Counting on the Census?

Race, Group Identity, and the Evasion of Politics

By Peter Skerry

Since the U.S. Constitution first instructed that a slave be counted as only three-fifths of a person, the census has been caught up in America’s racial dilemmas. Today it is torn by controversies over affirmative action, evolving racial identities, and minority undercounts. In Counting on the Census? Peter Skerry confirms the persistence of minority undercounts and insists that racial and ethnic data are critical to the administration of policies affecting minorities. He rejects demands that the census stop collecting such data. But Skerry also rejects the view that the census is a scientific exercise best left to the experts, and argues that it is necessarily and properly a political undertaking. To those advocating statistical adjustment of the census, Skerry insists that the consequences of minority undercounts have been misunderstood and exaggerated, while the risks of adjustment have been overlooked. Scrutinizing the tendency to equate census numbers with political power, Skerry places census controversies in the broader context of contemporary American politics and society. He traces our preoccupation with minority undercounts to the pervasive logic of an administrative politics that emphasizes the formal representation of minority interests over minority political mobilization and participation. Rather than confront the genuine social and political problems of the disadvantaged, political elites turn to adjustment to tweak outcomes at the margin. In such a context, where ordinary Americans already feel bewildered by and excluded from politics, the arcane techniques of adjustment would undermine public confidence in this most fundamental function of government. Finally, in a society where racial and ethnic identities are more fluid than ever, Skerry calls for greater realism about the limited accuracy of census data—and for greater tolerance of the untidy politics that accompanies the diversity we have come to value.

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