The Politics of Census Taking

INTERGROUP and interstate rivalries are converging around the forthcoming 1990 census, whose findings will determine not only the size of a state's congressional representation and the amount of special federal aid states and municipalities receive, but also will serve as a basis for reapportionment of state legislative seats. For minorities in particular, census figures years have come to represent a source of group pride and rationale for government benefits and political positions. ``In America you don't count if you are not counted!'' said the American Committee for Cape Verde, which sought inclusion in the 1980 census as a distinct group, thereby assuring ``a fair share'' of federal community development funds, construction contracts, and jobs. The Asian Indian ``Association of Indians in America'' succeeded in being classified as ``Asian or Pacific Islander'' rather than as ``Caucasian white,'' also in the belief that such a status would benefit them economically. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland said that census procedures discriminated against some ``15 million Polish Americans ... with the result that millions of dollars in government community programs and benefits have been lost.''

Demands for changes are being made in Congress and the courts. States with large numbers of unrecorded black, Spanish-speaking, and Asian residents (legal and illegal) want such people included in the census, while states with few uncounted minorities oppose changes in census procedures.

When a suit was filed to exclude illegal aliens in the 1980 census, New York and California opposed it. By counting illegals, California stood to gain additional congressional seats, and New York, whose population had declined, would lose one instead of four seats. Because city electoral districts are frequently based on census data, minorities wanted districts redrawn and at-large elections ended in order to insure one of their own members being elected to city councils.

Federal funds are also at issue because the amounts of funds states receive depend on population size. By including illegals or providing a formula-derived allowance for those missed in the census, areas with large numbers would retain or increase the amount of federal funds they receive, while those with few illegals and uncounted residents would receive less or little.

Minority groups themselves contest who should be counted, and which and how electoral districts should be redrawn. In Chicago, after the 1980 census began, eight Hispanic organizations filed a class-action suit against the Census Bureau, charging a ``serious undercount'' was resulting in their having ``proportionately less political representation than other groups and less than they are legally entitled.'' At least 33 suits in 17 states have challenged census figures.

No one can seriously argue against greater accuracy in the census. Statistical accuracy, however, is not the primary goal of protesting groups, but political power and federal funds. Such self-interest is nothing new. From the census' very beginning, geographic and racial politics existed. Fear of black power by Southern states led to blacks being counted as three-fifths of a person in determining congressional representation. Indians ``not taxed'' were excluded from the count. Gerrymandering was created to redraw electoral districts in order to dissipate the strength of political opponents.

In recent years, once-discriminated against groups have also seen the census as a way of gaining political power. Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians want their own districts to insure having one of their own kind elected to political office, whether federal, state, or city, as if a minority member is any more honest or effective than a non-minority one.

It is not census accuracy or reform, but its politicization and exploitation that are troubling, particularly the counting of illegal immigrants (who neither by international law nor constitutional history have a case for determining a country's congressional reapportionment). As with quotas and preferential treatment, such changes can only increase intergroup conflict and the further fragmentation of e pluribus unum.

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