Politics & Policy

What the Census Bureau, and America, Needs from a New Director

Former Census Bureau Chief John Thompson (Photo Courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau website)
How it counts us affects how we see ourselves, how congressional districts are drawn, and what nation we become.

The FBI wasn’t the only agency to lose its leader this week. On Tuesday, John Thompson, the director of the U.S. Census Bureau, announced he was stepping down. Thompson is stepping down halfway through a one-year extension of his term a week after a congressional hearing in which he was asked about costs overruns in the preparation for the 2020 census. His boss, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, was reportedly unhappy with his performance.

The media are devoting all their attention to James Comey, but make no mistake: Who the nation’s head head-counter is matters, too. If the important stuff is what happens upstream, then consider the Census Bureau the Lake Itasca of the Mississippi, the Tanggula Range of the Yangtze, and the Lake Victoria of the Nile.

The decisions it makes on how it counts us every ten years in the constitutionally mandated decennial census — and in the smaller samplings between — have enormous consequences on how we see ourselves, how congressional districts are drawn, and what nation we become.

So big are the knock-on effects of its decisions that even foreign policy is affected. As Samuel Huntington wrote in Who Are We?:

If American identity is defined by a set of universal principles of liberty and democracy, then presumably the promotion of those principles in other countries should be the primary goal of American foreign policy. [However, i]f the United States is primarily a collection of cultural and ethnic entities, its national interest is the promotion of the goals of those entities and we should have a “multicultural foreign policy.”

The census is the starting point of answering the question Who are we? The bureau’s decision in 1980 to divide the country into what has come to be known as the ethnolinguistic pentagon of white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Indian-American redefined the nation. This year the bureau is considering two changes that would take us further down the road of becoming a nation of groups.

The first creates a new ethnic interest group out of Americans who originate in that great swath of land between Morocco and the Iranian–Afghan border. This new group, Middle East and North Africa (or Mena), would then be subject to redistricting and other items in the cornucopia of the affirmative-action regime. These are the same Americans who, for over a century, have been considered — and considered themselves to be — white, not an “othered” minority.

The second change is a new classification for Hispanics that would make it harder for Americans who originate in Latin America or Iberia to identify themselves as black, white, or some other race. This type of group creation and consolidation is the lifeblood of the progressive project. It moves us further away from the Founders’ dream of E pluribus unum.

Liberal commentators have defended these changes by arguing that they yield better data. The search for a replacement for Thompson is also cast in terms of finding someone with strong scientific skills.

And indeed, the new director should understand how the data are gathered and the uses to which they are put. He or she should also understand the important downstream cultural consequences of how the government divvies up and groups Americans.

For an authority on how important the leadership of the census is, go no further than Barack Obama. In one of his first acts in office he made the director of the census work directly with the White House, while keeping the bureau under the umbrella of the Commerce Department.


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Mike Gonzalez — Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation.

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