For gay and lesbian couples in Queens, the 2010 Census is exciting because it marks the first decade in which their data is being actively sought out by the bureau. However, for other local minority groups, this year’s census seems archaic.
African Americans are asked to check next to a box marked “Negro,” a term which Jamaica Queens activist Robert Au Hogan feels is a throwback to the Jim Crow era. Councilmember Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) is upset that Caribbean Islanders are not represented as a group at all, while Cynthia Zalisky, Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council is concerned that fear and language barriers may prevent many Russian Jews from returning their forms.
“Many of them come from areas where big brother was not their friend,” Zalisky said.
Since 1790 the Census Bureau has been collecting data about every single person in the United States. Initially designed to provide apportionment of representatives in the Federal Government, who is counted on the census and in what manner has never been simple.
In 1787, the three-fifths compromise allowed slaves to count partially when designating the number of federal representatives for slave holding states, even though slaves themselves were disenfranchised.
While race and ethnicity has always been part of the data tabulated by the census, each decade new categories are added or taken away, according to New York Census Bureau spokesman Igor Alves.
Alves said new questions are added based upon the type of data the government is looking to gather and language is changed based upon which words the general population feels most comfortable with using.
According to the Census Bureau, the word “Negro” is still included on the census form because research showed that a portion of the population still identified as Negro, though the bureau both apologized for any offense the term may generate and mentioned it was testing for its removal.
The census is far from perfect. Currently, there is no way for a married people who do not live together to indicate that fact. Numerous ethnic groups are left out and the form must be filled out in English.
“The main purpose of the census is to count people,” said Alves. “That's basically the most important part. It's not to count who is what ethnicity or orientation, the main idea is to count the number of people so as to determine congressional representation for geographic areas and the fair distribution of federal funds.”
Still, since the Census is the largest scale data collection operation of its kind, it often sets standards regarding what to call people of different ethnic groups and how to account for certain kinds of families.
According Alves, same sex couples who had listed themselves as “married” in previous censuses were excluded from being counted as married in official government data. This year, same sex couples will be permitted to list themselves as “married” and be counted as such, even if their marriage is not legally recognized in the state in which they live.
“We pushed for that change because we want to be seen and heard and registered and represented as part of our country,” said New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn at a press conference at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in Manhattan.
Like many gays and lesbians, Quinn wants sexual orientation and gender identity to be added to the census so that the demographics of her community may be known more fully.
The Gay and Lesbian Task force has even distributed bright pink stickers that GLBT people may stick on the outside of their census forms to raise awareness of the population of single GBLT people. According to Brad Jacklin of the Gay and Lesbian Task force, “the reason every single gay and lesbian person needs to be counted is because we live in a world in which everyone is presumed to be heterosexual until someone says otherwise.” However to some, collecting such personal information crosses a crucial line.
One person at the press conference asked why transgendered individuals should want to disclose their status as such when doing so often leads to discrimination or being fired from jobs. Though the government assures data is kept private for decades, some members of minority groups are hesitant to identify and frightened that if such a question were included on a government form, they would be compelled to.
In 2000, the census form had a question about immigration status which was very frightening to many respondents, according to Zalisky.
Others feel adding an extensive list of subcategories to the form will be time consuming and ridiculous.
“What are they going to do in 10 years? Say, are you a lesbian Negro, or I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” said activist Hogan, who would prefer the census stuck to simply counting the number of people, though he said that notion is now politically incorrect.
Politically incorrect or not, neglecting to identify with ones designated minority group may have unintended effects, according to Councilmember Ulrich.
In 1965, the voting rights act made it so that voting districts could not be re-drawn in ways that disenfranchised minority voters. Though the GLBT population does not currently fall under that minority status, Ulrich said he is concerned that Queens residents from the Caribbean Islands who currently do, may feel uncomfortable checking that they are African American, Negro or Black, since many are of Asian descent. As a result, these people will not be recognized as deserving of protection under the 1965 act, Ulrich said.
Additionally, Census data is used to allocate federal funding, and if members of minority groups do not identify as such on census forms it may be harder for groups that serve them to obtain federal funding. Alves estimates that the amount of federal funding up for grabs based upon Census data would be over $400 billion over the next 10 years.
Regardless of terminology, one thing politicians and community leaders agree on is getting Queens residents counted. As of April 6, only 47 percent of forms mailed out by the Census Bureau had been returned by Queens County Residents. When compared with a 62 percent return rate for the United States overall, this number is dismal.
“We only had 54 percent of the residents of Queens counted in 2000 and we lost an awful lot of money,” said Zalisky. “We lost hospitals in Queens. We can’t afford to lose another dollar.”
Queens dwellers of all ethnicities, sexual orientations, immigration statuses, sizes and shapes should fill out their census forms by April 15 to ensure everyone in our borough counts. After the April 15, the Census may come knocking.