Census 2010: Am I Breaking the Law?


Last week I filled out the form for the 2010 Census, and like many others, I participated in an organized protest regarding the questions about my race and ethnicity. This action was spurred by this post by Mark Krikorian on The Corner.

For those unfamiliar with the protest, Krikorian summed it up as follows:

Fully one-quarter of the space on this year’s form is taken up with questions of race and ethnicity, which are clearly illegitimate and none of the government’s business…So until we succeed in building the needed wall of separation between race and state, I have a proposal. Question 9 on the census form asks “What is Person 1′s race)”…we should answer Question 9 by checking the last option — “Some other race” — and writing in “American.” It’s a truthful answer but at the same time is a way for ordinary citizens to express their rejection of unconstitutional racial classification schemes.

The fact that we would even be asked such a question is a sign that institutionalized racism exists in today’s society, and since the U.S. government is certainly the most aggressive promoter of such racism, Krikorian’s appeal seemed to me like a worthwhile endeavor. Therefore, I filled out Question 9 on my census form as depicted in the following image:

For the 2010 Census, I answered "American" for Question 9.

However, as I learned prior to taking this action, such a “protest” may not be entirely legal. In this post on the Foundry, Hans von Spakovsky warned protest participants about some of the potential consequences:

In Article I, Section 2, the Constitution says that an “Enumeration” must be conducted every ten years “in such Manner as [Congress] shall by Law direct.” Congress has directed through a federal law that anyone who “refuses or willfully neglects…to answer, to the best of his knowledge, any of the questions” on the Census form can be fined $100 (13 U.S.C. § 221). If you deliberately give a false answer, you can be fined up to $500.

Given that I feel like I am actually answering to the best of my knowledge (I feel far more “American” than “White”), I would say I am legally in the clear. Even if I’m not, actual prosecutions on census “neglect” are few and far between. But I still wonder if I’ll be getting a call anytime soon.

Either way, I don’t really care. But should I?

How does this square with our individual responsibility to submit to earthly kingdoms? Must I be in 100% agreement with the government in order to do what they ask of me? Certainly I think we are obliged to pay our taxes as Jesus instructed, but is there ever a point where we should stop and say, “I don’t agree with this, and I’m going to break the law”?

Throughout history Christians have resisted plenty of government imperatives (and still do), but do each of our illegal acts vary in legitimacy? For example, if the government demands that I renounce Jesus, this would absolutely be a legitimate “protest” of government imposition. But what about this census stuff? Compared to compelling blasphemy, this is pretty petty stuff. Even when it comes to racism, is the racism in the census as protest-worthy as, say, the type of blatant racism Martin Luther King, Jr. stood up against? Where do we draw the line when it comes to peaceful dissent? Does it simply boil down to each individual’s willingness to stand on principle and pay the earthly consequences if necessary?

What do you think?

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  • Anon

    First, I think that “American” should be a legitimate option. Questions of race are always subject to a person's self-identification, and if one self-identifies as “American” then that should be a valid response. Similar arguments have resulted in the ability to check more than one race. Race is already a pretty murky issue, since so few people have just one “race” in their ancestry. And it brings up questions of “What is race?” At one point in time, English was different from German, but now they're both “Caucasian”. But I think we're straying from the point… as of right now, society in general has a concept of race. Grow up, be an adult and fill out the form, stop viewing the census as a place to “protest”, and then go and work to change the societal conception and use of race. Making petty statements on a census form doesn't do anyone any good.

    As for the idea that the census asking questions about race is being “racist”, that's utterly ridiculous. Race is just one way of categorizing people, whether you agree with that categorization or not. That sentence obviously washes over a lot of baggage that comes along with the term “race”, but at the core we need to be honest and recognize that race is one method used to categorize. Now, what might be “racist” is what is *done* with the information. You can start crying “racist” when it's used for programs like affirmative action, and likely have a reasonable argument. But the key to me is the *use* of the information, not the mere fact that it's being collected.

    As an additional note, it was a bit annoying to not see a “Choose not to answer” option. I think that's probably the only legitimate point where you could argue some form of racism, since there's no option to opt out of the question altogether. And the census at its core is counting people, so any questions beyond that should probably be considered optional.

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    You bring up some good points about self-identification, and you are also correct to say that the use of the data is of primary concern. However, how is using race data for government action EVER justified? You seem to think the government may have some legitimate purposes for “classifying” people based on race. I don't think they do.

    If it depends on the use of the data, what use of race data would be acceptable to you? What business does the government have in gathering this information about me and my family? You act as though the government would just collect race data to lock away in some vault never to be used. Why bother in the first place? We are filling out “American” primarily because either (1) there is no reason for it to be collected in the first place (the locked up in a vault scenerio), or (2) they ARE going to use it for SOME purpose. I can't think of a way they could use it in a non-discriminatory way.

    I agree (and said in my post) that this form of “protest” is petty in the grand scheme of things, and it may not do anyone any good, but it didn't take much effort to check a different box rather than go with the flow, and it sure felt better than checking “White.” In any case, I won't “stop viewing the census as a place to 'protest'” until the government stops viewing my race as something it should count. You said it yourself: “The census at its core is [about] counting people.”

    It should do just that.

  • stephanie

    I agree.
    I couldn't believe it when I was looking at the census and I saw that it said it used the term “race”!! Race is a concept that was made up, and it is definitely a faulty one. I had a professor that said if he ever had to fill something out that asked about his race, he would not. I just can't get over how even if I'm intelligent enough to understand that term, that the government is not. That's all.

  • clayt85

    Not only does demographic information (including race, among many other things) provide invaluable information for academic purposes (in the verification of demographic transition models, data-driven verification of sociological phenomena, shifts in domestic and familial patterns… you get the point by now) it also serves quite practical purposes as well (see below). More to the point, the federal government is the only entity with the size, scope, and authority to obtain such data to such an overwhelming degree of accuracy (to the extend that the Census is a census, and not a sample or survey). As such, even if we restrict ourselves solely to the consideration of academic interests and the merits therein, there is still sufficient reason to include such data in the Census.

    In terms of practical purposes, 50+ years of statistical analyses have indicated that race (to wit, racial identification, although I have grave doubts regarding your claim that you are more likely to identify yourself as “American” rather than white; tell me, who did you sit with in the cafeteria in high school?) is a strong predictor for economic development, high school graduation rates, teen pregnancy rates, crime rates, and probably some other things besides. And these are *exactly* the things a government may be concerned about. Thus, a simple request for a self-reported race has strong implications for law enforcement, educational programs, poverty alleviation, municipal funding, etc.

    While the Census at its core is indeed about counting people, if its scope is limited only to that end then it exists as no more than a mere curiosity. The notion that the government should not have racial data because they have no use for the data is false on its face and reeks of paranoia.

    But don't take my word for it. You will have no trouble in verifying my claims that race may be used productively as a measure for no small number of important (for the purposes of governance) factors. And having demonstrated that race is indeed a practical statistic for a government to consider, I would turn the question to you: will you now fill in a reasonable answer to the question?

    As for an argument from Christianity, I see no way in which a simple such question is in violation of anyone's faith. Thus Romans 13:1-7 seems particularly appropriate.

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    Your response confirms many reasons why I don't think the government should be collecting this information.

    You say: “In terms of practical purposes, 50+ years of statistical analyses have indicated that race…is a strong predictor for economic development, high school graduation rates, teen pregnancy rates, crime rates, and probably some other things besides. And these are *exactly* the things a government may be concerned about. Thus, a simple request for a self-reported race has strong implications for law enforcement, educational programs, poverty alleviation, municipal funding, etc.”

    Whether race itself plays a part in such rates is certainly debatable, and at the very MOST, race is only one factor. Are we to begin gathering data regarding religion, family discipline, education, or nutritional intake? By your logic, the government very well should, and you might very well agree. I guess if they were collecting such a wide array of information, at least it would seem that they don't care ENTIRELY about race.

    Coming from a libertarian perspective, I do not think the government should care about these personal characteristics primarily because I think they have no business in people's personal affairs (whether it be education, religion, family dynamics, etc.).

    But again, you act as if the government should treat people according to the color of their skin. You point to trends among races, but racial correlation with rising rates of poverty or teen pregnancy does not, for example, lead to automatic causation. Certainly discrimination is a factor, but it is not the only factor. Even if discrimination was a primary factor, how is the government to tackle the problem from figuring out who is white vs. who is black vs. who is Hispanic? Race is only one component, yet it is the only such question asked other than gender. Social problems can come from anything: living conditions, education system, family cycles, government INTERVENTION, etc. Once again, from a libertarian perspective, I believe the government is probably the one at the root of much of the poverty cycle. Even if race did actually cause such trends, such causation would be something the government should keep it's hands out of.

    If you believe race leads to poverty or that funneling money or programs to a certain race will alleviate it, then you can believe that, but I'm not sure why I can't call it “racism” or why it's not something I should be able to legitimately “protest,” petty and ineffective though it may be.

    What you are wanting to do is have the government is categorize people based on race for the purpose of treating them according to their race through government action. How is this not racism?

    As far as the cafeteria table, I grew up with friends from a variety of races, all of whom I see as equals. I'm not sure what race you are, but if your lunch table is somehow different than that, it's certainly one I would stay away from.

    As far as changing my mind and entering a “reasonable answer” on my census, I have already sent it in, but perhaps I'll reconsider in another 10 years. :)

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  • clayt85

    You seem to have some serious misunderstandings of (or else have seriously misrepresented) my statements. Allow me to clarify.

    [RE: the taking of race data] I said nothing regarding race “playing a factor” in such rates. I said it is an *indicator* for such rates, and there is absolutely *nothing* debatable about that statement (Cf. my allusion to the research literature). Don't misunderstand: I never said that race was a causative factor. In fact, following my logic, it does not matter whether race is a cause, and effect, an indicator, or just a complete accidental correlation. The fact is, that one simple question contains *significant* information, and thus its asking is easily justified. It is not a matter of “caring only about race”, it is a matter of obtaining as much information as is possible with the smallest number of simple questions.

    Among the additional possibilities you list, religion is not reliably associated with any item the government is concerned about (and thus, to your point, the government does not ask about it). The others (discipline, education, and nutrition) are remarkably easy to infer from aggregate racial data. Which leads me to my next point…

    [RE: government action based upon the data] Nowhere did I suggest that the government should treat individual people based upon their race. And that seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding you hold. The government uses *aggregate* data. Your entire discussion above limits the government's ability to use racial data to matters of race only. Nowhere did I say race had anything to do with causation (in fact, most problems manifest themselves racially only for historical reasons) nor does causation need to be demonstrated. Indeed, poverty (among other things) has myriad causes (although your assertion that the government is one of them is largely misguided; even de jure segregation only existed with the will of the electorate, at least in this country). In essence, your entire 4th paragraph invalidates an assertion I never made.

    And there is more… You also seem to misunderstand how the data will be used. The government does not store the data in terms of what race lives in which house. Rather, it uses the information to form aggregate measures (i.e. percentages) for each Census Designated Place. Nowhere did I suggest that “race leads to poverty”, and nowhere did I suggest that “funneling money or programs to a certain race will alleviate it”. In fact, doing such would be exactly racism, as well as illegal. Rather, (and exactly as I said the first time) when the government can identify *areas* at high risk for certain problems (which is what race data does, because race data is *correlated* with such problems) it can direct funds and programs to those *areas*. See the logic now? In fact, the ability of the government to direct programs in such a way is exactly what distinguishes 1st world countries from third world countries. It is not an attempt in any way to fight discrimination (as you repeated suggestion, and as I willingly admit would be fruitless) but rather an attempt to direct programs in a helpful and efficient manner.

    And just for emphasis (having said this 4 times now), the assertion that “What you are wanting to do is have the government categorize people based on race for the purpose of treating them according to their race through government action” is a laughable misrepresentation of my statements and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the means by which sociological data are gathered, analyzed, and used. I would like the government to identify those in the greatest need of help and to provide them with help as far as practicable so that they can become (or continue to be) contributing members of society. Racial demographics are simply a means to identify such *geographic regions* and nothing more. Not causative, etc. I am aware that such a statement may be repulsive to a practicing libertarian, but given the choice between the government taking such data to help people and watching you pick a petty fight over nothing while offering no useful suggestions for how the problems of society may actually be solved, I'll take the former.

    [RE: the cafeteria table] Your response sounds like a defense against a charge of racism while no such charge was leveled. But to the point: you failed to answer the question I posed. I neither know nor care who you grew up with, I simply asked who you sat at the lunch table with. The point was to dislodge any semblance of veracity to your claim that you identify yourself an American first, white second. The fact is (and once again, the research shows) people naturally associate with those they consider to be similarly identified (be it by race, income, common interests, or usually all three). I think your response (or lack thereof) proves my point better than I ever could: you identify yourself as white. So just answer the question.

    The point is this: you claimed (in the commentary and in these comments) that the government has no actual need to ask for race. I have demonstrated no small number of uses for that data, and your response has been to simply misrepresent or misunderstand those reasons. I am left to concur with the anonymous poster below: this is mere pettiness. It accomplishes nothing, benefits society in no way, and reeks of an unjustified paranoia of a government which has hardly given middle class white males anything to fear. I am sure Christ would much rather you spend your time ministering to the poor, rather than creating a needless obstruction for an entity which is trying to do so.

  • http://www.remnantculture.com/ Remnant Culture

    I think our disagreement lies in that you think “programs” are the answer and that the government should use “aggregate data,” whether it includes details about race or any other factors to direct its oh-so-bountiful blessings. If I misunderstood you on causation, I apologize, but I still don't get what the big difference is in targeting per causation vs. per correlation. Again, I think the programs themselves HURT people, and you obviously disagree. This, from my perspective, is what our disagreement really boils down to.

    As far as who I sat with at the table in the cafeteria, I must have missed your point, and I think I'm still missing it. They're names were Frank, Josh, Matt, Aaron, and Daniel. Does that answer your question? How will any answer to this question rid you of your prejudice about the way I view myself?

    As far as me offering “no useful solutions” I would encourage you to continue to follow the blog. I started last week and this is one post about what I did for the census. It was meant to spur discussion on the census (which it obviously did), not propose a solution to poverty. In short, I don't think the government can or should “minister” to the poor, no matter how much race data it gathers and no matter how it uses it.

    I'm glad to hear your thoughts about God wanting to promote 100% census adherence to the benevolent U.S. government, but I disagree and think he doesn't have a big problem with my “obstruction,” needless or not.

    Again, thanks for your participation.

  • Anonymous

    Recently, I found the 2010 Census form hanging on my door. As I began filling it out, I came across a dilemma. The U.S. government wants to know if my children are adopted or not and it wants to know what our races are. Being adopted myself, I had to put “Other” and “Don’t Know Adopted” for my race and “Other” and “Don’t Know” for my kids’ races.

    Can you imagine not knowing your ethnicity, your race? Now imagine walking into a vital records office and asking the clerk for your original birth certificate only to be told “No, you can’t have it, it’s sealed.”

    How about being presented with a “family history form” to fill out at every single doctor’s office visit and having to put “N/A Adopted” where life saving information should be?

    Imagine being asked what your nationality is and having to respond with “I don’t know”.

    It is time that the archaic practice of sealing and altering birth certificates of adopted persons stops.

    Adoption is a 5 billion dollar, unregulated industry that profits from the sale and redistribution of children. It turns children into chattel who are re-labeled and sold as “blank slates”.

    Genealogy, a modern-day fascination, cannot be enjoyed by adopted persons with sealed identities. Family trees are exclusive to the non-adopted persons in our society.

    If adoption is truly to return to what is best for a child, then the rights of children to their biological identities should NEVER be violated. Every single judge that finalizes an adoption and orders a child’s birth certificate to be sealed should be ashamed of him/herself.

    I challenge all readers: Ask the adopted persons that you know if their original birth certificates are sealed.

  • MaraR

    Recently, I found the 2010 Census form hanging on my door. As I began filling it out, I came across a dilemma. The U.S. government wants to know if my children are adopted or not and it wants to know what our races are. Being adopted myself, I had to put “Other” and “Don’t Know Adopted” for my race and “Other” and “Don’t Know” for my kids’ races.

    Can you imagine not knowing your ethnicity, your race? Now imagine walking into a vital records office and asking the clerk for your original birth certificate only to be told “No, you can’t have it, it’s sealed.”

    How about being presented with a “family history form” to fill out at every single doctor’s office visit and having to put “N/A Adopted” where life saving information should be?

    Imagine being asked what your nationality is and having to respond with “I don’t know”.

    It is time that the archaic practice of sealing and altering birth certificates of adopted persons stops.

    Adoption is a 5 billion dollar, unregulated industry that profits from the sale and redistribution of children. It turns children into chattel who are re-labeled and sold as “blank slates”.

    Genealogy, a modern-day fascination, cannot be enjoyed by adopted persons with sealed identities. Family trees are exclusive to the non-adopted persons in our society.

    If adoption is truly to return to what is best for a child, then the rights of children to their biological identities should NEVER be violated. Every single judge that finalizes an adoption and orders a child’s birth certificate to be sealed should be ashamed of him/herself.

    I challenge all readers: Ask the adopted persons that you know if their original birth certificates are sealed.

  • MaraR

    Recently, I found the 2010 Census form hanging on my door. As I began filling it out, I came across a dilemma. The U.S. government wants to know if my children are adopted or not and it wants to know what our races are. Being adopted myself, I had to put “Other” and “Don’t Know Adopted” for my race and “Other” and “Don’t Know” for my kids’ races.

    Can you imagine not knowing your ethnicity, your race? Now imagine walking into a vital records office and asking the clerk for your original birth certificate only to be told “No, you can’t have it, it’s sealed.”

    How about being presented with a “family history form” to fill out at every single doctor’s office visit and having to put “N/A Adopted” where life saving information should be?

    Imagine being asked what your nationality is and having to respond with “I don’t know”.

    It is time that the archaic practice of sealing and altering birth certificates of adopted persons stops.

    Adoption is a 5 billion dollar, unregulated industry that profits from the sale and redistribution of children. It turns children into chattel who are re-labeled and sold as “blank slates”.

    Genealogy, a modern-day fascination, cannot be enjoyed by adopted persons with sealed identities. Family trees are exclusive to the non-adopted persons in our society.

    If adoption is truly to return to what is best for a child, then the rights of children to their biological identities should NEVER be violated. Every single judge that finalizes an adoption and orders a child’s birth certificate to be sealed should be ashamed of him/herself.

    I challenge all readers: Ask the adopted persons that you know if their original birth certificates are sealed.

  • Reyjacobs

    The constitution does not mention ethnicity as an object in the census. You may be violating the ‘law’ but the so-called ‘law’ is violating the constitution. The purpose of the census is just to see how many living people exist in each state who are eligible to vote so that the proper number of electoral college votes can be assigned to each state based on their population. The constitution didn’t give the government the right to use the census as a social engineering tool or a way to spy on your religious beliefs or how many bathrooms you have in your house. All they are authorized to find out is how many voters exist in each state. And quite frankly, for that purpose they would be better served to simply have the state report the number of people who are registered to vote, wouldn’t they?