Tuesday, April 30, 2019
Is the Census political?
In my last post, I examined the empirical evidence behind claims that including a citizenship question on the 2020 census would lead to undercounting of immigrant communities – essentially a matter of accurate measurement. Is such a prospect political? Yes, in three ways.
- First, the census is literally used to apportion funding and redistrict representatives.
- Second, the census question on citizenship is predicted to have a concentrated impact on communities with noncitizens, many of which are urban areas with Democratic leanings.
- Third, the census questions are not mere measurements of societal attributes and attitudes. The census has shown itself to be a device to instantiate social categories and groupings in ways that reflect political interests.
As described in an insightful History Channel program, “Many of the changes the census has gone through have to do with race and power in America. This is particularly evident when looking at the censuses taken between 1850 and 1930, a period of rapid change that saw the end of slavery and the beginning of Jim Crow. During this time, the census sought to classify how much African ancestry a person had, thereby reinforcing a social structure that denied full citizenship to people with any amount of African heritage. As Melissa Nobles, author of Shades of Citizenship: Race and the Census in Modern Politics explains, “The ‘mulatto’ category was added in 1850 at the request of a ‘racial scientist,’ Josiah Nott, who thought that blacks and whites may have been different species.”
The census has also shaped the politics of being Latinx. Cristina Mora in Making Hispanics and Clara Rodriguez in Changing Race: Latinos, the Census, and the History of Ethnicity show very clearly that the idea of ethnic grouping was historically constructed and institutionalized in the United States. During the 1960 census, reports classified Latin American immigrants as “white,” grouping them with European Americans. Not only was this decision controversial, but also Latino activists claimed that this classification hindered their ability to portray their constituents as underrepresented minorities. Therefore, they called for a separate classification: Hispanic.
Over time, the census shifted toward what David Hollinger, in Post-Ethnic America, calls the "ethnoracial pentagon." This term describes a five-part classification commonly used in government programs and that derives American is now routinely classified: African-American, Asian-American, European-American, Latino and Native American. This "pentagon," Hollinger believes, is built on a foundation of color categories -- black, yellow, white, brown and red -- that are relevant to understanding racism. However, Hollinger they obscure cultural groupings. The point is underscored by ongoing battles within each racial category, including the pan-ethnic category of Asian-American that obscures political and cultural blurring of groups that consider themselves quite distinct, such as Taiwanese-Americans who resisted being lumped together with Chinese-American political adversaries or Southeast Asians who feel little common cause with East Asians and recognize the need for data disaggregation to highlight demographic differences in income, education, and health outcomes that are consequential for apportionment.
The official US Census form from 2010, permitted people to check multiple races. The movement for multiracialism was driven by two animating goals: to permit people to self-identify (admitting the subjectivity in the exercise) and to allow for the counting of multiple racial categories, rather than forcing awkward choices among multiple identities. The results were revealing: Census reports found a rising share of multiracial people once they were given the opportunity to claim their multiple identities.
As we move to the 2020 census, the political battles may shift to citizenship, but they will undoubtedly be political and not merely about empirical evidence and objective measurement.