The U.S. Census and Our Sense of Us : Code Switch The Census is so much more than cold, hard data. It's about what we call ourselves, the ways we see ourselves and how we're represented. On this episode we ask the former head of the Census bureau why he quit. We talk about how the Census helped create 'Hispanic' identity. And we talk through some of the proposed race and ethnicity categories that may show up on the 2020 questionnaire.

The U.S. Census and Our Sense of Us

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The U.S. census is one of the most important data sets that we have - some would argue the most important. It's how we know what America looks like - our racial makeup, who lives where. It affects everything from education to transportation.


And let's add one more huge thing that rhymes, political representation.

DEMBY: Bars.

MERAJI: Drop that beat.


MERAJI: The census determines how voting districts get drawn, how many congressional representatives we have. A sizable undercount of vulnerable populations like the poor and people of color would mean they'd have even less of a political voice. So the census is not just about numbers, it's about power.

DEMBY: And that is why right now you are listening to census watch 2020.

MERAJI: Aka CODE SWITCH - I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. And Shereen, I think it is fair to say that everyone on CODE SWITCH is lightweight obsessed with the census numbers. Right?

MERAJI: Yes. We use the bureau's race and ethnicity data all the time in our reporting.

DEMBY: So when we found out that the head of the Census - his name is John Thompson - was quitting. He was stepping down in the middle of his agency's feverish preparations to count everyone in the United States - you know, to the best of their ability. We're like - yo, what is going on?

MERAJI: And we caught him right before he took his post-resignation Hawaiian vacation.

JOHN THOMPSON: I've never been to the Big Island, so I'm really looking forward to it.

MERAJI: Volcano National Park (ph) was one of the greatest things I've ever done.

DEMBY: (Laughter) A little (unintelligible)...

MERAJI: There is a beach - it is on mile 69, and it has shade, which is very important.


MERAJI: We assumed he was looking forward to this particular summer vacation because it meant a break from having to answer questions about what his surprise departure means for the 2020 census. He left smack in the middle of his one-year term extension without a replacement nominee in place.

DEMBY: And it was big news when the story broke. It was another upheaval at a major agency during the Trump administration; we've seen a lot of those. But voting rights experts were nervous. Civil rights advocates were nervous. They're worried that there hasn't been enough money budgeted to do an accurate count. And because this is the first time the census will be mostly digital, there are cybersecurity concerns, too.

MERAJI: So many things. People are nervous that your departure is leaving a leadership vacuum at a really critical time. And they're scared that this 2020 census could go very wrong without somebody advocating for the census with Congress. Are you worried?

THOMPSON: I am not worried about that.

DEMBY: You're not.

THOMPSON: No. So the census is much more than the director. So when I was at the Census my first time, I was a career executive. And I was in charge of all the aspects of the 2000 census in terms of operationalizing it, allocating resources, making sure that it got an accurate count. We had a director - a wonderful director named Ken Prewitt, and his job was to support me and my team. But the people that are going to conduct the census are career people, and they are committed to providing a very, very accurate census.

DEMBY: People treated your resignation, though, like, with some alarm.

MERAJI: Including Ken Pruitt, who has been quoted multiple times.

THOMPSON: Right. If I was nervous about that, I would not have left the Census Bureau.

MERAJI: But eventually, President Trump has to appoint...

THOMPSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

MERAJI: ...Someone - right? - who has to go through this long process.



THOMPSON: Exactly, exactly. And I hope that that happens as expeditiously as possible.

MERAJI: John Thompson didn't give an inch.

DEMBY: Nope.

MERAJI: And as of August 2, 2017, the day we drop this episode, there's still no nominee to run the Census Bureau, although there is an interim director in place.

Now, Thompson announced his retirement in May.

THOMPSON: I had done all I could do. And I couldn't help the Census Bureau anymore. And so at that point, it seemed the right thing to do was to announce my retirement and to turn over the reins to the helm of the Census Bureau to someone else.

DEMBY: It seemed like people...

MERAJI: What do you mean...

DEMBY: I'm sorry.

MERAJI: What do you mean you couldn't do any more?

THOMPSON: So I had done everything I could do as a political appointee at the Census Bureau. I really couldn't do any more to help the Census Bureau.

DEMBY: Why do you think it would be counterproductive to stay on if there is not an appointee named for your former position?

THOMPSON: There just comes a time when you know that you've done all you can do. And I felt that I'd done all I could do, and it was time to retire.

DEMBY: We asked him multiple times, in multiple ways why he decided to bounce.

And it has nothing to do with the current occupant of the White House?

THOMPSON: No. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.

MERAJI: Well, that's what people are speculating, you know.

THOMPSON: No, no, no. I've got (laughter) - I just think that I have done all I can do. I've got them - I got them through a transition into the next administration. And now it's time for me to leave. I have always been nonpartisan. I don't have any political issues.



MERAJI: So full disclosure - we wanted our exit interview with John Thompson to be this entire episode.

DEMBY: Obviously, that's not happening.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: But if you want to hear more from that interview, it is actually on the blog. Shereen wrote it up. Like we said at the top of the show, though, the census is about power. But it's really, really hard to overstate just how much the census informs how Americans understand race - like, understand the categories that we call race.

MERAJI: So that's what we're talking about after the break by telling the story of how the census got those of us from the Latin American diaspora in the U.S. to use one pan-ethnic label.

CRISTINA MORA: I would tell people, I'm writing this story about the development of the Latino category. And they would say, well, duh, they've always seen themselves as such.

DEMBY: But that's not true, according to Cristina Mora in her book "Making Hispanics: Activists, Bureaucrats, And Media Constructed A New American."

MERAJI: And speaking of new, we'll also talk about the proposed changes to the race questions on the 2020 census questionnaire with NPR's demographics correspondent Hansi Lo Wang.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: The census is really a snapshot in time. And people's individual racial identities are always shifting. Society's definition of racial groups are always shifting.

DEMBY: But first, let's pay these bills.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.


All right, let's get right into your interview with the author of the book "Making Hispanics." I will just let her introduce herself.

MORA: Cristina Mora, associate professor of sociology at UC Berkeley.


MORA: Thank you.

MERAJI: We talked to John Thompson, who was the outgoing head of the Census. And people are a little bit nervous. And someone tweeted at us saying, oh, the census is drama every 10 years. There's always drama.

Is that true?

MORA: The census has never been devoid of politically thorny issues, everything from whether they're going to use the label Hispanic or Latino or Spanish origin, to whether Middle Eastern, North African people are going to be distinct from whites, to whether the label negro will still be used. All of these things are politically and culturally sensitive issues.

If it was only about counting people and just getting the statistical numbers right, there might be less drama. But because it's about what we call ourselves, how we see ourselves and how that will be connected to whether we're represented or not, of course there will be drama.

MERAJI: You argue in your book "Making Hispanics" that this Hispanic or Latino or what some are now calling Latinx panethnic identity in the U.S. is actually a fairly recent phenomenon, speaking of what we call ourselves. And I just have to say that I know people don't think these terms mean exactly the same thing, but they're all used to group people of the Latin-American diaspora in the U.S. together.

But in the '60s, you write, the three largest Latin American diaspora groups - Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans - lived in different parts of the U.S. They had different needs. And there was very little appetite for an umbrella category back then. Can you tell us why they didn't want to be grouped together?

MORA: Oh, the issue was really contentious. On the one hand, you had Puerto Ricans unsure of whether an alliance with Mexican-Americans would mean that their issues would be swept under the rug because Mexicans were much larger. Mexican-Americans were in Texas, sometimes under Jim Crow restrictions, or in places like California, where they were segregated to different schools and discriminated against. Puerto Ricans had these sort of same issues but were also really concerned about the Puerto Rican statehood question and these questions about, what are the rights that they had as citizens?

And at the same time, you had these two groups then having to contend with Cubans, many of which claimed that they were white, many of which saw themselves as not necessarily completely distinct from everyday Anglo-Americans in Florida, to the extent that they were going to make demands on the state. It was to get the state to pay attention to Cuba. They were much less interested in making a demand based on minority rights. It just wasn't in their purview.

MERAJI: There was no Hispanic option - right? - on that 1960 decennial census?

MORA: No, not at all. There had been something called the Spanish surname count. And the Spanish surname count was a count that was only done in the Southwest. You would be labeled Spanish surname if your name fell on this list that the U.S. Census Bureau had comprised of thousands of names culled from the Mexico City and the San Juan phone book. But once again, that was only if you lived in states like Texas and California, New Mexico and Colorado.

MERAJI: Even though they use the San Juan phone book from San Juan, Puerto Rico?


MORA: Yeah. I guess they wanted to catch whatever Puerto Ricans could be in LA at that time or so.

MERAJI: And they tried to fix that - right? - 10 years later.

MORA: Yeah. In the 1970 count, what they had was that - on the long form - only select households were given these forms. And there was a question that said, are you Spanish origin? And there, people could mark off yes and then write in whatever nationality they were. They were on the road towards creating a category that would indicate some sort of umbrella panethnic grouping that wasn't necessarily tied to a practice, like the practice of speaking Spanish, or to some objective factor, like what your last name was.

MERAJI: But is it putting too fine a point on it to say that it was a total failure...

MORA: (Laughter).

MERAJI: ...That the 1970 decennial census count...

MORA: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...Really upset what we're calling the Latinx community these days?

MORA: From the standpoint of the count, sure. There was a huge undercount, just as there was an undercount of African-Americans. And Latino community and their organizations, from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to ASPIRA and other Puerto Rican groups, took to writing to U.S. newspapers - The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post - assailing the U.S. Census Bureau for not adequately counting them, in part because they had this now one select question that went to only 10 percent of households in the United States.

And even when it went out there, it wasn't in Spanish. And they hadn't really mobilized a publicity campaign to actually teach people that, hey, there's this question that's about you that's incredibly important that's going to be connected to political representation and all ways that we see you.

MERAJI: And then by 1980, the term Hispanic shows up for the first time on a census form. And I would love for you to take us into the behind-the-scenes fights that led to that.

MORA: (Laughter) Well, there were several. So the first fights - so right after the '70 count, when Latino organizations from Los Angeles to D.C. to New York start arguing that there was a huge undercount, they get the ear, really, of the Nixon administration. And one wouldn't necessarily think of Nixon as a champion of Latino rights or Latino identity. But Nixon was open to hearing Latino concerns, in some part because Nixon had grown up in Southern California. He had grown up in a context where he knew Mexican-Americans existed, one.

MERAJI: Right.

MORA: And they were different - their lives were different; their experiences were different from whites.

But also, too, Nixon was a savvy political campaigner. In 1972, he created the first comprehensive Latino vote political campaigns at the presidential level that the country had ever seen.

MERAJI: I had no idea.

MORA: Yeah. Nixon had what he called amigo buses that roamed around the Southwest but also the Northeast and into Florida. And on these amigo buses, those that roamed on the East Coast played salsa and cumbia. And those that roamed in the Southwest played mariachi. This was before the Democratic Party did anything close to this.


MORA: And the Census Bureau - they're pressured by the Nixon administration to let in and create now this new advisory board comprised of the Mexicans and the Puerto Ricans, that were incredibly loud, and also some Cuban sympathizers that had been big contributors to Nixon. One of the biggest points of debate is, what would this group be called?

MERAJI: Right.

MORA: Some of the Spanish-origin advisory members said, hey, why not use brown? We don't fit into these white, black, Asian categories. That's not us. Now, if you're a demographer, if you're a statistician, that seems like an incredible nightmare. You know, brown can mean Filipinos. Brown can be Native Americans. Brown can be South Asian Indians.

This was a complete non-starter. It seemed like a headache more than anything, so they went down the list. Latin American - one of the problems with Latino politics is that they were seen as foreigners, that Latinos were seen as invaders and not inherently American...

MERAJI: Right.

MORA: ...And that one of their jobs was to really show that they were an American Hispanic constituency - that they were an American minority group, like African-Americans, a minority that stretched from coast to coast and that were patriotic, that fought in wars, that contributed to American history, that built American cities.

And so when a term like Latin American was used, right away, it seemed to strike discord because it was seen as too foreign. Latino itself was closely seen as too close to Latin American and also too close to the word Latin. Hispanic was never a term that everybody loved (laughter), but it was a term that got a lot of support from within Latinos in the Nixon and, later, the Ford administration.

MERAJI: How did they make it stick?

MORA: Yeah. So the Census director literally picked up two phones. He called all the Latino advocacy groups that were being set up in Washington, D.C., at that time.

MERAJI: What year is this?

MORA: 1976, 1977.


MORA: They picked up the phone, then they called the National Council of La Raza; they called the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and said help. This is the category that we have. Can you help us promote it? And promote it, they did. NCLR by itself set up town halls in places like Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, showing people the new census form and telling them, look, we're Hispanic. This is us. This is our chance. This is our category.

The second phone the Census director picked up was to Spanish-language media. At that time, the company that would later go on to be called Univision was growing rapidly. By 1980, they had television stations or relay stations in most major U.S. markets. They ran documentaries, commercials, even a day-long telethon, where different performers from across Latin America came out. Each of them held out the census form and says, hey, remember to fill out the census. We're Hispanic on the 1980 census. This is important for us.

MERAJI: But we spent a lot of time talking about how Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans really wanted to be seen as distinct. And then, you know, you have this megaphone of Univision and you have these grassroots groups out there saying, no, but you're - we're together. We're doing this together now. And we're being called something you've never heard of before. It's Hispanic.

MORA: (Laughter).

MERAJI: How successful was that?

MORA: Well, certainly, there wasn't as much of an undercount in 1980 as there was in 1970. The number of Latinos grew exponentially. And years later, we figured out that it wasn't because people had babies. It's just 'cause we counted them much better. All of the attention going out did bring people out to fill out the forms, for sure.

MERAJI: How did we get from exponential growth to me saying I'm a Latina?

MORA: (Laughter) 'Cause it takes on a life of its own. Once the category was made, everything from political groups to civic organizations to every other media group that would emerge, Spanish-language media group that emerged, would all use and draw on census data. As soon as the census numbers came out, Latino lobby groups could then run the numbers and say, look - this is what Latino poverty looks like; this is what Latino educational attainment looks like.

And they could go up to the Department of Education, for example, and say, Latinos are the second-largest minority group. And yet, look, our educational attainment pales that of whites, you know. Send money to our schools. You know, we demand money for these things. Right? The same exact thing happened in the market. As soon as the numbers came out, Univision releases the first Hispanic marketing manual in which they take figures like income and they call it Hispanic buying power. And they take the census report, and they go and they make pitches to McDonald's and Kellogg's and everybody else. And they start to slowly grow.

During the 1980s, Latino political organizations started to then demand that not only should we have a Hispanic category in the census but we damn well should have it on birth certificates. Michigan, Georgia, Louisiana - they still categorize Latinos as whites. And there was a large political push amongst these groups with even Spanish-language media writing to them and saying, look, put us down as Latinos. We're not white. We're distinct. We're different.

MERAJI: Thank you so much.

MORA: Oh, thank you. This has been great fun.

MERAJI: Oh, my gosh. This is fascinating. I could talk to you for hours about this.

MORA: (Laughter) Thank you.

DEMBY: That was Cristina Mora, the author of "Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, And Media Constructed A New American."

And joining us now is CODE SWITCH alum and my former cubicle neighbor Hansi Lo Wang. He reports on demographics for NPR. What's good H.L. Dubs (ph)?

WANG: Nothing much. How are you?

DEMBY: I'm good. Welcome to the show finally.

WANG: Thank you for having me on.

DEMBY: We just heard how the census helped create this panethnic Latinx identity. But one thing that Shereen and Cristina didn't talk about was how the Hispanic question on the census is different from the race question. Right?

WANG: Right. These are two separate questions. For example, in the 2010 census questionnaire, before a question about a person's race, there's a question asking - is this person of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin? And in 2010, the responses were, for example - no, not of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin; yes, Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano; or yes, Puerto Rican; or yes, Cuban; or yes, another Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin group. And then you're asked about your race.

DEMBY: That sounds like it would be confusing. Like, they ask you all these other questions and then say oh, by the way, what's your race?

WANG: Well, that's what census researchers have concluded because back in 2000 and in 2010, the third-largest racial group after white and black/African-American was some other race.

DEMBY: Right.

WANG: So a big question mark. And the Census Bureau's research shows that some other race was predominately selected by Latinos. They conclude that Latinos were not seeing themselves reflected in the way they were asking about race. And researchers found out that this also applied to Afro-Caribbean, Middle Eastern and North African groups.

DEMBY: I remember a few years ago, I wrote a piece for the CODE SWITCH blog about how activists were pushing to change that for the 2020 count.

WANG: Yes. There have been a lot of efforts to try to see if there's a way to ask these questions so that people respond in a way that we can collect more accurate race-ethnicity data. And so the researchers at the census bureau - back in February, they released this report saying that they are proposing, for the 2020 census, a combined question, where they ask for a person's race and ethnicity in one question. And that Hispanic, Latino or Spanish - that group would be listed equally as an answer alongside white, black, Asian, American Indian, for example.

DEMBY: We're also going to find out if there will be a new category for Middle Eastern or North African folks, called MENA. Right?

WANG: Yeah, that's also on the table. And the timing, speaking to a lot of advocates within the MENA community, they say it's not ideal. We are in the Trump administration, and there has been a lot of increased rhetoric against the Muslim community. Many MENA folks are part of that community. And people are wondering, let's say we do get this new race-ethnicity category added onto the census form and to other federal surveys. Will people actually identify as MENA?

DEMBY: Right.

WANG: And also, if they do, the question is, how will the federal government use this information? And one thing to keep in mind is that census data - all information collected by the Census Bureau is protected under what's called Title 13 of the U.S. Code. Part of it says, quote, "personal information cannot be used against respondents by any government agency or court." There's also a history of census data being used, for example, to set up internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II. So there's also a perception problem.

Now, one interesting thing is that many people who identify as MENA historically have checked off white on the census. And census research shows that when you add a MENA category, actually, you see fewer people responding as white and more people responding as black and Hispanic.

DEMBY: Why would a MENA category mean that more people identify as black and Hispanic?

WANG: Well, the Census Bureau - their research doesn't get into that, so we don't know for sure.

DEMBY: Interesting. OK. So when will we, like, know how this stuff is resolved on the form?

WANG: Well, first we're going to wait to see when these new federal standards on race and ethnicity come out. And it is expected by the end of this year. They may not change anything, but we'll see. And then we'll find out what the possible questions are for the 2020 census next spring, which is when they're due to Congress.

DEMBY: Hansi Lo Wang is a correspondent who covers demographics for NPR. Thank you, homie. Appreciate you.

WANG: Thank you.


MERAJI: That's it for this episode of census watch 2020, aka CODE SWITCH. We're going to bring you more census stories leading up to the decennial count. So let us know what else you want to hear about race, representation and the U.S. census.

DEMBY: Email us at You can tweet at us. We're @nprcodeswitch. And subscribe to the podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found or streamed.

MERAJI: Maria Paz Gutierrez, Walter Ray Watson and I produced this episode.

DEMBY: What?

MERAJI: We had original music by Ramtin Arablouei.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Kat Chow, Leah Donnella, Adrian Florido, Karen Grigsby Bates and our intern, Aleli May Vuelta.

MERAJI: Sami Yenigun edited this episode.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Morarji.

DEMBY: Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.


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