Census 2010: Stand Up and Be Counted! (Or Not)

Posted by Matthew Brian Hersh on April 7, 2010

Why all the paranoia about the 2010 Census? If you listened to the far right, the data collected from the census could result in a scene similarly portrayed in the Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” with brown shirts kicking in your door with their standard issues. Who knew the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, was so hostile?

But this is a paranoid time, and there is an emerging wave of anti-government fake populism that has been amplified with the help of some choice media outlets and blogs. Look, if you listen to these outlets, the census could be used to redefine marriage to favor same-sex couples, could lead to something similar to WWII era Japanese Internment camps. Some on the far right are looking to the census to help to promote their own causes, like using the data to help round up illegal immigrants.

But that’s the fringe, of course. Thing is, you have so-called mainstream media and elected officials legitimizing these fears, with actual pundits under CNN’s employ saying they would take out their shotgun if an American Community Survey worker shows up at the door.

But it’s not just the cable news channels, who have been directly complicit in dismantling rational national discourse and deterring citizens from taking part in the survey that is written into the Constitution. It’s other news sources, too (though Rupert Murdoch seems to be tied to several of those outlets). Is it any wonder we’re seeing this kind of backlash on participating in a federal survey, and what are the long-term implications? Local governments, community development corporations, and other CBOs from around the country are urging residents to take part because of the federal funding that can result, proper representation in Congress, and so that an accurate survey exists to better understand changing demographics, and consequently, changing community needs.

Here’re some samples of perpetuating the paranoid myth of an invasive census:

Key point inciting fake populist rage: “Citizens of ‘loser’ states should be outraged. Yet few are even aware of what’s going on.”

Key point inciting unnecessary paranoia. Quoting Rep. Ron Paul of Texas: “[The census] was never intended to serve as a vehicle for gathering personal information on citizens.”

Key point invoking politics and stirring up the right-wing base: “a Census director reporting to a hyperpartisan such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel increases the chances of a presidential order that would override the consensus of statisticians.”

Rep. Paul reprises his role here, evoking images of Big Brother, and this time, the American Civil Liberties Union makes an appearance, too!

Nestled deep in these, and other articles (and sometimes left unstated, though implicit), are legitimate reasons to have as much knowledge of anything you put your name and personal information on. But little of the coverage deals with the matter with that level of responsibility. Instead, it often resorts to sound bites and builds upon the increasing meme these days of equating things like health care reform, the census, and paying taxes to government intervention tantamount to COINTELPRO (though no one on the right seems to evoke the USA Patriot Act).

Responsible coverage would include testimony like that from Lisa Hasegawa, executive director of the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development, who acknowledges in this video that:

“The fear of government is definitely there, and I just think there is unfamiliarity of how the census data is used. Why would you give this private information to the government? People really need to understand the privacy issues: that your data is confidential and that it cannot be linked back to your family or your individual survey results.”

She’s absolutely right, of course, but that doesn’t make for good headlines — particularly when there is a rabid base to serve. What’s troubling is that real outrage based on fake populist talking points is, once again, threatening communities, and while it’s impossible to determine the impact now, it’s easy to imagine that those communities most vulnerable are the ones that will be most hurt.

About the author more »

Matthew Brian Hersh proudly served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics. He displays many of the trappings of a New Jersey sports fan: dispirited Mets fan, former Nets fan before they left the state, and normally satisfied Giants fan. Hersh lives in Highland Park, NJ with his wife and two children.

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