A Race for the Census!

A Race for the Census!

I just filled in the US Census 2010.

I first heard about the Census through an ad at a cinema. It irked me immensely that the Census expects people to fill in the form and mail it back to them. How reliable a system of data-collection is that? To ask common people to take that much trouble, even with, say, free postage?

Sorry, I have a low opinion of the masses that way. In India the census is taken door-to-door. Granted, most of India’s population is illiterate, and, to be honest, I would also doubt the accuracy of India’s census, simply due to the massive scale of the exercise, but I nevertheless find greater appreciation in that sort of an effort. (By the way, India happens to have a census this year as well, as does Russia. A friend thinks it’s because having them in “-10” years is more aesthetic.)

So I started off with scepticism when it came to the US Census. Soon afterwards, however, I came to discover that we would be filling them out here at St. John’s College, and that actually excited me. I had never done something like that before. Did it matter that I am not a citizen or resident of the States? No, everyone is counted. Politics and society is one of my major interests, and, due to a variety of circumstances, I haven’t ever even voted, so filling out a census form got my civic senses all enthusiastic. The last time I had a similar rush was when I was an elections observer in Armenia’s parliamentary elections in 2007.

Scepticism, excitement… and then, confusion. The form itself was mind-numbing, and I say that in an unconventional sense of the word, because it numbed my mind with its simplicity. It took literally less than a minute to fill. All it asked was one’s name, date of birth, age (yes, for some reason, both “date of birth” and “age”), an address… oh, and a good HALF of the form was dedicated to “race”.

Quite literally half. First it asked whether the respondent was Hispanic or not, and then it had further categories for each. For some time now, Armenian-American organisations have been urging Armenians in America to fill in the Census forms as “Some Other Race”, specifying “Armenian”. I found this controversial from the beginning, given the clear distinction between ethnicity and race, and how, truly, if one considers all native peoples of Europe, the Middle East, even the Indian subcontinent as “white”, Armenians ought to answer, in fact, “white”. The political basis for the efforts appealed to me, however, and I did my duty.

But that the Census form mostly asked about race was what stayed with me from the entire deal. I thought America was supposed to be the land of… well, I don’t know, “assimilation”? “Equality”, perhaps? Not to say that the question itself indicates institutionalised segregation, but the fact is that the country’s census devotes a great deal to the issue of race, and I would even say that this is the case at the expense of other, arguably more relevant questions, such as level of education or occupation, about which, I believe, it was the practice in the past to enquire.

As far as I am aware, older census forms were much, much longer. I don’t know whether or not census officials went door-to-door back then, and I understand the greater expense and burden on the population to do so, but this is a very, very important national, civic phenomenon, so, frankly, I came off a little disappointed.

The US Census will know me forever as an “Armenian” by “race”, but what the implications of that are, in legal terms, or as a reflection of American society, I am uncertain.

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