As well-intentioned as it wants to be in accurately reporting the facts about a nation that is becoming more multiracial and multiethnic, the U.S. Census Bureau continues to fail. Census leaders say they recognize the problems and vow to do better, but when the next census is ready to go in 2030, will the bureau be ready? Or will it fail again?
When the next census is ready to go in 2030, with the bureau be ready? Or will it fail again?
Earlier this month, the bureau admitted what was already suspected: that it had undercounted Black, Latino and Indigenous populations in the 2020 census, noting “statistically significant undercounts for the Black or African American alone or in combination, American Indian or Alaska Native alone or in combination, Some Other Race alone or in combination, and Hispanic or Latino populations.”
While these three populations were undercounted, the bureau confirmed that there were “significant overcounts for the White alone or in combination, Non-Hispanic White Alone, and Asian alone or in combination populations.”
In other words, while communities that have historically been ignored by the federal government will get less representation, once again the “White alone” group wins.
There is structural racism in the census and plenty of historical data to prove it. The 2020 undercounting efforts, however, appeared almost intentional given that the Trump administration wanted to omit undocumented immigrants from the census, add a citizenship question and end the count earlier than people fighting for a more complete count wanted.
Such efforts to stifle Black, Latino and Indigenous communities have direct consequences. Similar to voter suppression, undercounting diminishes representation and political power. The U.S. Census Bureau admits the results of the 2020 Census don’t truly reflect the makeup of this country, which means the census has become yet another tool sanctioned by the federal government to limit the power of these communities.
In the eyes of the bureau, these communities are “harder to reach” and have limited access to the internet. Instead of blaming these communities for their problems, the bureau should look at itself and acknowledge the problems of having a leadership that is so predominantly white.
A 2021 NPR analysis by Hansi Lo Wang found that “close to 4 in 5 senior executives at the bureau identified as white and not Hispanic or Latino.” Why then would anyone be surprised that a bureau nearly 80 percent white struggles to accurately count Black, Latino and Indigenous communities? Structural racism includes organizations that talk a good game about a changing America but don’t have the internal tools or personnel to reflect how much America is actually changing.
Why would anyone be surprised that a bureau nearly 80 percent white struggles to accurately count Black, Latino and Indigenous communities?
The move away from the bureau’s whiteness got a start late last year when Robert Santos was confirmed as the first Latino to lead the agency. In response to the recent undercounting mess, Santos said changes will happen.
“Unless we fundamentally change things, we're gonna end up in a similar place, not necessarily exactly as we were last time because our big country's becoming more diverse,” Santos said this month.
Those changes, he said, will include ways to engage communities that have been historically undercounted, but essentially, the first change is an understanding that data collection methods that might have worked decades ago in a whiter nation no longer work in a nation that is less and less white.
“We can no longer rely on the traditional methods of mailing forms out to households and encouraging the public to respond — and conducting door-to-door interviews with households that do not complete these forms,” National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund CEO Arturo Vargas said earlier this month.
Institutional change can take decades for an organization that is as set in its ways as the census is. To expect the Census Bureau to move nimbly is a bit far-fetched, but Santos does have an opportunity to at least make a specific change when it comes to the U.S. Latino community.
For years, the census has tried to solve the problem of how U.S. Latinos should identify themselves on census forms, given the fact that Latino is not a race but more of an ethnicity. The invention of the broader Hispanic label in the 1980 census might have made sense back then, but more than 40 years later, Latino identity in this country is significantly more complex. The 2020 census tried to add more complexity to this specific issue, but it didn’t go far enough and is likely a reason why so many U.S. Latinos look at the census with skepticism and distrust.
For years, the census has tried to solve the problem of how U.S. Latinos should identify themselves on census forms.
Santos has already supported an effort to combine questions about race and Latino identity. According to an NBC News report, “A previous study by the Census Bureau showed that doing so would increase response rates by Hispanics, who may be unsure how to answer the race question because they often are from mixed race and ethnic backgrounds.”
Something needs to be done to permanently stop the Census Bureau from repeating its undercounting mistakes and from deliberate attempts to suppress the count of people in Black, Latino and Indigenous communities as the Trump administration appeared to do and future Republican administrations may try.
The process that determines where federal funding is spent and how electoral representation is chosen needs to be transformed. The problem has already been identified. Will there be actual action to elevate undercounted communities, or will they be ignored yet again?