Download an MP3 of this episode here.
In this episode of Who Belongs? we discuss the topic of the US Census with Professor Michael Omi, who is an affiliated faculty member of our Institute, author of Racial Formation in the United States, and one of only a handful of experts on the US Census. Stephen Menendian, who is the assistant director and director of research at the Haas Institute, served as guest host for this episode.
Subscribe to Who Belongs? on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify, Stitcher, and anywhere else podcasts are found to keep up with future episodes of the show.
Michael Omi: Even though there's been this claim on the part of the Census Bureau that those records are confidential and that are not shared with other federal agencies for enforcement efforts, nonetheless those suspicions run really deep.
Marc Abizeid: Hello, and welcome to Who Belongs, our Haas Institute podcast. My name is Marc Abizeid, one of the hosts. Today we have another special episode, produced in collaboration with the Civic Engagement Narrative Change project here at the Haas Institute. Today's topic, the census: Why it's been in the news, what's the controversy over, and what do we need to know? To discuss this topic we're privileged to have with us Professor
Michael Omi from the Ethnic Studies Department, who is an affiliated faculty member of our institute, a former associate director of our institute, the author of Racial Formation in the United States, and one of only a handful of experts on the US Census.
Marc Abizeid: To facilitate the discussion will beStephen Menendian, who is the assistant director and director of research here at the Haas Institute and lead author on a series of briefs on residential racial segregation in the Bay Area. Welcome, both. Stephen, I'll hand it over to you now to launch into this discussion.
Stephen Menendian: Thanks, Marc. It's great to have Michael here. Michael, how are you?
Michael Omi: Doing reasonably well for a late in the afternoon.
Stephen Menendian: Well, I'm glad we could find a time to meet and discuss this really important topic. Let's just begin. Michael, what are the stakes?
Michael Omi: I mean, there's a lot of stakes. Certainly, as you know, the census is not only providing a form of a collective portrait of who we are as a people, but obviously with the census itself too... It's direct political apportionment. After the 1910 census the House of Representatives was capped at 435. So, now it becomes that the states are engaged in a zero sum game. One state's gain is another state's loss in terms of the apportioning the seats for the House of Representatives. Also, of course what's at stake is the billions of dollars in federal grants, which are awarded to states. Much of, like I think almost half, of the federal dollars that California receives in many respects come through the census numbers. Undercounts for states which has large populations, which have traditionally been undercounted, risk losing a whole host of resources, as well as potentially political appointments.
Stephen Menendian: So the stakes are political, but they're also financial. One of the challenges for us here in California is we tend to pay even more to the federal government than we get in return. Apportionment obviously makes it a big deal in terms of that. Just to put some dollar figures to these amounts. Before the 2010 Census, the estimate was that over $500 billion a year are apportioned from the federal government to the states that have some degree of dependence or conditionality on the census. The more recent estimate is $800 billion annually, which just shows you the magnitude and scale of the significance of the census in terms of apportioning money into sort of apportion that among particular programs, almost 60% of Medicaid funding. It depends on census counts. Large portions of, for example, the Childhood Insurance Program (CHIP), federal funding for adoption assistance, but also as you mentioned, infrastructure and roads and housing grants, and a huge chunk of Title I money which is the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act money that goes to school districts from the federal government.
Stephen Menendian: About 10% of local funding for schools comes from the ESCA. That is a portion based on census count. So we're talking literally hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Michael, what does that mean for marginalized communities who may be at risk of undercount?
Michael Omi: Well, what it means is obviously, the census has always had a difficult problem addressing many of these marginalized communities about the numbers. Many of it has employed a public relations campaign that greet the beginning of the census to get people to fill it out. But there's also another concern here and I suppose we're going to go more deeply into the question around the proposed citizenship question which Wilbur Ross and the Commerce Department would like to see on Census 2020, as to whether or not that will have a chilling effect on particularly those communities, immigrant communities. Many households are multi and have significant immigrant populations, but certainly also the undocumented population as well.
Michael Omi: Even though there's been this claim on the part of the Census Bureau that those records are confidential, and that are not shared with other federal agencies for enforcement efforts. Nonetheless, those suspicions run really deep. And in fact, the census has in fact, gone against that confidentiality before in the past. When Ken Prewitt who was the Director of Census 2000 came in, he had to issue an apology for in fact the census giving away information about Japanese Americans at the beginning of World War II, which was used, in fact to figure out where Japanese Americans were for the evacuation and incarceration orders, and the internment. And so now we have in somewhat almost 60 years later, Ken Prewitt has to apologize for that lapse. But nonetheless, the lapse occurred and I'm sure it resonates with other people who feel themselves to be of a vulnerable population that maybe it's not so great to cooperate with the census.
Stephen Menendian: Well, just starting a topic on your remarks there, part of the challenge with conducting the census is that only about two thirds of Americans actually respond to the census form. But that two thirds is really uneven. The harder-to-count communities tend to have disproportionate numbers, as you said, of undocumented people, of homeless people, and they tend to be more marginalized communities. So what that means is that in the more affluent communities, you get a really precise, strong count, and then in the more marginalized communities who really need the resources of the federal government and the states, there's an undercount. And so we have to put really tens of millions of dollars in outreach. Now this decennial census there's going to be less prep work spent. I'm going to ask you about that in a moment. But I did want to just make a couple of notes about the privacy side of this.
Stephen Menendian: Part of what we're trying to do is emphasize how important the census is to our partners and the communities that we work with. Just to underscore this, the federal government places $250,000 fine and up to five years in jail for anyone who violates Census Privacy law. They will enforce that. They take the protection of privacy very seriously.
Stephen Menendian: The census also, for researchers like us, it keeps the census records public up to, I think it's 70 or 80 years. So the most recent decennial census that has become fully public is the 1940 census, and it really permitted some really interesting social science research... we can talk in a little bit. But I just wanted to show people that it really is protected. There are social scientists who can get access to restricted census data, but you have to go through a real process to do that. Any thoughts?
Michael Omi: No, it's just that yes, you know, those things are in place. It's been made pretty explicit. But nonetheless, there's this knowing suspicion on the part as well, you might imagine among those communities who are very marginalized as to whether or not those safeguards are sufficiently in place. And whether or not this data is not going to be turned over to ICE or some other sort of enforcement agencies in order to locate and target certain population groups.
Stephen Menendian: Let's home in on this citizenship question then which you've raised and has become really a focal point of the debate for the 2020 Census. I think we probably all agree that the insertion of the question was politically motivated.
Michael Omi: Absolutely.
Stephen Menendian: You agree with that. There's been for really the last since ... I'd say the late 1990s, if not the mid 2000s, this dual push. In the voting context, there's been the states who have been pushing these more restrictive voter IDs, and ostensibly to make sure there's no voter fraud. And there's been a parallel push in terms of the census that we are now seeing with respect to this question. Just so folks know, the case that we're talking about is called Department of Commerce v. New York, which is now under review by the United States Supreme Court. Oral argument in the cases in April 23rd, and there are three questions that are actually being heard by the court, one of which was just heard recently. But the core issue is whether the insertion of this question by Secretary Ross, as to whether you should identify your citizenship is part of the ... is a legitimate and appropriate question. Both whether it followed federal law, but more recently, California has said it actually violates the enumeration clause of the Constitution, Article One, Section Two, which says that the federal government has to get an actual account.
Stephen Menendian: And so the claim there is that by asking people, whether their citizens, as you said, they'll dissuade people from filling out the form out of fear, and therefore fail to get an actual count. One of the issues is whether the courts should subpoena the secretary and interview him about what his motivations were. What are your thoughts on that?
Michael Omi: Well I mean, it was really clear. I mean, it was sort of a very thin subterfuge to make some claims that the citizenship question would enhance aspects of data collection to enforce the Voting Rights Act, in some ways. Where it was clear from earlier conversations that Secretary Ross had with Steve Bannon, among others-
Stephen Menendian: And Stephen Miller.
Michael Omi: ... and Miller to in fact, think about how to shift these things around for political reapportionment debates, and how it would impact those in a negative way. There's another aspect of this too, which is, of course, really it reflects back on trying to get this national portrait of who we are. In many respects, we're been moving and there's a lot of talk about our motion towards a "majority-minority society" and what those numbers mean, and how people perceive them. And the ways that gets read in the popular media and social media-
Stephen Menendian: The fears and anxiety.
Michael Omi: The fears and anxiety about white minoritization. I was just reading about the shooter in New Zealand. In part of his document, he talks about, particularly at the opening, about replacement.
Stephen Menendian: Replacement theory.
Michael Omi: Replaced theory, which of course we've heard in the march of Charlottesville and other places about diminishing rates of whites in the United States. If in fact, non-whites come to become the numerical majority or whether or not they become dominant in other sectors of our society. I think there's a lot of anxiety with respect to that.
Stephen Menendian: What do you see as some of the demographic trends that will be revealed in the 2020 Census?
Michael Omi: You know, that's a terrific question. I'm not sure I have a terrific answer with respect to that. I mean, I'm sure we'll see this tremendous growth, particularly among the Latinx and Asian population. A real diminishment in certain core states of the white population, but much of that might be uneven. It's not clear, for example, that the way California goes, or the way New York goes is the way the nation goes as a whole. We may be seeing, in fact, spatially how this gets played out in very different ways in the Midwest, and in the South, for example. And so there'll be incredible source of regional variation with respect to shifting racial and ethnic demographics as well.
Stephen Menendian: It's really interesting. Studying racial segregation of late, you really see differential patterns of racial subgroup change. In California, Asian Americans are potentially on track to become not just the plurality, but potentially even a majority in one of the next few decennial census. Michael, I wanted to shift though, to talk about some of the politics of the census. There is an impulse, for example, if you look at France, or Brazil, this antipathy towards looking at racial demographics. Do you see that as an expression of color blindness? If so, what would those arguments mean for American society?
Michael Omi: Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, in France, the French censuses do not code by race and ethnicity. But in fact, they offer us a good model of that... If we didn't ask the questions, it doesn't mean that there's not racial problems going on, which they are indeed, in France. But in the United States, particularly in the post-civil rights era, there's been a concerted push for the government to step away from sort of color consciousness, if you will, which could be reflected in the categories and enumeration for the census. There's a belief that the transition to truly a colorblind society means that we should get rid of that sort of racial record keeping and data collection. There's been attempts in the state of California and in 2003, Ward Connolly, an Ex-UC Regent, as well as the architect of Proposition 209, the anti affirmative action measure...
Stephen Menendian: And anti-affirmative action measures in a number of states ...
Michael Omi: Michigan's Proposal 2, propose the ratio privacy initiative, which would make the California Constitution not be able to count or classified by race, for educational purposes, for different sorts of tracking around research and hiring practices. It was reflective of that. I mean, Connolly himself believe that the creation of a colorblind line society means we should step away from racial classification. In fact, if you read some of the voter pamphlets of the time, which he authored, as well as his own editorials on the subject, it made it seem as though he talks about how racial categories were used to buttress racially based slavery, exclusion laws, anti miscegeny laws. What's a failure on that part is, of course, to see those categories being used in a pre-civil rights period, which were used to disenfranchise or oppress minority communities, as opposed to the way that data was used in a post-civil rights context, in which folks were trying to think about the patterns of institutional forms of inequality or discrimination, access to healthcare, incarceration rates...
Stephen Menendian: Employment, educational attainment.
Michael Omi: Employment, yeah. Residentially based segregation.
Stephen Menendian: That's the issue that actually terrifies me the most. There is a federal analog to the proposal that was put on the California ballot initiative -- which failed thankfully -- which was in 2010. Senator Ted Cruz from Texas, who recently ran against Beto O'Rourke had proposed that the census be two questions as opposed to the 10 questions that were on the 2010 Census. None of them would have collected racial information, or ethnic information, which means that for someone who wants to be able to map segregation, and rely on the census, or the American Community Survey, which is a regularly annual survey subset of the census, you just couldn't do it. The only way you could get that data is if a private organization were to spend millions of dollars, perhaps tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars in a limited number of metropolitan areas to generate that info, and it wouldn't be nearly as precise as the census. I think what you're saying is, yes, race can be used for malicious and nefarious purposes, but it's also how we measure racial inequality.
Michael Omi: Absolutely. Due to that there's been other things. Marco Rubio and Mike Lee had a bill that prohibited around data collection, or geospatial mapping around access to affordable housing and discriminatory trends. What's interesting about something like that, it's almost ... The analogy here is about climate change data. It's almost like we can negate that we're in the midst of global climactic change-
Stephen Menendian: If we just don't measure it.
Michael Omi: ... if we just don't measure it. If we get rid of the data. In the same token, it's almost as if we can paper over any sort of glaring egregious forms of housing segregation or racially restrictive housing, zoning laws, by in fact, just don't have the data.
Stephen Menendian: That really serves a colorblindness ideology, which when you think about it in those terms, is unmasked for what it is. It's about perpetuating and being okay with racial inequality, as opposed to actually understanding what the patterns are, and then figuring out what to do about it. Because if you don't know what the data says, you can't figure out what to do about it. I was just talking with our equity metrics team earlier. We rely heavily on census and ACS. Without that data, we wouldn't be able to look at relationships, as you we're saying between race and educational attainment, race and unemployment, race and health outcomes, you would rely on much spottier, much more inaccurate, secondary sources like Pew or major foundations who conduct one-off studies, as opposed to this really free data that we have at our hands now. Those proposals advance a colorblind ideology.
Michael Omi: Yes, they do. It's made more complex, by the way, because of the ways in which the census has been sort of primarily involved in helping us define what those racial groups were in the first place. We have a scenario where through much of the 20th century and most of the 21st century, almost no two censuses are utilizing the same set of racial categories or ways of measuring that. It's complicated by that, too. Although I've got to say, part of the challenge to these racial classifications is for people to say, "Oh, it's so flexible, so socially constructed, we should just get rid of it," and not being able to map that out.
Stephen Menendian: Can I ask you about that? What are some of the proposed changes? You've spoken quite a bit about what you had hoped was going to happen at 2020 Census with respect to racial and ethnic categories, and what isn't going to happen and what you hope will happen going forward?
Michael Omi: Well, what's interesting is that in 2017, the census folks released the results of a set of studies they were conducting. It's interesting too, by the way, let me say parenthetically here that the census does do a lot of social research. It looks at different formats for questions. It conducts individual and focus group interviews with people to try to align how people's understanding of their personal or group identities parallel some of the construction of these categories that are placed upon the census. What they released was something called these optimal elements of a census form, which I really thought was going to be our 2020 Census. The difference is instead of asking two questions, we ask a question about-
Stephen Menendian: Two race/ethnicity questions.
Michael Omi: ... questions. We ask a question about ethnicity. That's one, whether or not someone is Hispanic, Latinx or not? And the other is a race-based question. But that was going to be collapsed so that we would have one question and the "Latino, Hispanic, Latinx" category would be part of a race question. The other thing which it established was, in fact, open-ended boxes to write in, there ware check offs, but also open-end boxes, so that for the first time, whites could specify what ... They were are blacks, for example, African Americans could put down that they were Somali, or they were Jamaican, or whatever into the box. We didn't have that information, or that wasn't an available option in the past. And probably one of the most interesting one was finally the addition of a new category, the Middle Eastern and North African category, which was in fact, up until this time, people who are Egyptian, Iranian, and so forth, are seen as white, and it would allow them a separate, what is called the MENA category for that.
Michael Omi: I thought that's what was going to happen, pretty much so. But that's gotten derailed in this past ... over the course of the past year. And so pretty sure what's going to happen for 2020, I've seen some of the printed forms ready to go on this, it looks like we're back to the two question ethnicity race format, asking about Latinx identity first, and then the race question. But it will allow whites and blacks as well as other groups to fill in on a blank and specify who they are. But the other thing is that the Middle Eastern and North African category has disappeared. That will not appear on census 2020.
Stephen Menendian: Interesting. I know from doing segregation research, that it can become very difficult to talk about like, non-Hispanic white, Hispanic white, as a category, and then as an ethnic category, and then you have to think about ... And both of these, of course, are socially constructed. Who's to say that the census as you say sort of contribute in the social construction, at least historically, of these racial and ethnic categories?
Michael Omi: Well, it's important because in many ways the site is, the census rather, is a premier side of political contestation over what racial categories are, and are often the effects of demands being made from below for recognition or acknowledgement. And the census responding to that in some fashion, always it's throughout the decades, an interesting momentum. I mean in 1930, we had a Mexican ratio category, which disappeared because of the objection of Mexican Americans and also by the Mexican government intervening to not make Mexicans a racial category.
Stephen Menendian: Talk about some of the other interesting historical ... For example, the census having octoroon or these different ...
Michael Omi: Right. That's the other thing, is that the acknowledgement of "a mixed race or a multiracial identity" since for most of the census's history, it always assumed everybody has a model racial identity. Earlier on, however, in the 1890 census, for example, they do list mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon, in addition to in fact, white, black, Japanese, Chinese and Indian. But in fact, there's always ... It'd been impressed upon by census takers, and even in a period of self-report that you can only check one box. So even as late 1960s, census takers were told, of a person of white and nonwhite heritage, you're supposed to mark off that they're nonwhite. There was always this way in which a one drop-
Stephen Menendian: A deep line.
Michael Omi: ... of race was deployed with respect to that. What happened in anticipation of Census 2000, was that, particularly in the 80s, but deepening in the 90s, there were a number of organizations that wanted to add a multiracial, mixed race, check off to the census. Many of these came from movements and local school districts in which parents who have "mixed race children" wanted to be able ... for their children to be able to check off such a category. What's somewhat ironic about it is that when those proposals originally were heard, with respect to the Office of Management and Budget in the Commerce Department, that a number of the traditional civil rights organizations lined up against a separate multiracial category for fears of a diminishment in their numbers, as well as the complications that would pose for civil rights enforcement and compliance, if in fact, have you determine discrimination suits on the basis of a multiracial category.
Michael Omi: What was all about this to sum up a longer story, is finally the Office of Management and Budget made a call and didn't listen to either those groups. It didn't listen to the folks who wanted a multiracial category, and it certainly didn't listen to the large, traditional civil rights lobby as well. It said, "We're going to allow people to do multiple check offs," so now you could mark to a more. That leads to complications somewhat, in looking up the numbers. If one is black and Korean, they're assigned as part of the black population and as part of the Korean population in the United States.
Stephen Menendian: So you have to use a statistical technique to try and sort out the the subcategories?
Michael Omi: Absolutely. The census reports often say things like people checking one-off, one category, or in combination with others.
Stephen Menendian: Well, multiracial is one of the fastest growing groups in America and the number of children born today who have multiracial grandparents, one is dramatically growing, could be enormous with an incoming decades. But this isn't a new phenomenon. As you were just talking about with the octoroon and quadroon and so on. We've always had multiracial, we just found ways of socially repackaging that in different ways.
Michael Omi: Or not acknowledging as the case may be. I mean to think about that, as I said, as late as 1960s still, census takers were given specific instructions on how to code people racially.
Stephen Menendian: As we turn to the homestretch here, I wanted to just reemphasize a couple of, I think key points. One is that the Constitution in Article one, Section two requires an actual enumeration, which means that we need to know it's always counted everyone, including inside the 1790, which was the first decennial census, counted 4 million people, which included slaves and-
Michael Omi: Slaves well, but on the basis of the 1787, Three-Fifths Compromise, which was the compromise which was worked out that, in fact, slaves would count as three fifths of a person. That was done in order to appease folks in the South, with respect to a state apportionment to the House of Representatives, as well as for taxation purposes as well.
Stephen Menendian: Which I mean, today suggest that we need to uncount people who are undocumented, because they ... There was recently a symbolic vote in the Congress about whether people who are undocumented should be able to vote. Now, obviously, undocumented people can't vote in federal elections. But I don't know what you think about it Michael. But in my opinion, if you're undocumented, and you have your child in a school system, you should have every right to vote on the school board, which selects the curriculum, the pedagogy, shapes the educational experience, votes on budgets. To me that's just common sense, and that's why Californian senators voted against that. But there's a parallel which is ... The way that our bicameral legislature works is that states are represented by two senators. But the House of Representatives is representative of the people, including people who can't vote, which means minors and undocumented people. And that actually, we don't talk about it.
Stephen Menendian: But as you did mention the cap in the House of Representatives, it also plays a role in the Electoral College, because the Electoral College is 535. It's the House of Representatives plus the Senate. The people who get to vote, actually vote for president, not just the symbolic popular vote, are dependent upon representation.
Michael Omi: Absolutely, absolutely. That plays into this whole debate about how, in fact, it becomes such a zero-sum game for the states. That's why undercounts in certain key states where there's enormous or very large immigrant populations, it's really, it tips the balance. It would tip the balance enormously.
Stephen Menendian: And the stakes couldn't be higher. As I said earlier, hundreds of billions of dollars of federal funding, Brookings in 2010 counted over 250 federal programs, but who's funding depends on census counts.
Stephen Menendian: Michael, this has been a really fascinating conversation. As we wrap up, are there any other things, any other points you'd like to make or concern issues?
Michael Omi: Well, you may know more about this too, because this could be our first census which is actually done online, which raises a whole host of other questions about accessibility for a group [inaudible 00:30:59].
Stephen Menendian: There has been some discussions about whether some portion or part of the census should be conducted online. I mean, much like the debate over the ballot. The difference between the census and say, the ballot, is that ballots are actually determined by states. So there's a huge patchwork among the states, despite laws like the Help America Vote Act, which creates more federal funding. There are some parameters, but the census is federally administered by federal agency. I don't know how that's going to resolve, or that's going to play out, but certainly people have cause for concern, especially when we've seen how foreign entities have played a role in our elections.
Michael Omi: I think with this too, it's going to be very interesting about not only getting a "accurate count" but the census itself is far behind in where it should be in prep for 2020. If in fact, it becomes clear that it's a very unsuccessful census count and drive, I think there's going to be a lot of, once again, political cries to reshape how we do this. Folks who just want on the sheer numbers. On the back of a postcard, just check off, and we'll see how many people there are in the United States without looking at some very substantive categories we'd like to give us a much more fuller and robust demographic portrait of who we are as people.
Stephen Menendian: I'm one of those people who lamented the elimination of the long form in the 2010 Census, but I'm really happy that the ACS has picked that up which ... For those of you who don't know the long form, picked up socioeconomic information, so you wouldn't have data on economic inequality with respect to race. You could see what proportion of, say African Americans are upper income or not, and you could look at that at a fairly granular level.
Stephen Menendian: Without the census, states and private organizations would be doing this, but they wouldn't have the level of detail. You could look at a metro area, but you wouldn't necessarily have it at the level of the census tract, or even the census block group. What I want to close with though, Michael, just emphasizing the equity elements of this conversation, in the sense it seems like a really dry technical, federal program. But really, it's the fundamental instrument by which we measure equity. And without a census, we wouldn't be able to know, inequality on the basis of race or age and look at these different intersections. We would have some statistics like the Bureau of Labor Statistics collects unemployment by race, and we can look at that, but we wouldn't have nearly the degree of information we have now. I can't emphasize enough how important it is that we get a good count, especially of our marginalized populations for political power, and the Electoral College in the Congress, but also for all these federal programs that's really serve the most needy populations.
Michael Omi: Agreed.
Marc Abizeid: That wraps up this episode of Who Belongs. I'd like to thank our guests Michael Omi, professor in the ethnic studies department here at UC Berkeley. Professor Omi, he's also an affiliated faculty member of our institute, and the author of Racial Formation in the United States. I'd also like to thank our guest host today, Stephen Menendian, who is our assistant director and director of research here at the Haas Institute. Thank you for listening.