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.]