Friday, April 16, 2010

Latinas/os and the Politics of the U.S. Census

By now, everyone knows the Census is taking place. This exercise, undertaken every decade, helps to determine the allocation of federal funding and political representation over the next 10 years. Therefore, the stakes are extremely high—or so goes the conventional wisdom.

Defying this wisdom, some immigrant rights activists are calling upon Latinas/os to boycott this year’s Census. This call argues that the Census promises resources that ultimately fail to materialize. It is an exercise that amounts to a hoax because it promises much but fails to deliver most of it. It breeds complacency where outrage should mushroom.

Meanwhile, mainstream Latina/o groups are conducting a multimedia campaign to convince young Latinas/os to participate actively in the Census. Relying on technologies like texting, this campaign argues that the Census does indeed provide an opportunity to fight for the right to live with dignity in our own communities. The benefits, pro-Census commentators argue, outweigh any other concern.

All of this brouhaha overlooks the fact that this year’s Census reshuffles the “Hispanic” category in ever-more mystifying ways. Rather than considering Hispanic (or Latina/o) to be a racial category, this year’s Census asks Latinas/os to identify racially either as white, black, white, American-Indian or Asian/Pacific Islander. Thus, this year’s Census considers Chinese, Filipino and Korean to be racial categories but noT Hispanic or Latina/o. Can anyone figure this one out?

Of course, you may recall that ten years ago the big controversy was the multi-racial and bi-racial questions … questions now gone. In addition, you may recall that Latina/o demographics also was a big question last time – as was the controversy over the counting of same-sex couples and their families. After all, if the idea is to be counted so that everyone gets a fair share of the pie, then why not count seriously, right? But this category confusion illustrates yet again the continuing incoherence of “race” or “ethnicity” as meaningful sociolegal concepts, and thereby also raises a very serious question regarding the debate whether to the boycott or not: Given this extreme and volatile category confusion, can the Census really even begin to establish an accurate and reliable portrait of the nation? When the questions are so incoherent, can the results be any better? Is this a case of trash in, trash out?

What do you think? Is the Census worth it? What is your experience – and what about all that nonsense regarding identities and categories...where do you stand?

Frank Valdes

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