Down with the Count

Like Superman, Super Censo has superhuman powers. Strong, brave, and bilingual, he has a mission: to spread the word about the U.S. Census to Spanish-speaking citizens of Cook County, Illinois.

“The Super Censo character was invented by a Chicago street theater group called Teatro Callejero,” explains Ana Maria Soto, regional census director for Cook County’s Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “He’s loosely based on a Spanish-language TV character called El Chapulin Colorado. When Latino people see Super Censo, they get it. So I guess you could say we’ve taken him on the road.”

Super Censo’s message, which he began taking to neighborhood gatherings and festivals last summer, is straightforward. When census forms arrive, Latinos should fill them out. Being counted gives a community an identity. “In America,” Soto says, “identity is everything.”

A simple message, but a tough sell. While community leaders may define identity in group terms, individuals don’t always see it that way. This time around, many poor people may ignore the census out of indifference or alienation, if they get the forms at all. Others will actively avoid being counted. Their response reveals a tension between the individual and the group that lies just beneath the surface of the census–and modern identity politics in general.

In many urban communities, activists claimed that the 1990 census undercounted immigrants and minorities, leading to lawsuits and calls for census reform. In Cook County, one of the nation’s largest and most ethnically diverse counties, the population is estimated to be 5.1 million, but the census may have missed as many as 250,000. Critics blame shoddy counting methods and ignorance of cultural patterns, two reasons that people of color and the poor have been overlooked by virtually every American census. Whatever the cause, many say Chicago’s urban communities took the hit: 10 years of diluted political clout, underfunded schools, and overflowing sewers.

But the fault can’t be placed entirely on the U.S. Census Bureau. Members of undercounted communities, fearing that their participation could lead to political intrusion, tax audits, or problems with the INS, refused to fill out forms and even shunned census takers who knocked at their doors.

Many Latino immigrants have valid reasons to fear the government-in their home countries and in the United States. Still, Soto is doing her best to convince them that participating is crucial to their well-being. “It’s time to get over our fears,” she says with the evangelist’s fervor that characterizes her appearances on Spanish-language radio programs and public-access television. “This is not a time to be afraid. It’s time to stand up and be counted.”

Since the first American enumeration in 1790, the census has been part of our national identity. The U.S. Constitution calls for one every 10 years, as a way to reapportion the House of Representatives and the Electoral College. In earlier times, counts were a tool of the powerful, providing a tally of crops or potential soldiers. American-style democracy gave people a reason to think the census was for their own good; filling out the forms has been generally considered a civic duty. But some say the spirit of willing participation is eroding. “Over the years, as the population has changed, attitudes have changed,” says Ellisa Johnson, head of Cook County’s Complete Count Committee, which works with the U.S. Census Bureau to improve participation. “Trust in the government–especially among certain communities–continues to decrease, and some groups are more worried about confidentiality and privacy than ever.”

Among African Americans from all walks of life, distrust of the government remains widespread. “Take a look at history; it’s understandable why folks have those concerns,” Johnson says.

“I saw Enemy of the State,” she adds, referring to the 1998 thriller starring Will Smith that popularized big-brother conspiracy theories and depicted government computers generating personal data at the click of a mouse. “I still wonder in the back of my mind just how much the government knows about me. But we need to set those feelings aside, especially as people of color. I’m convinced we’re only doing our community a disservice when we refuse to participate.”

Despite assurances that census data will be kept confidential, suspicion endures. The Privacy Act of 1974 limited the exchange of personal data between government agencies, but surveys show that many still believe computers are linked.

“There’s a general feeling that people who work at the Census Bureau don’t even have confidentiality pledges. That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” insists Gerald Gates, chief of the Census Bureau’s policy office. “But if people don’t trust the government, then they don’t trust the Census Bureau, and we can’t do our job.”

Fears about census privacy aren’t just an American phenomenon, notes Carl Haub, a demographer at the private, nonprofit Population Reference Bureau in Washington, D.C. Haub says that West Germany’s Green Party and others delayed that country’s census from 1980 to 1987. Part anti-nuclear protest, part fear of the government counting ethnic populations, the issue was finally sorted out, and the counts resumed.

In the United States, anti-census sentiment tends to be less organized, but there are exceptions. “This big, bossy, busybody government is trying to ask questions they have no business asking,” says George Getz, the Libertarian Party’s press secretary. “We believe it’s an all-American thing to slam the door on a busybody, so when the census-takers come to my house, I just may slam my door on them, too.”

According to Getz, Libertarians oppose answering census questions beyond those that fulfill the basic function mandated in the Constitution. He also challenges census activists who insist that completing the forms will somehow empower downtrodden racial or ethnic groups. It will only lead the public further down a slippery slope of federal interference in private affairs, he argues.

“Some of these people who encourage their communities [to fill out census forms] are really race-baiters masquerading as government reformers,” he says. “We object to groups who want to use this information to reward or punish people based on their official racial category.” Last November, the census bureau launched its first paid advertising, a $167 million nationwide print, radio, and television campaign created by ad firm Young & Rubicam to inspire people to fill out and return their forms. The slogans? “This is your future. Don’t leave it blank” and “How America knows what America needs.”

In Chicago, they’ve added another approach. The Complete Count Committee has hired Ivan Dupeé, the thirtysomething president of Dupeé Productions, a local music marketing company, to create young “street teams” who travel to hip-hop clubs and other events, distributing T-shirts, flyers, and even tapes recorded by local rap groups that urge census participation–in an acceptably cool way. Their target is one of the most undercounted demographic groups, African American males ages 18 to 30.

Dupeé, whose previous clients include Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and Motown, says the music industry has used this tactic for years: “We travel to the hot parties,” Dupeé explains. “When the parties close down, we’re waiting outside in a van, and as the doors open, we hand stuff to the people. They go home, they listen to the music, they like it, they buy it, and records go gold or even platinum without any radio play.”

Underground marketing has been so successful that it’s been adopted by other industries, including athletic-shoe manufacturers (Nike), clothing companies (FUBU), and soft-drink makers (Coca-Cola). Because the census isn’t a product, Dupeé had to adjust his strategy; he compares his assignment to the voting-rights campaigns of the ’50s and ’60s.

“This is a pretty transient population,” he says. “They don’t read the paper. You’ve got to hit them where they play, not where they live.”

But where they live is where they’ll get the forms–maybe. Jeryl Levin, director of the Illinois Ethnic Coalition’s Countdown 2000 project, says that many of her constituents never got forms in 1990, because no real effort was made to reach them. The official 1990 census count for the area’s Ethiopian population (now estimated at about 3,500) was 515–in the whole county.

“People from the community told me that hardly anyone filled out a form. Nobody came to their houses,” Levin says. “I realize that getting a truly complete count is an impossible task–it’s hardly an exact science.” Yet resulting numbers are considered scientifically precise, which makes participation critical.

Levin feels ambivalent about coaching the disenfranchised to toe the government line. But she’s learned a hard truth: “To be a contributing part of a community today means willingly giving up at least part of your privacy,” she says. “We’re not about making the Census Bureau look good. It’s about helping our own city and county, and helping ourselves. Frankly, in one way or another, I’m stuck paying for someone who doesn’t fill out the form. So it’s in my interest to get them to do it.”

Andy Steiner is a senior editor of Utne Reader.

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