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Census chief prioritizing better count of non-White populations

Robert Santos, the first person of color to permanently helm the bureau, said he is supportive of changes to the 2030 census that would paint a more multicultural picture of America’s population

U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos poses for a portrait in the lobby of the bureau headquarters in Suitland, Md., in 2022. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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For the past four decades, U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos has checked “Some Other Race” on his census form. Underneath it, he would write-in “mestizo” to describe his Mexican American heritage.

“That was the best way for me to be able to tell my own story of who I believe I am, as a Tejano and a Chicano,” Santos said in an interview.

Santos was not alone: In 2020, about 50 million people marked “Some other race” on their census form, and 90 percent of them were Latinos — a sign, Census Bureau officials have said, that the form is incompatible with how many people, particularly Latinos, identify.

A proposal by the Biden administration’s Office of Management and Budget could change that, potentially providing clarity for millions of Latinos filling out the form — including the Census director himself.

The efforts are a revival of Obama-era reviews of the once-in-a-decade survey that were put on hold under former president Donald Trump. Biden has made them a “top priority,” according to the country’s chief statistician, Karin Orvis. It’s swiftly moving through the process with the goal of completing the revisions before the 2024 presidential election, Census officials said.

The proposed changes would diminish the White population count, while presenting a country in 2030 that is more multicultural than previously thought.

Census race categories increasingly fail to reflect how people see themselves

Santos said one of his priorities as bureau director is improving the count of non-White populations. He is the first Latino to lead the bureau and its first Senate-confirmed person of color. (James Holmes led the Bureau as acting director in 1998, the first person of color to do so.)

When he was confirmed to lead the agency, Santos said he did some soul-searching.

“I had to make a decision of whether to just look like the usual Washington suspects or be myself. And as you can see, I decided to just be myself,” he said, gesturing to his low ponytail of long dark hair. “Yes, I’m Latino to the core. But I’m also a statistician to the core.”

His identity as person of color informs and influences his work as a statistician and bureau director, Santos says. He was born and raised in the “barrio” of San Antonio and went on to become the vice president and chief methodologist at the nonpartisan Urban Institute and was executive vice president and partner of the Austin-based NuStats, a social science research firm.

In 2021, as president-elect of the American Statistical Association, Santos expressed “grave concerns” over the hiring of several political appointees to the Census Bureau under the Trump administration. He urged the bureau’s then-director, Steven Dillingham, to “explain the rationale for creating this senior position and assure the public that the appointees will not disrupt in any way the objective, scientific work of the bureau’s career employees.”

The White population count could decrease under a new Biden proposal

Since being sworn in last year, Santos said he has been working to create stronger ties between the bureau and local communities, to help them make use of the bureau’s data and to encourage them to fill out the once in a decade survey.

“The census is part of the American political system so you should never be surprised that different administrations deploy the enterprise differently,” said Margo Anderson, distinguished professor emerita at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

On the current Census form, one question asks for the respondent’s ethnicity — whether they are Hispanic or not — and a following question asks for the respondent’s race, which includes White and Black but does not include Hispanic or Latino.

The proposal would combine these questions into one, with Latino listed alongside Black, White and other racial categories. It would also add Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) as an ethnic category alongside the others, instead of including MENA people under the White racial category.

The current census’ approach to recording race and ethnicity “is not optimal, is not the best approach,” Santos said. “The general public does not separate race and ethnicity. They think of it as one thing. And so when you ask one [question] and then ask another, they say, ‘Well, I already told you.’”

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The OMB’s proposal also recommends removing outdated racial language from the census’s race and ethnicity policy standards, which were crafted in 1977 and include words such as “negro” to describe African Americans and “far east” for Asian Americans.

Those proposed changes could lower the “Some other race” count, which grew 129 percent in the last decade, becoming the second-largest race group after White. The growth of that category has troubled census experts who have said it muddies the picture the census paints about who lives in America and diminishes federal funding to non-White populations.

A small number of AfroLatino-focused groups have pushed back against the changes, arguing that the consolidated race and ethnicity question could undercount their community, who in the current census can mark “Hispanic” as their ethnicity and “Black” in their race. Rogelio Sáenz, a professor at the University of Texas San Antonio who is also a member of the government’s interagency working group, Census Scientific Advisory Committee (CSAC), flagged these concerns during the group’s public presentation on Thursday.

But Nicholas Jones, the director of race and ethnic research and outreach in the Census Bureau’s Population Division, said in the meeting that the 2015 research into this change found the single question led to a better count, specifically for Afro-Latinos as well as Latinos overall.

The proposals also don’t address Latinos of indigenous descent who may have immigrated from Central America and speak indigenous languages but don’t necessarily fit under the “U.S.-centered” definition of Native American on the form, said Saenz. He also pointed out that White is often listed as the first race on the form and suggested the list of races and ethnicities be listed in alphabetical order to avoid a perception of racial hierarchy.

“We know the indigenous population within the Latino community has been growing in numbers and becoming much more diverse, many who do not speak Spanish as well, so there are all those issues that need to be considered with the indigenous population and making sure we have racial and ethnic categories for them,” Saenz said.

During Thursday’s presentation, Santos said the working group’s efforts show that above all else, the Census must be as fluid and nimble as the country’s ever-changing demographics. “Society is not static, and the only thing I know for sure is that our perceptions of who we are and how we like to call ourselves are going to change,” he said.