background can select as many as appropriate.

    As to your second question, the census folk say that the race/ethnicity data is required to administer and monitor compliance with anti-discrimination statutes, such as the Voting Rights Act. How exactly that works, I don’t know. They also note on the website that the data can be used by state and local governments to plan bilingual programs. That is a bit of a stretch- both overinclusive (not everyone who is Hispanic just got here and needs a “Press 2 for Spanish”) and underinclusive (what about state and local areas with a large number of those in need of bilingual services who are not Hispanic).

    All in all I agree with you and don’t see the need for the race questions at all, in the mandatory census at least, but I do like that they aren’t making everyone pick one race (which the EEOC required employers to do for their employees on the EEO-1 as late as 2005- there was no option for more than one race until then!)

  3. Mark Esswein Says:

    I happened to hear an NPR report the other day regarding the problems the Census has registering Hispanics in general. Native suspicion of government authority issues, fear of being turned in to INS, etc. Perhaps the pussyfooting around classifying Hispanics is somehow related to concerns regarding compliance in the Hispanic community.


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