Census Controversies and Identity Politics

What do Dora the Explorer and Chris, the anti-government Texas taxidermist, have in common? If you chose "they'd both like to kill and stuff Swiper the fox," you might be right, and I like your dark sense of humor. But no. The answer is they can both be found at the surprisingly interesting government web site, www.census.gov, which shills for the new 2010 census.

Dora does her part by mailing the census form off for her "Mami," and then sings a song and yells "Yay!" with what appear to be a lizard with fake eyelashes and a monkey wearing bright red Ugg boots. Which is so 2008, by the way. Chris, on the other hand, sits on a zebra-skin bench in front of a couple of large non-cartoon animals that used to be alive, looks toward the camera, and says, "I've got people that drive several hours just for me to mount birds for them." He adds that in Texas, you don't need a license to be a taxidermist, and says the profession is "fine like it is. I don't think we should have any more regulations." And you believe him.

Chris goes on to say he thinks the government is "taking our rights away from us, just one at a time" and that he'd be "hesitant to fill it out" if he were handed a census form. As if by magic, someone off camera hands him a census form. He takes a look, and says quickly, "This is the census? Just one page? Hey, that's not bad. Pretty simple questions ... yeah, I would fill this out."

Wow. Way to stick to your convictions, Chris. Apparently, you don't mind if your rights are taken away, as long as the form is short.

The census people made these propaganda videos with your hard-earned money because we are in a year that ends in zero, so it's time to count ourselves again. Roughly 134 million 2010 census questionnaires were hand-delivered or mailed out in March, and they were due April Fool's Day. Well, "due" might be a strong word, but that was the "official reference date."

Whoops. According to census data through the first of the month, just over half of Americans—52 percent—had complied. The top state performer as of April 1 was South Dakota, at 62 percent, which means two of its three residents returned the paperwork. The rest of us were most likely distracted by another set of forms due to Uncle Sam only two weeks later, on April 15, tax day. If I had to choose between the two, I'd go with the taxes. But it's not exactly a "leave the gun, take the cannoli," situation. Because one's a choice between a dessert and a weapon made by a fictional character in The Godfather, and this is more about which form you should fill out.

Speaking of taxes, I found myself more than a little perturbed by the way our money was spent to advertise the census survey, especially those weird TV commercials that have aired nationwide with Ed Begley Jr. and the leftover Christopher Guest stock actors. They even ran the spots during the Super Bowl, of all places, where the Census Bureau forked over $2.5 million to buy space. The census will cost nearly $15 billion total, $340 million of which was spent on marketing. Talk about A Mighty Wind! And if you're going to spend that kind of money, couldn't you at least get Parker Posey?

When I first saw the ad during a Super Bowl party, I instantly yelled out at the TV screen, "What a waste of my tax dollars!" and got odd looks from the rest of the sports fans in the room. I realized then that maybe their rage about the census and how it's promoted might not equal my own. I also realized that, at age 49, I have become Grampa Simpson.

Then there was the day recently when I trudged up the broken Metro escalator on Capitol Hill to find a giant inflatable rectangle at the top of the stairs. As I inched closer, I realized it was an air-filled replica of the census form, 20 feet high. It didn't make me want to fill it out, but I did have fantasies about coming back under cover of darkness and stabbing it. Seriously? A giant inflatable census form?

But wasting our good money on bad TV commercials and giant balloons is nothing compared to the pitfalls found in the form itself. Ironically, even though the results are expected to reveal an America more racially diverse than at any time in our nation's history, the complaints reveal the same thing. But not in a kumbaya way. The cultural land mines in the simple piece of paper reflect a mirror image of our multi-hued rainbow, only one made of direct opposition and bruised feelings.

On one hand, Census Bureau director Robert Groves has apologized for including the word "Negro" on the form as a choice of race. It was added this year with good intentions: because more than 50,000 people wrote it in 2000 as a way to describe themselves. However, in 2010, a flood of complaints poured in and people were upset and hurt by the designation. Groves speculated that the word will be gone from the forms in 2020.

On the other hand—and the other hand has never been more on the other hand—there are the folks at the Southern Legal Resource Center. They are upset that there's no box on the form for those of Confederate ancestry. So they're asking all like-minded rebels to go to box 9 under "Some other race" and write in "Confed Southern Am." Because, as the instructional video says, this will ensure that "all Americans will be treated with respect, even Southerners."

Whoa, settle down, Johnny Reb! It's one thing to claim that a defunct 150-year-old political affiliation dedicated to enslaving people and ripping asunder the United States is somehow a form of race, but let's not get ahead of ourselves and argue that Southerners should be treated with respect. Let's be reasonable here.

And now, as my great-great-grandfather Confederate Capt. Romulus Tuttle—who saw every man in his company at Gettysburg killed or injured—spins at high speed in his grave back home in Ol' Virginny, allow me to offer a modest proposal: to avoid all of this mess in 2020, let's just leave race off the form altogether and count "people." I await your reasoned, polite, and carefully thought-out responses at the bottom of this column.