Op-Ed: Want to be invisible? Try a census

Tuesday, March 6, 2018 - 4:44pm


From 1963—1973 the “Northeast state” of Nigeria experienced one of the largest population growths in recorded history. In that decade, the population grew by 49 percent (in comparison the U.S. grew around 12 percent and China by 26 percent during the same period).

Or at least that’s what the 1973 Nigerian census said. This data was later announced to be grossly inaccurate and the Nigerian government was forced to declare the 1973 census null and void amid a scandal of “deliberate falsification of data to gain economic, political, and/or ethnic advantage.”

Contrary to popular belief, censuses are far from neutral. Though they are supposed to be an accurate representation of the population and societal metrics (unemployment, birth rate, marriage rate), they are often subject to “data politicization,” a process by which government data is manipulated to pursue a political goal.

While it is true that there are many flaws with censuses (see gerrymandering and episode six of the first season of “The West Wing”), data politicization is a deliberate action that is used to underrepresent, misrepresent or altogether make a particular population invisible.

A prime example is the American census. According to Becky Pettit, professor of sociology from the University of Texas at Austin, “there have been different periods of American history where different subgroups of the population have been uncounted, undercounted, under enumerated, missing, invisible.” Pettit points to the fact that since 1942, the U.S. census has been based on a survey of household information. “We’ve been conducting the survey effectively the same way to gauge the health and well-being, economic skills and capacities of the American population since 1942 … (Which) categorically exclude people who aren’t living in households.” Pettit identifies the massive incarcerated population of the U.S. as a group that is particularly affected. She details, “By 2015 almost ¾ [of one percent] of Americans were incarcerated in prisons or jails … Approximately 2.2 million Americans.” In other words, almost all national surveys render the incarcerated population invisible. 

However, the effects of census politicization are not confined to America. Take the issue of Rohingya identification in the 2014 Myanmar census for example. The Myanmar government claims that the Rohingya are illegal Bengali immigrants. Contrastingly, the Rohingya see themselves as an indigenous population. According to reports, “In a last-minute decision, the Myanmar government announced that it would not allow members of the Muslim minority in Rakhine State to self-report their ethnicity to enumerators as 'Rohingya.'” Though certainly not a direct causation, this erasure of Rohingya identity on the census was fundamental in the events that led to the 2017 massacre of the Rohingya population. By making the Rohingya population “invisible” on paper and not providing any sort of official estimate of population size, it was much easier for Myanmar's government to carry out a series of massacres that led to the deaths of more than 1,000 and the displacement of 300,000 Rohingya as of September 1, 2017

Finally, take a look at the case of the data collected in 1997 by the Palestinian Authority’s Bureau of Statistics. According to numerous scholars, including Yoram Ettinger and Caroline Glick, the population of Arabs living in the Palestinian territories has been greatly inflated.

In particular, Ettinger identifies almost 400,000 Palestinians living abroad, 300,000 Jerusalem Arabs with dual ID cards who have been double counted by Israelis and Palestinians, and an overexaggerated Arab birth rate. This, among other disparities, contributes to a total of almost 1.15 million “invisible” Arabs who aren’t counted in the census. 

The importance of this apparent miscalculation cannot be overstated. This existence or absence of 1.15 million Arabs can very well determine which group (Jews or Arabs) will be the majority demographic in the land.

On a final note, censuses are not inherently a bad thing. They are still an important tool to create an accurate measure of a population for governmental policies. So next time you get a government survey in the mail there’s no need to burn it or put on your tinfoil hat. Instead, do your research and identify how the census is taken and which groups are likely to be misrepresented. Who knows, you may find that you too are a victim of the census’s vanishing act.

Alex Harris is an LSA Junior.