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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

The Census

The United States Census Bureau has been capably and professionally carrying out its assignment to survey the population every ten years since 1790. Indeed the requirement for some form of enumeration is set forth in the Constitution. But what began as a simple head count for purposes of defining Congressional Districts has morphed into what many now regard as a formidable invasion of privacy. Resistance on this score has escalated recently because of well-founded concerns about the abuses connected with the misuse of personal information gathered from Internet web-sites. Moreover, undocumented immigrants and the immigrant communities in general are apprehensive, despite specific and profuse assurances to the contrary, about the possible use of Census returns against them. This is because changes in the immigration laws in 1996 gave the INS swinging new powers, which it has used, to deport undocumented immigrants. And these are two categories that New York is well represented in: foreign-born residents and Internet users.

Averse to answer the Census because of their illegal status, undocumented immigrants' non-responses are greater among Latinos than among blacks. But blacks in New York City, including middle income blacks, seem to have developed a greater degree of mistrust over time. The citywide response rate in black neighborhoods is down by 5% in 2000 to below 40%. And, as far as one can tell from fragmentary evidence, rates are down by more in middle income black neighborhoods than in low income ones. In an article in the New York Times, Sarah Kershaw posits that the most probable reason seems to be a general mistrust engendered by the sharp reaction among middle class blacks to several high-profile police brutality cases in the last few years in New York City.

What can the Census Bureau do about the minority undercount? Not much. The Census can and does overcome the language barrier among non-English speaking immigrant groups by printing in other languages. And they do manage to keep the INS at arm's length. But, ultimately, minority groups and undocumented immigrants must participate of their own accord.

Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and provides expert testimony on a range of cases, including housing discrimination. The opinions expressed are his alone.

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