Census takers are a throwback to another era. They go door to door and leave behind polite reminder notes. No robocalls. No cookies planted on your Internet browser. Their shoe-leather mission is to gently coax Americans to provide information so modest it would make a marketing major laugh: Who lives here and what are their ages, genders, races, and/or ethnicities?
I met the local census taker last week because of some confusion about the house next door. She took a few notes and complimented our roses. I know that distrust of government is running high. There’s a subterranean movement in the blogosphere not to comply with the census because, well, it’s just more nosiness by Big Brother. But believe me, I’ve faced more intrusive interrogations at McDonalds.
Besides, market researchers and social scientists have vastly more effective ways of invading your privacy. They can mash up data from supermarket scanners, online surfing, and public records to get a shockingly precise reading of who you are, what you like, and the amount of money you might be willing to part with. While census analysts use some of these techniques, they are bound by law to preserve anonymity.
The census factors into reapportionment of Congress, guides distribution of almost half a trillion dollars in federal aid, and provides a family portrait of the nation. A strict constructionist view of the US Constitution (Article 1, Section 2) makes the census necessary only for fine-tuning representative democracy. Making sure your community gets its fair share of federal dollars? I guess that’s optional, but I’m guessing your neighbors want you to say yes on that one.
And the national portrait? That is where most objections occur. Martin Luther King hoped for a nation where his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” If the promise of America is a color-blind society, why designate race or ethnicity, especially if you are one of the growing number of children of interracial or inter-ethnic marriages. Or if you have only tenuous connection with the country of origin that your surname suggests. Or if you believe “American” should be a good enough response.
It comes down to this question: Should government mirror the races, ethnic groups, religions, genders, and other aspects of its people? After all, the white men who wrote the Constitution enshrined principles that allowed society to evolve even if it evolved to a point where they were not the dominant group.
Yes, but slavery persisted for 75 years after the Constitution was ratified. Women remained non-persons at the ballot box until only 90 years ago. Legal action and tools such as affirmative action have been needed to nudge doors open in the face of discrimination. Such social engineering isn’t ideal, but there is little doubt it has contributed to change.
Women and minorities are rising to prominence in business and government. A black man lives in the White House. Another leads the Republican Party. Families, neighborhoods, and workplaces are more diverse. A quarter of the way through America’s third century, its institutions really are looking more like America. Getting there hasn’t happened because of color blindness but because we could see where minorities were and were not allowed. You need good data for that.
Later this year, the Census Bureau publishes America’s official portrait. It will show how far we’ve come and how far we have to go. Dr. King’s goal remains the same: character, not color, gender, or any other factor. But to get there, the nice person from the Census Bureau needs a few simple answers.
John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.