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When It Comes to Race and Gender, Is the Census Taking the Right Snapshot?

'You can’t know how disadvantaged a population is if it’s not in the census'

by Gretchen Brown
March 24, 2020 | Our Future

You're going to get a letter in the mail this month — an envelope from the federal government — if you haven't already.

It's the U.S. Census, a federal survey that takes a count of the population every ten years.

It's more than just a population count. The data that the census collects — about things like race, gender and relationships — is used by the government to decide how much federal grant money states, counties and communities get.

It's also used for businesses to decide where to open up. Developers deciding where to build. Legislation on the local and state level.

So what happens when who you are isn't included on the census?

"Because our population hasn't been recognized legally, period, by the federal government, they can't assess us," said D'Lane Compton, a professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans.

Compton's research focuses on the intersection of social psychology and sexual orientation. She is also queer and recently wrote about her gender transition for The Guardian.

"You can't know how disadvantaged a population is if it's not in the census," she said.

This year, for the first time, the Census Bureau added a question about same-sex couples to the survey in order to get a better count of gay and lesbian folks.

The census has actually been counting same-sex couples since 1990, using data from an "unmarried partner" question — data that wasn't completely accurate and came with some margin of error.

But the census has never counted the country's transgender or non-binary population. And there's no question about it on the census this year.

Preventing discrimination

Last year's General Social Survey (GSS) from the University of Chicago was the first time any nationally representative survey had asked about trans or non-binary identity.

"There's not much you can say with that data right now, but over time it will tell us something," Compton said.

people of different genders, races and ethnicities. REWIRE PBS Our Future census
The data the census collects — about things like race, gender and relationships — is used by the government to decide how much federal grant money states, counties and communities get.

It's about more than just numbers. Inclusion on the census — and therefore, inclusion by the federal government — has a huge symbolic component as well.

Compton likens it to the fight for same-sex marriage in the U.S. There was no data showing that a large number of same-sex couples wanted to get married. No nationally representative, scientific survey of the sort has ever been completed.

But the fight was about recognition more than anything.

That doesn't just mean seeing your identity on a piece of paper. It's about civil rights.

When it comes to the census, and other nationally representative surveys, inclusion for LGBTQ+ folks could pave the way for federal anti-discrimination laws.

Currently, just 22 states have laws that protect gay, lesbian and trans people from discrimination. In many states, you can still get fired for being gay or trans.

Recognition on a survey could legitimize, in the eyes of the federal government, the need for these kinds of laws.

Such a law could protect people like Adam, a trans man in northeastern Wisconsin who told last year that he was worried about being fired from his job.

"That's always been in the back of my mind since I started (working here)," he said.

Identity is complex

The census doesn't just collect info about gender and sexual orientation. Since 1790, it has collected info about race.

Back then, the census only had three categories: free white males and females, all other free people and slaves.

Today, the number of racial and ethnic categories has increased to over 18, changing over the years due to changing populations, science, public attitudes and politics.

The 2020 census includes new additional write-in areas, under "white" and "Black," asking folks for more information about their backgrounds.

"The race question nowadays is used primarily to enforce civil rights legislation," said Wendy Roth, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "And to monitor legislation and distribute resources."

The categories aren't static yet — they continue to change based on the changing population and issues of the day.

Yet some populations say they don't feel truly represented by racial categories as they are — that the categories don't truly represent the diversity and complexity of racial identity.

One of the big issues with the modern census is the Census Bureau's definition of "Latino." They do not consider it a race, but an ethnicity. That means that folks who check the Latino box are asked to pick another race from the list.

"A large percentage of Latinos don't identify with one of those categories, and so they check 'some other race,' Roth said.

"It ends up being a category with 40 percent of Latinos checking that box because they don't see themselves fitting anywhere else."

When the Latino category was originally added in the 1970s, it was seen as a win by the advocacy groups who fought to get it there.

But many worry that the census's racial categories don't allow for the diversity of the Latino population.

This year, as the government considered adding a citizenship question, some folks worried about being targeted for their answers. (The question was not added).

But while the race question was originally used to discriminate, it is now used to help prevent discrimination.

"Today they're more likely to be used to say, 'Here is a concentration of people from one particular community, maybe we need to provide resources for a community center,'" she said.

No easy fix

One way to get a true sense of how Americans identify themselves when it comes to race and gender would be to leave a blank and let folks fill it in as they wish.

But it's not quite that simple, Roth said. There's a reason the U.S. Census bureau already includes as many categories as it does.

"That is purely a matter of managing the data. They try to create boxes that capture as many people as possible," she said.

"It's incredibly expensive and incredibly time-consuming to code the write-in answers."

Roth points out that the census, as it exists, is actually pretty progressive when it comes to thinking about identity.

Before 1960, a census representative would come to your door and ask you the questions. But they wouldn't ask you about race or gender, instead observing it on their own and making note.

Today, the census asks folks to answer their own questions, in essence letting them identify themselves as they are, whether that's the gender they live as or their individual racial identity.

That has changed what the questions mean. They're now truly reflecting identity, not appearance.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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