Code Switch Census Watch 2020 We've said it before: The U.S. Census is way more than cold, hard data. It informs what we call ourselves and how we're represented. On this episode, we explore the controversial citizenship question that the Trump administration added to the 2020 census. We also talk about how the U.S. Census helped create the 'Hispanic' label.
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Code Switch Census Watch 2020

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Code Switch Census Watch 2020

Code Switch Census Watch 2020

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The U.S. census is so much more than data. It's about what we call ourselves, how we see ourselves and how we're represented.


Some people would argue that the census is the most important data set in American life because it affects everything from education to transportation.

MERAJI: And let's add one more huge thing that rhymes - political representation. It determines how voting districts get drawn and how many congressional representatives you have.

DEMBY: And housing segregation and everything. And an undercount of vulnerable populations - people like recent immigrants, poor people, people of color - that would mean that they'd have even less of a voice. It also means that hundreds of billions of dollars in federal funding wouldn't be distributed fairly. The census is not just about numbers. It's about power.

MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And if you think you're having deja vu, like you've heard this spiel before on the show, well, you kind of have. And you'll probably hear it a few more times leading up to the big 2020 census count because this is a big deal.

DEMBY: Such a big deal. So we've got some census updates for y'all on this episode. There have been a couple changes to the race and ethnicity question. We'll talk about those. We're also going to talk about the controversial citizenship question that was recently added by the Trump administration. Here's White House press secretary Sarah Sanders.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: We've contained this question that's provided data that's necessary for the Department of Justice to protect voters specifically to help us better comply with the Voting Rights Act.

MERAJI: The Trump administration's using the Voting Rights Act to justify its addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 count. But Terri Ann Lowenthal, as census expert and former staff director of the House census oversight subcommittee - she believes the citizenship question will do more harm than good. Here she is at a recent panel at Georgetown Law School.


TERRI ANN LOWENTHAL: There is a palpable climate of fear in many communities now. And anti-immigrant rhetoric and stepped-up federal law enforcement activities have driven millions of people - immigrants - into the shadows. They're skeptical that their census responses will be kept confidential and not used to harm them or their families, no matter what the law says.

MERAJI: More on that in a couple minutes. We're also going to revisit our interview about how the census is partly responsible for getting those of us from the Latin American diaspora to use one panethnic label here in the U.S. Whether you call yourself Latinx, Hispanic, Latina or Latino, the census definitely played a role.

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: Not true, argues Cristina Mora, who you just heard, in her book "Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats And Media Constructed A New American."

MERAJI: See, we told you the census had power.

DEMBY: So much power.

MERAJI: And here to help us make sense of all of this is NPR's resident census expert, correspondent Hansi Lo Wang. Hey, Hansi.

DEMBY: What's good, H.L. Dubs (ph)?

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Nothing much. Thanks for having me on.

DEMBY: All right, Hansi, so there's a new question about citizenship that has been added to the 2020 census form. Can you tell us about it a little bit?

WANG: Sure. This question specifically asks, is this person a citizen of the United States? And you can answer no, of course, not a U.S. citizen. Or if you're answering yes, then you specify born in the U.S., born in Puerto Rico or in any other territories, born abroad of U.S. citizen parents or you're a U.S. citizen by naturalization, and you print the year of your naturalization.

MERAJI: There have been a lot of critics within the census and outside of the census who say that this is not a good question to be asking on the 2020 census. Why?

WANG: One main reason is that Census Bureau research has showed that asking specifically about citizenship really could discourage participation rates amongst immigrant communities and communities of color, where this is a very sensitive topic. Part of that is because the Census Bureau has not asked about citizenship of all U.S. households since 1950. And the other part of it is this current political climate, where because there is a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric, because of the increased immigration enforcement under the Trump administration, a lot of immigrant advocates, a lot of civil rights advocates are really worried that adding this question is kind of like throwing a bomb in the room. There already has been, over the past recent decades, a growing reluctance amongst all U.S. households, regardless of immigration status, of participating in the census, of giving up private information. And people are really skeptical. They forget that this is a constitutional requirement. But this is all being prompted because of a Justice Department request. The Justice Department says it needs a better count of U.S. citizens - and specifically, U.S. citizens who are old enough to vote - in order for the Justice Department to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, and specifically, Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which has provisions to prevent racial discrimination and discrimination against language minorities.

MERAJI: So the argument for doing it is so that the government can enforce the Voting Rights Act with a better count, but the argument against it is that people won't actually participate in the census because they'll be afraid for some reason, so there won't be a good count if people don't show up and participate.

WANG: Right. By adding this citizenship question - and this is the argument from more than two dozen states and cities around the country, including some individuals in Arizona, as well as in Maryland. They're saying that the federal government is undermining its constitutional responsibility. It is in the Constitution - one of the very few requirements - to do a head count every 10 years of every person living in the country regardless of citizenship, regardless of immigration status, and those numbers are used to reapportion seats in Congress. It also helps determine how legislative districts are drawn from the federal all the way down to the local level, as well as how the federal government distributes an estimated $800 billion a year in federal funds.

And it's important to point out that the concern is not just about unauthorized immigrants not participating. The concern is also that there could be ripple effects, that there are so many mixed-status families around the country that if you have someone who is unauthorized - who is an unauthorized immigrant in your family or just living in your household, you as a green card holder - or even as a U.S. citizen - may fear participating because you don't want to just be on the radar.

DEMBY: So Hansi, I mean, that sounds like a really hard decision to have to make. Have you spoken to anyone who's been wrestling with that question?

WANG: Well, right now, they're testing out the 2020 census in Rhode Island's Providence County. This questionnaire does not have the citizenship question because it was such a last-minute addition, but people are definitely talking about what to do when it lands in their mailbox. I went up to Central Falls, R.I., a very small town just outside of Providence - predominately Latino. And I was there with our colleague Marisa Penaloza, and we spoke to a number of undocumented folks who really were concerned about what to do with this census form.

One undocumented immigrant told us, you know, he lives in an apartment with three other undocumented folks, and they received this questionnaire in their mailbox, and they didn't really want to participate because they weren't sure if participating would get them on the radar of immigration enforcement. And then two follow-up letters came, and one of them decided, OK, we have to decide what to do with this. We have to hold a vote.


WANG: And ultimately, they voted to fill it out. And the guy we talked to said, you know, one of the main reasons is they were trying to avoid having someone come to their apartment, knocking on their door. But we've also talked to other undocumented folks in Central Falls who've said they're not going to participate. And it's important to remember that federal law prohibits the Census Bureau from releasing any information it collects that would identify an individual, and that includes to other federal agencies, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE. However, the Census Bureau can release information data about specific population groups that, you know, wouldn't include any names, but...

DEMBY: But you would know, if you were one of those agencies, where to go, right?

WANG: That's the concern because that data can be released down to the neighborhood level. And that's the type of data that was released during World War II, and it helped the federal government to locate American citizens of Japanese descent in order to form incarceration camps.


WANG: That's the fear.

DEMBY: Hansi, so what else is going to be new in the 2020 census form?

WANG: Well, there are some interesting changes to the race question. Underneath the boxes for white and black, for the first time, there is going to be write-in areas, and people participating in the census will be asked - who check off white or black - to write in their non-Hispanic origins. And some of the examples you'll see on the form will be, you know, German or Irish, Jamaican to allow people to more fully represent themselves as they answer this race question. Another change to the black category - back in 2010, the full name for the black box was black, African-American or Negro.

DEMBY: Negro. Yes, I remember this. Yeah.

WANG: A lot of controversy there.


WANG: And because of the reaction after their 2010 forms came out, the Census Bureau announced that they will not be using that term anymore. And so this will be the first Census form since 2010 that you won't see Negro.

MERAJI: So these are the things that have changed. These are the things that are new. And what I didn't hear was anything about a Middle East, North African category or about changing the Latino question to make it more of a race. Those are things that we talked about last time we had you on the show. What's going on with those two things?

WANG: Well, the White House's Office of Management and Budget has not issued a decision about proposals to change the federal standards for race and ethnicity data. So this is not completely in the hands of the Census Bureau. Currently, the standards say that Hispanic or Latino origins must be asked as a separate question, as an ethnicity, to allow Latinx people to identify their race. And there was a proposal to change that because the way we currently ask about race and ethnicity is really a two-part question. You know, the first part is, is a person of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin? And then the second question is, what is this person's race? And that setup has in recent years confused a lot of people, so much so that the third-largest racial category based on 2000 and 2010 Census data - do you know what the name of this group is?

DEMBY: Some other race.

WANG: How did you know that?

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: I wrote an essay a couple years ago back when you were still on our team.

WANG: Of course you knew that. But, you know, if we weren't on this beat, I wouldn't have known about this.


WANG: ...Called some other race.

DEMBY: Surprising, yeah.

WANG: It becomes, really, a statistical nightmare...

DEMBY: Right.

WANG: ...When the vast majority of folks who are checking some other race identify as Hispanic or Latino. And the other change would've been creating a new category specifically for people of Middle Eastern or North African descent who are currently - based on the current standards, they're currently categorized as white.

DEMBY: Right. Last week, we were doing an episode on Muslims. One of the things that came up in the census data that was really interesting about what Muslims look like is that there's no group that is the majority of Muslims, but the single biggest plurality of Muslims in America are white. But, of course, we are counting in that category people who don't live their lives as white.

WANG: Right. And, of course, also important to point out not everyone who is Muslim is a Middle Eastern or of North African descent or in vice versa.

DEMBY: Exactly.

MERAJI: So are we to assume that we're not going to see these changes on the 2020 census, most likely?

WANG: You know, there is a history of last-minute changes to the census questionnaire.

DEMBY: Does that freak the census people out?

MERAJI: So don't assume.

WANG: Do not assume. In fact, the Hispanic-origin question was a last-minute addition.

DEMBY: Oh, really?

MERAJI: And we're going to hear more about that after the break.


WANG: Segue.

DEMBY: Thank you, homie. Appreciate you.

WANG: You're welcome.

DEMBY: Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH. All right, Shereen, let's get right into your interview with the author of "Making Hispanics."

MERAJI: I'll let her introduce herself.

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


MORA: Thank you.

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. 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 that 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 used 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, that the 1970 decennial census count 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 Educational 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 the 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 is 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'd grown up in a context where he knew Mexican-Americans existed, one, 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? 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 nonstarter. 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, 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 stretch 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 America and also too close to the word Latin. Hispanic was never a term that everybody loved, 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 daylong 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 grass-roots 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. 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 because 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) Because 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 emerge - 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 on the census, but we damn well should have it on birth certificates. Michigan, Georgia, Louisiana - they still categorized 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.


CELIA CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

DEMBY: All right, kinfolk. That is our show. Email us at You can tweet at us. We're @NPRCodeSwitch - all one word. Subscribe to the podcast wherever fun podcasts can be found or streamed. And subscribe to our newsletter at

MERAJI: And since some of you have been complaining that we're not ending with songs giving us life anymore, I figured I'd play the song that I've been playing on repeat, "Azucar Negra" by Celia Cruz - the late, great...


CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: ...Afro-Cubana, Celia Cruz.

DEMBY: Black sugar. Yes.

MERAJI: Also, I think it kind of works with the theme of the conversation we just had with Cristina Mora.

DEMBY: How - explain.

MERAJI: Because you remember, she was talking about these caravans that would go and try and get Latinos to vote that Nixon sent out. And they would blast, like, salsa if it was in Miami.

DEMBY: Right. Right.

MERAJI: ...You know, cumbia or, you know, Tejano music if it was in the Southwest. So I'm imagining, you know, Celia Cruz blasting out...

DEMBY: Of a van.

MERAJI: ...Of one of these - yeah, one of these vans.


CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

MERAJI: Maria Paz Gutierrez and Kumari Devarajan produced this episode. It was edited by Leah Donnella and Sami Yenigun.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Kat Chow, Adrian Florido, Karen Grigsby Bates, Walter Ray Watson and Steve Drummond. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.


CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).

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