Feature

The census: Invasion of privacy?

A dutiful 87 percent of Americans say they plan to fill out their census forms. With just 10 questions, it's the shortest form in decades. 

As 120 million U.S. Census forms arrive in mailboxes across the country, they’re being “greeted with suspicion, even hostility,” said the Baltimore Sun in an editorial. Counting the American population is a “benign” exercise that the government began in 1790, but libertarians, illegal immigrants, and the paranoid fringe see sinister intent in all those nosy questions. Why does the government need to know whether we rent or own our own home? Whose business is it what race I am? A dutiful 87 percent of Americans say they plan to fill out their forms, but the holdouts insist that the feds can’t be trusted to keep their answers private. It’s a pity that fears like these are “on the upswing,” said the Chicago Sun-Times. The 2010 form is the shortest in decades—just 10 questions. By law, privacy protections are strong. And the stakes are high: The government will use population counts to allocate $400 billion in federal funding for roads, schools, and law enforcement, and to determine how many congressional seats each state will have. “Every American should stand up and be counted.”

Right, but not according to racial groups, said Mark Krikorian in USA Today. That’s why I answered “American” to the question about race. If we want to live in a colorblind society, we’ve got to shake off this old liberal way of thinking and throw out the census’ “obnoxious system of mandatory race classification.” Besides, many of us don’t fit into the government’s backward little boxes, said Susan Straight in The Washington Post. Take my three daughters, who are a combination of white, African, Irish, and Native American. One of their friends has very dark skin, but is Egyptian. One day soon, as intermarriage blurs all the lines, the government will abandon its boxes, and we’ll all be better off.

Race questions do serve a purpose, said USA Today. They enable the government to enforce civil-rights laws on housing discrimination, and to make sure states don’t draw up voting districts to dilute minority influence. As for concerns about privacy, the average American posts more personal information on their Facebook and MySpace pages than they do on the census form. And if you use “loyalty cards” from supermarkets and drugstores, and make purchases on websites, big corporations already know what you like to read and eat and what ailments you have. So when the census form arrives, please—just send it in already.

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