The Common Good
March-April 2000

Knock, Knock. Who's There.

by Rose Marie Berger | March-April 2000

Census 2000 and a changing America.

Every culture has rituals and devices for telling its people who they are and where they come from. Since the 1700s Americans have used the census as a mirror for reflecting who we are as a nation. Since Census 2000 will arrive on America’s doorsteps on April Fool’s Day—the traditional day of social role reversals—it’s worth reviewing who the census says we’ve been and who it says we are now.

Census 2000 is the first major overhaul of the census questionnaire in 40 years, and it contains some changes in what you will and won’t be asked. In the age of artificial insemination and fertility drugs, women for the first time will not be asked how many children they have borne. Eighty years after the Armistice, World War I is dropped as a category of military service. The Persian Gulf war has been added. You will not be asked about your water source or if you have sewage disposal. The top value of American homes will shift from "$500,000 and upward" to "$1 million and upward." Farming as a source of income is now subsumed under generic "self-employment."

The big issues for Census 2000 revolve around our social identity crisis—specifically how we define "race," "ethnicity," and "culture." Since 1977, people have been required to identify themselves on census forms by choosing only one racial group—black, white, American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian or Pacific Islander.

In 1997, Congress decided against adding a single "multiethnic" category to Census 2000, opting instead to allow multiple checks under "race." This increases the racial options from 15 to 32,000 possible combinations. The Bureau of Statistics estimated that at most 2 percent of Americans would check multiple race categories. But in 1998 when the Census Bureau ran a dress rehearsal in Sacramento, California, more than 20 percent of respondents identified themselves as more than one race. More than twice as many respondents under the age of 18 identified as more than one race than did those over the age of 18.

CIVIL RIGHTS GROUPS are sharply divided on this change. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Council of La Raza both opposed creating a single multiracial category, asserting that a change in the census form will hurt the government’s ability to target aid to minorities.

NAACP president Kweisi Mfume says the issue is not black and white. "We support the right of individual self-identification and support self-determination in defining one’s racial makeup....But is the census form the correct place to make such a personal (and sometimes political) statement about one’s racial makeup?" The census numbers have a very real impact on people’s lives. There are provisions in the Voting Rights Act specifically aimed at correcting past discrimination (particularly in the deep South) where Africian Americans were denied their constitutional rights. With some studies showing 70 percent of African Americans fitting into a "multiracial" category, it would be impossible to determine fair representation for black voters.

The census notoriously undercounts minorities. In 1990, racial and ethnic groups, renters, and children were severely undercounted. Asian Pacific Americans were undercounted by 2.3 percent, compared to a .8 percent undercount of whites. The undercount rate for Hispanics was 5 percent, the highest for any race or ethnic group except American Indians.

Census data are used to allocate more than $180 billion of federal funds, redistrict local, state, and legislative boundaries, reapportion congressional representatives, and gather demographic data—so the numbers matter.

On the other hand, many mixed-race advocates see the expansion of racial categories as a breakthrough for the growing multiracial population. The old system of racial classification forced them either to choose a single race or to check "other." "Not all Americans fit neatly into one little box," argues Susan Graham, president of Project Race, one of the groups that lobbied Congress and state legislatures for a multiracial designation. Children of interracial families were once rarities; but already by 1990 there were 2 million, a four-fold increase over 1970.

What we see when we look in our national mirror is a multihued mosaic of race and ethnicity. Census 2000, we hope, will provide statistics to help us advance equal justice for all. Whether we embrace our national image as family or not is completely up to us.

ROSE MARIE BERGER is an assistant editor of Sojourners. Her father worked briefly as an address checker in the Census 2000 dress rehearsal in Sacramento, California.

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