Politicizing The Census (Politicizing The Numbers)

By Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Ph.D.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson


When the Supreme Court said no to census sampling Clinton and House Democrats went straight after the Republicans and accused them of trying to block an accurate census. However, this isn't a simple case of Republican paranoia over how population numbers are crunched, but how they will be used by politicians.

The estimated 4 million persons that were not counted in 1990 are mostly Latinos, African-Americans, and Native-Americans. The Republicans are convinced that sampling is nothing but a scheme by the Democrats to cook the number of minorities on the books in order to squeeze more funds for social programs, and whittle down the number of Republican seats in Congress and state legislatures.

They are right and wrong. The current method of trying to count Americans one by one is costly, time-consuming, and wasteful, and it virtually insures that the same millions of Americans, mostly the poor, blacks, Latinos, Native-Americans and children will be missed again in the 2000 census. The National Research Council, the American Statistical Association, and the Government Accounting Office favor sampling.

But despite what Republicans fear, and some black and Latino leaders gleefully expect, there is no guarantee that even if every one of the voting age adults among the missing 4 million were counted they would all stampede to the polls and vote for Democrats. Given the lower vote turnout among minorities there's no guarantee that many would even bother to vote at all.

The Republicans also have a short memory. Clinton and the Democrats didn't make an issue of the flawed census count, Republicans did. When black and Latino organizations protested the undercount after the 1990 census, the President George Bush with near unanimous support from Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to recommend steps to correct the problem. The scientists all agreed that the current census methods were badly outdated, and that sampling was the best way to solve the problem. Then House Speaker Newt Gingrich's rant that Clinton's sampling plan was a political power grab only added more hypocrisy to Republican's collective amnesia. Immediately after the 1990 Census results were made known, then congressman Gingrich claimed that the census missed 200,000 persons in his home state of Georgia and demanded that the number be adjusted. He based his claim on, what else, a sample survey.

But the Democrats hands aren't clean in all this. Republicans probably would not have played the race card with such frenzy if vice-president Al Gore hadn't told the NAACPís annual conference in July, 1998 that "they don't even want to count you in the census." This made it seem the Republicans were right to scream that this was smoking gun evidence of a plot by the Democrats to manipulate the census to nail them.

The Supreme Court ruling guarantees that the squabble over the census will wind up in a partisan battle royal in Congress, with Democrats almost certainly losing again. But win or lose the census count has been so heavily politicized that no matter how it's taken in 2000 and beyond Republicans and Democrats would still try and figure out how to make whatever numbers are counted count for them.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black. email:ehutchi344@aol.com

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