U.S. Census Data, Boycotts, and Empowering Voices of Color

I am a Latina sociologist- and activist-in training who has spent substantial time with scholars and activists studying U.S. Latina/o communities from both professional and personal viewpoints.  Some of my colleagues and I want to understand the complex experiences of Latina/os through data in order to enact and empower social change.  It is well known that U.S. Decennial Census is the mother-ship of all demographic databases regarding domestic population information; as such, social scientists, activists, and politicians are all eagerly anticipating the collection and release of updated data as 2010 approaches.

That said, chills flew up my spine as I read two articles focusing on a Latina/o boycott of the 2010 Decennial Census. The Wall Street Journal and Christianity Today both published articles highlighting an effort, led by a few Latino clergy-members, to increase the number of those committed to the boycott in order to persuade the current Administration and Congress to act toward comprehensive immigration reform and “injustices toward undocumented members of the Latino community.”  The estimated number of people committed to the boycott is apparently one million and growing.

I respect the right to boycott and I absolutely agree that comprehensive immigration reform and unjust acts toward the Latina/o community need to be addressed at the federal level. However, this particular boycott has the potential for dire consequences against the same Latina/o and immigrant community the boycott’s organizers intend to empower.

Following are three key reasons why the Latina/o population should participate in the Decennial Census:

Participation in the U.S. Census can provide a voice for the “voice-less.” The Decennial Census provides the most accurate pictorial snapshot of the United States’ demographic composition since everyone living within the country’s borders is constitutionally mandated to participate. Though the federal government’s relationship with people of color has both a historical and contemporary stain, the U.S. Census Bureau has only one interest: to count the population. Participation in the Census provides an opportunity for all individuals to be represented as part of the population. If someone chooses not to participate in the Decennial Census, they are both violating a constitutional mandate and are eluding an opportunity – perhaps their only “official” one – to represent their voice as an individual within our borders.

Anyone can use U.S. Census data … and the numbers are important! While the government uses Decennial Census data to, for example, align congressional districts and appropriate budgets, countless entities outside of the government also use the data. Non-profits, corporations, think-tanks, research institutes, universities, media outlets, and activists all rely on U.S. Census data to understand the population-groups within which and/or for whom they work. For example, the following questions could each be addressed using U.S. Census data regarding Latina/o populations: Where are such populations from? What is the average number of people living in a household? What is the average education-level for this population? How many people within this population live in poverty? Without U.S. Census information to answer such important questions – and many others – knowledge and activities of social scientists and activists may be stunted, aseducators, policy makers, and organizers each tap into their resources.  For example, nonprofits such as Sojourners consistently use U.S. Census data to understand the population demographics in the communities in which they educate, create policy, and organize constituencies.

The U.S. Census only comes around every 10 years. Though the U.S. Census Bureau has adapted the American Community Survey as an instrument to collect data in-between Decennial Censuses, the actual enumeration of the U.S. population only takes place every ten years. In short, the opportunity to participate in the Decennial Census only comes around a handful of times over a life-course. As we know all too well, anything can happen in ten years – especially in politics; therefore, participation in this Census is essential to understanding the U.S. immigrant and Latina/o population at this one moment in time.

As an activist-in-training, I definitely respect everyone’s right to boycott. However, I find this boycott to ultimately be more detrimental than beneficial. If we in the Latina/o community want to strengthen our voice, then we need to participate in the official “voice-collector” while continuing our struggle through other peaceful and productive means. I, for one, am looking forward to being counted as a Mexican American living within the United States, knowing full well that scholars, politicians, and activists will study my identity as it resides within the communal whole of our nation.

[Note: This commentary is cross-posted at Sojourners.]


  1. I wish to add my voice in assent of this well-thought-out consideration of a complicated matter that provokes consternation to those of us who are invested in bringing about an efficient and complete enumeration of all people and especially those hard-to-count populations such as undocumented migrant laborers in the US.

    While the apparent objectives of Rev. Rivera and his misguided band of clergymen allege to seek the empowerment of the least among us, the truth of the matter is that given Rev. Rivera’s proximity to a certain sector within the far-right end of the American political spectrum, his actions also appear to beguile the interest of reactionary forces that seek to tamp down on the progress that has been made by communities of color and language minorities – especially the Latino community.

    Undocumented migrant workers don’t live in a vacuum. They are our brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. They are our neighbors and friends. They are part and parcel of our community. They reflect the political dichotomy that Latinos face in the United States. For instance, many of us who were born to citizens in the US are sometimes treated as aliens, different, not “all American” and as “other.” Nevertheless, any progress that native born Latinos enjoy is a net benefit the entire Latino community.

    In addition, with full enumeration comes the possibility of greater electoral representation. And, with that comes the promise of progressive public policy in the direction of social and economic justice at home and, hopefully, in our foreign policy as well.

    After all, was it not the misguided construct of NAFTA that provoked a mass intra-migratory relocation of cheap labor in Mexico going north towards and near to the US border only to have those dislocated laborers set adrift when American corporations who had relocated there from here closed their manufacturing plants or “maquiladoras” in northern Mexico and moved again for the ever cheaper labor markets in Asia and thus provoking a wave of undocumented laborers coming into the US seeking to stave off starvation?

    How can Latinos here and abroad have an effective voice in congress if we don’t allow for greater representation? I would argue that full enumeration almost guarantees that more Latinos will be elected to public office and thus the opportunity to redress such lackluster, corporate-friendly policies like NAFTA. Such ‘quick fix’ approaches have had the unintended consequence that many now bemoan. But, instead of offering constructive solutions, by promoting non-participation in the decennial census Rev. Rivera and his ilk add insult to injury. That has never been and will never be good public policy.

    A cursory review of the history of the decennial census in the United States offers empirical proof that those of us who are “non-white-male” have achieved a greater degree of empowerment with each successive census. For instance, the 1940 census figures were used to generate plans for war as it related to the draft. However, when Black men in the south responded to that call in greater numbers that the Department of War had projected, policy makers took notice and thus provided additional resources to conduct a more accurate count during the 1950 census – it also marked the birth the term “differential undercount.” More over, the 1960 census provided the basis upon which SCOTUS decided Baker v. Carr which gave us the doctrine “one man, one vote.” While the 1980 census provided impetus for Thornburg v. Gingles which brought us the three-prong test where a minority bloc might demonstrate that it is sufficiently large and compact to comprise a majority of a single-member district. While Latinos were not a direct party to these suits one may argue that we have most certainly derived an interstitial benefit as a result of such case law. Such was the case in the elimination of the position of Councilman-at-large and the expansion of the districts seats in the NYC Council and thus effectively changing the hue and complexion of that governmental institution.

    How can we make claims before the court if we do not have the empirical evidence that a decennial census provides? Rev. Rivera’s wrong-headed initiative is analogous to placing the oxygen mask on the infant before placing it on ourselves when traveling in an airplane that has suffered decompression. While it may seem heroic to give oxygen to the child before the adult it is the infant who is sure to suffer the worse consequences when the adult faints for lack of air. Non-participation is a self-defeating proposition that must be unmasked before it is too late.

    I pray that Rev. Rivera take his own advice and instead render onto Caesar…

    Rafael Vega


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