Census and Race – The Conversation

Why is race on the census form?  Over half of short census is dedicated to the question of race.  The question is not without controversy, but before you can reach a decision about whether race ought to be included on the census, you ought to know the history behind the census and race inquiry.

A decennial census is mandated by Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States constitution.  The line directly pertaining to the census reads, “the actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”  In true American form, controversy broke out among the founders as to the meaning of “actual Enumeration.” Were estimates acceptable or was a full count necessary?   People on both sides of the debate agreed that accuracy was needed to avoid oppression.  As Alexander Hamilton stated in The Federalist No. 36, “an actual census or enumeration of the people must furnish the rule, a circumstance which effectively shuts the door to partiality or oppression.”  Hamilton believed an accurate census would shut the door to oppression by generating population figures not subject to political manipulation upon which Congress would base the apportioning of representatives and taxation.  Every citizen’s voice would be proportionally heard and taxation proportionally distributed.

However, with regards to the census, the “race” question plagued this noble goal from the very beginning by revealing hypocrisy within the system.  Take a moment to stop by the 2010 Census website where they have addressed the race question.  The 2010 Census website justifies the race question by citing its use in the very first census of 1790.   It’s an odd, almost eerie justification of presence of “race” on the census today.  In the 1790 census, the race question was used to make sure that slaves received only 3/5ths representation in Congress – the slave voice was disproportionately counted. The full text of Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 reads,

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.  The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.  The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Caroline five, and Georgia three.”

With the passage of the 14th amendment, the 3/5ths rule was abolished, yet the race question remained.  Audrey Singer, Senior Fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program and a scholar who defends the use of racial inquiry in the census, argued, “State and local data on age, race and ethnicity, household size and composition help communities with projections for school enrollment, housing, transportation and health care… Information from the census is used to prepare for emergency services, research changes and advocate for various causes.”  While I understand how age and household size contribute directly to projections for school enrollment, housing, transportation, and health care, race or ethnicity shouldn’t contribute meaningfully to these projections.  After all, we needn’t make special calculations for those 3/5ths persons walking around.

Critics believe the race inquiry, as its presently done, is confusing at best and politically corrupt at worst. Writing for the Manhattan Institute, Tamara Jacoby writes, “The issue is not just that the census’ approach is politically wrong-headed. Far more troubling is the gulf between the government’s standardized categories and the fluid, rapidly changing racial and ethnic reality of America. By the second generation, between a third and a half of both Hispanics and Asian Americans marry outside their groups. The number of those who prefer the multiracial designation is expected to multiply exponentially in ‘coming decades. It’s hard to see what value it has for sociologists or anyone else to label such people by their ancestors’ country of origin. Yet the Census Bureau goes on trying—and pretending it is able—to capture and codify this changeable, subjective ethnic landscape.”  If Singer is to be believed and census data on race actually provides meaningful data for government program planning, then the data will be inaccurate.  As Jacoby notes,  “Some people’s self-identification is so flexible that it changes from week to week with passing fashions: The number of people self-identifying as American Indian, for example, rose noticeably in the wake of the movie ‘Pocahontas.'”

Writing at the Huffington Post, John Whitehead parallels Jacoby’s remarks with some poignant questions of his own: “How, for example, would President Obama answer the [Census Bureau’s race] question? Is he black or white? What about Tiger Woods? Is he black or [A]sian? And what race are Tiger’s kids?”  Whitehead followed up his questions by tying together the census’ intended purpose, to apportion congressional representation, with the census’ racial inquiries and the regular practice of gerrymandering:

“As if gerrymandering was not already bad enough, will 2010 Census data be used to carve out future congressional districts? Will African-American communities be matched with sitting African-American congressmen? Will nearby Hispanic neighborhoods not currently in the same district be lumped together in hopes of increasing Hispanic representation in Congress? If the information is being used toward drawing district boundaries, then obviously some race-related parameter or objective must be in play when drawing those district lines.”

Separate from the criticisms leveled above, I believe that the government’s present concern with race vis-a-vis the census is dehumanizing and divisive.  In his most famous speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  In his dream, Dr. King longed for a nation where law and justice were colorblind.  If Dr. King’s dream is to be realized and law and justice are to be colorblind, then what use is racial data for makers of our laws?  If law and justice are not colorblind, then they cannot help but favor one race over another and are thus dehumanizing and oppressive to the disfavored race.

Some people are refusing to fill out the census because they are suspicious of the government and of agendas behind the inquiries like the race inquiry.  You should fill out the census. It’s against the law to refuse and you’d be behaving unconstitutionally.  Additionally, over $400 billion federal dollars are at stake – some of that money should rightly go to projects in your neighborhood.  However, the current census reveals biases and mindsets in Washington that deserve re-examination.  Personally, I’m going to fill “American” in the race line because its the most truthful reflection of my ethnic self-identity that I can give.   It’s also sufficient data for government work.  Regarding future use of the race question in government censuses, there does not seem to be a good argument for keeping it.  I’ll admit that while I’ve not read every possible argument for preserving the race question, I’ve noticed that those who defend it’s use in government work typically assert the point without offering evidence for its usefulness and, as mentioned earlier, that point is contentious.   Furthermore, the arguments against the current practice of racial inquiry on the census are compelling enough that the practice ought to be dramatically reformed or ended altogether. ‘

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Dustin R. Steeve

Dustin Steeve is a blogger and web enthusiast. Dustin's passion is to see his generation of Christians rise up as thought leaders, doing remarkable, good work Christianly. Dustin is interested in the rise of web media and increasingly prominent use of computer technology as a tool to aid people. Dustin worked for three years as the director of GodblogCon and is an adviser for the Christian Web Conference. Dustin graduated summa cum laude and received his B.A. in History from Biola University where he also graduated from Torrey Honors Institute. Dustin has completed some post-graduate work at the Stanford Graduate School of Business where he was appointed to the Dean's List and received a certificate of completion from the Summer Institute for General Management.

  • http://prozacstan.blogspot.com/ Stan McCullars

    I answered question one regarding number of people in the home. I see no constitutional justification for anything beyond that. If they want to know my race they can amend the Constitution.

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  • Onecaliforniadad

    thank you for a very well thought out article.

  • http://www.remnantculture.com Joseph Sunde

    I wrote in “American” for my race, along with many others. Mark Krikorian started a mini-movement to do so. More on my thoughts here: http://remnantculture.com/?p=311

  • linds

    I think you’re forgetting, however, the very important role of the census in helping us understand our own demographics. To even the most careful observer, our racial composition as a nation can be difficult to ascertain, especially when confronted with reports from competing race advocacy groups, uneven media attention, or issue-motivated race studies such as the illegal immigration debate.

    On a scholarly level, it’s important to have a relatively reliable source of this information. It helps us understand our own history, how our culture changes, and measure the impact of the movement of people groups and culture groups. Politically, such information can help inform decisions made on race-related issues in the courts and Congress.

    The government could commission a private group to conduct a study to produce the information, or it could add a tic box on a form already constitutionally-mandated to go to every household.

    It seems the fiscally responsible thing to do is to just add the box to the census.

    I have to say, I’m baffled by reluctance to participate in the census. I simply don’t understand the paranoia.

  • http://www.evangelicaloutpost.com Dustin Steeve


    I’ve heard defenders of the race question bring up the demographics point – they contend that the demographic information is useful for local businesses that rely on said information. I’m uncertain the degree to which local businesses actually rely on the demographic information collected by the census – after all, the information is only updated every 10 years. However, if businesses truly rely on the census for demographic analysis, it seems the current method of analyzing race via the census is deeply flawed per Ms. Jacoby’s argument.

    You said, “It helps us understand our own history, how our culture changes, and measure the impact of the movement of people groups and culture groups.” This is a point I’d not heard before and it’s worth considering, but again, Ms. Jacoby’s point about the fluid nature of racial identity seems to call into the question the validity of the census findings. At best, a decennial census should be only one, small measure historians use to calculate cultural change.

    “Politically, such information can help inform decisions made on race-related issues in the courts and Congress.” This point is asserted time after time by defenders of race on the census. It’s also the most troubling point.

    Concerning the courts, what issue of justice ought be decided based on the racial demographics of an area?

    Concerning political legislation, what laws are we writing for which the congress must know that there are 10,000 people who marked “White / non-Hispanic” on their census? Do you want congress making laws targeted to aid only “White / Non-Hispanics”? Is that even Congress’ role? The argument that race is useful on the census for law making would be much more compelling if the census had also inquired about ones primary language and economic status.

    Like I said before, the categorization seems poorly conceived and executed and raises serious questions about Congressional priorities in law making. I, for one, am glad people are voicing their concern that the system is broken.

  • Nancy

    Dr. King said “judged by the color of their skin.” However, this does not necessarily mean that their skin color is to be ignored. It’s not as if there are only two options: recognize skin color and judge people wrongly or ignore skin color and judge people fairly. How can we avoid this false dichotomy? Perhaps if we acknowledge skin color, and acknowledge the biases and judgments within ourselves, then we might be able to take action to correct false perceptions and bring about justice. If we ignore skin color, thereby ignoring our biases and judgments, then we will only fool ourselves into thinking we are able to be truly just.

    Furthermore, if systemic racism or systemic oppression is not addressed, then justice is only implemented on an individual level. If law and justice are colorblind, they also risk favoring one race over another by not recognizing diversity in persons and people groups.
    In my opinion, racial data should be gathered and its use diligently investigated in order to obtain a more complete understanding of this country and its people.

    A holistic view of one individual could assist in a holistic view of people groups in a unifying rather than “divisive” manner. By solely marking “American,” you forsake any sense of racial or ethnic identity. On the other hand, if you are able to disconnect yourself from your particular background and claim “American” as your identity, does this imply that other people will be less American if they do not identify themselves likewise?

    Personally, my ethnicity, my culture, is a part of my identity and not something to be dismissed but rather affirmed. As an “Asian-American” or better yet, “Vietnamese-American,” my needs, concerns, and values differ from other “Black-Americans,” “White-Americans,” or “Mexican-Americans” in a significant way. Rather than “dehumanize,” encouraging people to engage in their own processes of ethnic identity formation “humanizes” as differences are recognized and celebrated rather than disregarded.