By Clarence Page: It is time to take another census, as we Americans do every 10 years, which means it is time again to argue about the census.
It is time to take another census, as we Americans do every 10 years, which means it is time again to argue about the census.
If the census is designed to take a snapshot of our nation, the initial reaction looks like a family feud.
In the upper heartland we have U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has called for a boycott of the census unless it includes a question about resident status. The Minnesota Republican has backed off that a tad, perhaps because the census determines how many members the House of Representatives will have. A low census response could cost Minnesota a congressional seat — like hers.
Besides too many illegal immigrants already avoid the census precisely because they suspect that it is looking for the illegals that Bachmann wishes it really was looking for. If illegal immigrants were willing to respond truthfully to a straight-up question such as the one she suggests, we could have a census every year and put an end to illegal immigration. Dream on.
More recently Bachmann has backed up a bit. She urges her supporters to respond to the census but disclose no more information than the number of people living in their household. By her reading, that's all the Constitution requires. "Enough is enough" to "government intrusion," she said, on Glenn Beck's Fox News show, where she also observed that the census was an early step in the process that led to internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II. Maybe so, if you also think of shipbuilding as an early step to the slave trade.
As you might be able to tell from her anxieties, Bachmann is the sort of conservative who asks you to trust her in our government because she doesn't trust government.
But the tea-party right is hardly alone when it comes to beating up on the census. There are black activists and intellectuals, for example, who are upset that the form includes "Negro" among the choices for one's race, along with "black" and "African American." I am confident that none of those complaints is coming from the National Council of Negro Women or the United Negro College Fund — and I seriously doubt many objections are being voiced by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, either.
Besides, if they think "Negro" sounds odd, consider this: a century ago, the classifications still included "mulatto," "quadroon" and "octoroon." Times and labels can change faster than the census can keep up.
In fact, race labels have changed in every census for the past century, making it all the more difficult for social scientists and demographers to compare one decade to the next. The form's categories are determined by the federal Office of Management and Budget, which makes sense it is intimately concerned with allocating government resources to people and places where it will do the most good. People in need of government help, you might think, would care more about how they're being served than what they're being labeled. But they still care a lot.
In the 2000 census, for example, about 19 million people checked "Some other race" on the census form because they were not satisfied with the five categories offered. The vast majority were people of Hispanic origin, census officials say, who preferred to write-in more nationalistic labels such as "Mexican" or "Puerto Rican." Census officials re-categorized as many of those race write-ins as possible into one of the five categories. In government nose counting, it appears, those who try to deny race will have one — or more — thrust upon them.
Such confusion and contradictions at the edge of our racial frontiers has led some to call for doing away with racial categories on the census. Many of these folks are conservatives looking for a backdoor way to undermine affirmative action-type programs. Their complaint is legitimate, but as long as we really care about racial progress in this country we need yardsticks to measure it. Even if we stopped counting by race, it would not mean that race doesn't count.
E-mail Page at email@example.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207.