The Census Questions 8 and 9

Photo: Census Bureau

I received my Census 2010 forms in the mail the other day and allotted myself a chunk of time to fill it out. Imagine my surprise when I opened it up to find that it was only 10 questions — questions that sounded more like a set up for something else than a beginning and end of something (it occurs to me that I was out of the country during the last one and away at college the one before that).

If you listen to Michelle Bachman or any of her ilk it would seem like the census is part of some sort of giant conspiracy. If you let yourself be counted, so the logic goes, the government will know too much about you and use that information against you. My knee jerk reaction to paranoia is to fill out the forms and carry out the long standing American tradition. Also, as I live in a depressed county that has seen many economic changes and movement of long time families out of area in the last 10 years and at the same time watched as an influx of telecommuters from the coast have moved in. I’m curious as to where we are now.

But what got me was the assumptions being made by number 8 and number 9.

The history behind the two questions state that these two questions were put on in 1970 ostensibly to help determine whether bilingual assistance and programs were needed for “Hispanics.“ But instantly as I read the questions I was transported back to the day when I was campaigning in San Francisco for a local ballot measure.

After a day of canvassing and giving presentations in minority communities, a fellow volunteer activist (and Anglo) voiced his frustration with the ”Latino“ population of California. He said words I’ll never forget.

”Why don’t they realize they are voting against their own interest? Why don’t they remember they were all farm workers once?“ I looked at him flabbergasted.

”You really believe that all Latinos have the exact same background? That everyone started out their American life in a field somewhere?“

”Well, didn’t they?“

”No,“ I told him, ”They didn’t.“ Then I think I (because I’m a geek) launch into a Mexican and American history diatribe that started somewhere with Spanish land grant families, Yaqui Indians, and the Mexican War. I took him through the entire Mexican Revolution of the early 1920s and ended somewhere in NAFTA. Then I realized he may have gotten lost in the dizzying array of history and I promptly started over again. This time I started in Andalucia. The point of the matter was however, that there is no single unifying factor for this so called group of ”Hispanics“ in Questions 8 and 9.

That Question 8 is meant to determine language needs. But my whole family can answer yes that we are Hispanic (even though I hate that term) but will that get us the programs we need to learn Nahtuatl and Spanish since my family can really only speak English? And by my family, I really mean pretty much all of my extended family as well. At least half of the Hispanic population in this country probably falls into this same category if their family arrived in the US prior to 1980 — so wouldn’t a better question be what is your primary spoken language? And since, at least in California, bilingual programs were never actually ‘bilingual’ — in that two languages were never introduced on equal footing with a result of students being sufficiently fluent in both languages is it even relevant?

Where I live, there aren’t all that many people requiring English as a second Language courses that hail from Spanish speaking countries except in one area of our county. We could however, use programs that ease the transition from Korean and Russian to English instead. But I’m not sure how we are suppose to glean that from Question 8. Surely other Mexican Americans on this side of the county might check yes as our family has done and thereby will be counted erroneously as needing English as a second language programs in this part. Does this mean we’ve already wasted money on a program that won’t work before we’ve even finished up the tally? Quite possibly so.

And what of Question 9? Of course all its asking is a racial question. What do you identify yourself as. We know, of course, from the striking example of our president on down that a good number of us these days identify as more than one culture racially. We know that no culture is monolithic. Taking just Obama’s family alone we can see that being African-American doesn’t mean one thing or one type of community. So what exactly is Question 9 going to measure? Isn’t the smarter question here which economic class do you identify with?

If Question 9 was removed and some criteria of education and income were put here in its stead we’d be measuring something that we know truly exists — cultures within the United States that are much more monolithic in need and values than what the criteria of race achieves here.

I am fascinated and amazed at the idea of the census — not unlike how I used to feel about the department store I worked at in high school closing for a day so we could count every single item we sold and make sure it was accounted for. But the inventory only told us one thing — what items we had. It didn’t tell us the condition of them or how out of date they were and unhip and so no wonder no one wanted to shop there sort of information. It just told us how many earrings and handbags our department had — and in the end when our store closed from bankruptcy we knew that it had nothing to do with whether or not we were missing some inventory — it was because we were no longer relevant.

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Guest's picture

I started to fill out the census form (my first time doing it as an adult) and I got stumped on questions 8 and 9. Not only stumped, I started to have all these...feelings - and questions. So many questions!

I googled said questions, and I'm glad that your post came up, because you articulated my EXACT view on this. Thanks for sharing, now I know I'm not crazy!