Academic journal article Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights

Identifying the Identified: The Census, Race, and the Myth of Self-Classification

Academic journal article Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights

Identifying the Identified: The Census, Race, and the Myth of Self-Classification

Article excerpt

The Constitution mandates an "actual [e]numeration . .. in such manner as [the Congress] shall by law direct."1 Although it was originally conceived as a tool to apportion taxes and representatives,2 the census has evolved into a fundamental institution of government that commentators have described as a "national, secular ceremon[y] . . . provid[ing] a sense of social cohesion, and a kind of non-religious communion."3 While congressional debates over the census in the midnineteenth century emphasized the need for census data in order to "display the grandeur of American society,"4 modern incarnations of the census demonstrate grandeur in their very undertaking.

The upcoming 2010 census is a complex and enormous logistical project with far-reaching consequences. Preparations for the decennial census have warranted the allocation of $694.1 million in the 2007 budget, just one installment of an aggregate $11 billion budget being used, in part, to equip each census-taker with a handheld GPS computer providing a direct data link to the Census Bureau.5 Unable to bear the burden of conducting the census alone, the government has signed a $500 million contract with Lockheed Martin for electronic data processing,6 marking more than a tenfold increase from the $49 million data processing contract signed for the 2000 census.7 The magnitude of resources invested in conducting the census should not be unexpected,8 since the stakes include enforcement of antidiscrimination legislation, legislative redistricting that implicates voting rights, and the allocation of over $200 billion in federal and state funding.9

While the means through which the census is conducted have become increasingly complex and costly, the implications of quantifying the nation's identity have remained constant and contested. Despite the purported fidelity of the census apparatus to the notion of racial self-classification,10 many have identified what Naomi Mezey refers to as the government's exercise of "constitutive power . . . with respect to race."11 This power is made evident by the role that census data plays in shaping our understanding of racial categories and identity.12 The census is alleged to have enabled the exclusion and social control of groups, such as Native Americans13 and Chinese immigrants,14 while serving as a medium of expression and official recognition for other groups, including Hispanics15 and multiracial individuals.16 These simultaneously exclusionary and affirming powers have rendered the census the site of much political contest. This politicization has been compounded by its centrality to the enforcement of civil rights laws and government function. The racial data gathered by the census is used to determine "education grants, affirmative action programs, community reinvestment and development, public health programs, mortgage lending, low-income housing tax credits, voting rights, employment rights, legislative redistricting, government contracting, food stamps, and veteran benefits."17

While the constitutional permissibility of racial data collection for the census is often taken for granted, it belies the history of census politics: even the NAACP opposed collection as late as the 1960s.18 The increasing role played by census data in the enforcement of civil rights legislation has changed public perception, but opposition to racial data collection has resurfaced, even appearing in federal courts. This paper explores how the reality of government involvement in racial data collection deviates from its description in equal protection case law. In addressing the issue, this paper draws upon both the volume of work that approaches the effect of the census on race from a predominantly theoretical perspective19 and from the highly technical, process-oriented analyses20 of the collection and use of data.21 While census scholars accept the impact of the census process on social meaning and structure, few have attempted to reconcile the apparent tension between the notion that government collection of racial data is an involved process which implicates our understanding of race and the idea that the census is an exercise of genuine and autonomous racial self-classification. …

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