Refusing to Answer Census Race Question

March 19, 2010
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In 2010 US Government Wastes Three Billion Tax Dollars On Useless Race Question!

I have to admit, as a market researcher I should probably have been paying more attention to US Census efforts so far. As a taxpayer alone the cost total cost of the census should make me interested, $14.7 billion!

When I picked up the form last night to answer the 10 questions I was surprised that even in 2010, the US government is still so focused on race. Out of the 10 questions, 2 or 80% of the survey ($3 billion dollars) is dedicated to race and Hispanic origin!

I will be refusing to answer this question for several reasons, both ethical and methodological. I encourage you to think about it as well.

In regard to the race question, the US Census website states that it has been “Asked since 1790. Race is key to implementing many federal laws and is needed to monitor compliance with Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act…Race data are also used to assess fairness of employment practices, to monitor racial disparities in characteristics such as health and education

In 2010 US Government Wastes Three Billion Tax Dollars On Useless Race Question!

I have to admit, as a market researcher I should probably have been paying more attention to US Census efforts so far. As a taxpayer alone the cost total cost of the census should make me interested, $14.7 billion!

When I picked up the form last night to answer the 10 questions I was surprised that even in 2010, the US government is still so focused on race. Out of the 10 questions, 2 or 80% of the survey ($3 billion dollars) is dedicated to race and Hispanic origin!

I will be refusing to answer this question for several reasons, both ethical and methodological. I encourage you to think about it as well.

In regard to the race question, the US Census website states that it has been “Asked since 1790. Race is key to implementing many federal laws and is needed to monitor compliance with Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act…Race data are also used to assess fairness of employment practices, to monitor racial disparities in characteristics such as health and education and to plan and obtain funds for public services”

While I completely understand that ‘race’ may have been more important given our unfortunate history with slavery and segregation, today I feel it has become far less important. I rather prefer the approach of countries such as France where citizens are never asked ethnicity or religion in order to prevent discrimination.

As a consumer behavior researcher, I would be the first to ask race in a client survey if I believed it would help with planning/selling products. However, in reality the ethnic question has become less and less relevant in consumer/market research each year. While race/ethnicity does correlate somewhat to income and education, these latter two questions are far more important than race. Interestingly, Income and Education are missing from the census form.

The fact is that in the America of 2010 the main hindrance to social mobility is not race/ethnicity but socio economic. We are far more likely to be able to predict someone’s chances for success in life given the income and education level of their parents than their ethnicity. I think the ultimate example of course would be President Obama.

The fact of the matter is, unfortunately, if your parents are poor and uneducated, then you are very likely to also be poor and uneducated. By focusing on race instead of these socioeconomic factors we are hiding the true problems in the USA.

Beyond this the whole idea of race is racist in and of itself. And even when you ask the question, the answer is totally arbitrary. How do you think Obama would/should answer the question?

I called the US Census hotline as well as their Boston Station earlier today to ask these very questions. See summary below. Still waiting for them to call me back with a more official response. Will update you if I hear more.

CALL TO US CENSUS HOTLINE

After spending 10 minutes in the automated menu I finally got one of the 400,000+ Census employees on the phone. I’ve summarized the call as accurately as possible based on my notes.

Me: …Must I Answer the census questionnaire, what is penalty if I don’t?

Census Rep: Yes, the Census is mandatory by law… If you don’t answer you can face a jail term, fine or both

Me: But must I answer every question? I have a problem with answering the race question. What if I don’t answer it?

Census Rep: I don’t know that’s up to you

Me: Well I would like to know. I don’t want to go to jail

Census Rep: You may answer the Race question anyway you want, you can chose one option or 3 or 4 or 5.

Me: Why was this question included over other clearly more useful questions like income or education?

Census Rep: I don’t know I didn’t create the survey

Me: I’m blogging about this issue, is there anyone else you think I should talk to?

Census Rep: You can call your local census station, they should be able to get more detailed.

—-

CALL TO US CENSUS BOSTON STATION

Me: Hi yes, I have a question. Must I fill out every question on the census form?

Boston Station: Is there a certain question you have a problem with?

Me: Yes, I don’t feel comfortable with the race question

Boston: You can fill out as much as you’re comfortable with

Me: How would I answer if I’m half black half white, say? How would Obama answer that question?

Boston: uuh uuh I don’t know. I’m not sure. That would be up to him. You can answer as many selections as you like.

Me: I’m writing about this for NGMR (Next gen Market Research) and I’d like to know why this question was included instead of others like income and education.

Boston: OK I’m not allowed to take media calls. Will have someone get back to you about why we have those questions.

Curious to hear your thoughts. Are you happy that we’re spending $3billion on these two questions? Do you plan to answer them?

@TomHCAnderson

PS. One of the two Race questions below

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