The University Record, October 16, 2000

Census 2000 legacy will be the way Americans identify themselves by race

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

From the first U.S. Census in 1791. Courtesy Clements Library
U.S. Census Bureau director Kenneth Prewitt was recently on campus to discuss the controversies surrounding the world’s longest-running census. The Oct. 5 program in Rackham Auditorium was co-sponsored by the Institute for Social Research (ISR) and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and highlighted a number of topics that have kept the 2000 Census in the news. These include an unanticipated public furor about the long-form questionnaire, the on-going partisan battle about the best way to deal with the likely undercount of minorities, and the impact of new census categories for racial and ethnic identity.

ISR Director David Featherman kicked off the evening with an historical perspective on the challenges. “Ever since the first census was conducted, counting Americans has been roundly protested,” said Featherman, quoting the memoirs of a 19th-century census-taker whose efforts to “number the people” met with considerable resistance.

Looking ahead to the December release of the state population counts, 1990 Census Director Barbara Everitt Bryant, now managing director of the American Consumer Satisfaction Index at the Business School, introduced her successor with this warning: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Just wait until you release the count.”

Prewitt noted the importance of remembering that the census was always intended to be a part of the political process. “What could be more political,” he asked, “than an instrument designed to redistribute power?”

Nevertheless, Prewitt said, attacks on the Census Bureau’s integrity, centering on its plans to use statistical sampling to double-check and, if necessary, correct the actual enumeration of the population were misguided. A Supreme Court ruling forbidding the use of adjusted census numbers for congressional reapportionment already has been issued, and other challenges are possible, depending on the outcome of the November elections.

The real problem, he said, is that census numbers are used in a highly determined, rigidly formulaic way for reapportionment and redistricting. “There’s no room in the process for partisan discussion,” he said. “So the discussion is driven back to the scientific methods used to derive the numbers, instead of focusing on the political results of those numbers.”

While the partisan battle over the use of sampling in the 2000 Census was predictable, Prewitt confessed that public resistance to the long-form questionnaire caught the Bureau off-guard. Overall, public response to the census was better than anticipated, he noted, with the initial mail-back response rate of 67 percent reversing a decades-long decline. “We’ve worked hard to make this a ‘good’ census,” Prewitt said, noting that heavy promotional efforts to the Hispanic and African American communities helped to boost the response rate.

Census Director Kenneth Prewitt with Ford School of Public Policy students before his address on Oct. 5. Photo by Paul Jaronski, U-M Photo Services
Long after the debates have ended, the most enduring legacy of the 2000 Census, Prewitt said, will be its radical revision of the way the nation looks at its own racial identity, a result of new questions that allowed respondents to identify themselves as belonging to more than one racial and ethnic identity.

“This is a country that has struggled with race throughout its history,” said Prewitt. “Now, instead of dealing with three of four categories, we will suddenly have 126 categories.” The implications for race-based social policies are enormous, he predicted.

Following Prewitt’s remarks, Ford School Dean Rebecca Blank introduced the panelists: University of Wisconsin historian Margo Anderson, and U-M political scientists Vincent Hutchings and John Kingdon.

“Questions of race and politics have been attached to the census process since the very beginning,” said Hutchings, who is currently on leave at Yale. In the first census of 1790, he noted, the population was categorized into slaves and free persons of color in addition to free white males and females. Other categories, such as quadroons and octaroons, were added in the 1800s.

In the past, census information on race was used to support pathological racial views and enforce discriminatory social policies, Hutchings pointed out. Since the 1960s, beginning with the Voting Rights Act, racial information from the census has been used to help enforce civil rights legislation and ensure racial equality. “The implications of the new census categories for furthering or retarding racial progress are unclear,” he said. “The most important question we can ask is ‘How will this new information be used?’”