AAA Challenges Questions on US Census

4 thoughts on “AAA Challenges Questions on US Census”

  1. Did Virginia Dominguez actually study how non-native speakers of English living in the US feel about the term “linguistically isolated” before writing to the US Census Bureau?

    I’m a native English speaker who recently spent five years living in Asia and struggling with the local language. One summer, there was a huge typhoon. It was all over the news. Big storm coming! Stock up on food! Better buy candles because your electricity will probably be going out! Of course, I had no idea about the storm because my language skills were so limited. None of my friends spoke the language well either. We were all part of a small, English speaking expat community, and we all felt pretty cut off from society…especially when we had to go without food and light after the storm hit and everything was closed for days. The term “linguistically isolated” seems like a good way to describe what I experienced as a member of a language minority group with limited ability in the local language and, if the national government had bothered to ask about my language skills in order to improve community services or disaster management planning, I would have been thrilled. I can imagine being offended If they had categorized people like me as “arrogant westerner/too lazy to learn the language” but linguistically isolated? offensive? doesn’t the american anthropological association have bigger fish to fry? (i am sorry if any fish find that expression offensive.)

  2. I am very disturbed to read the letter that Virginia Dominguez sent to the Census Bureau, as it reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of both the nature of the language data that the Census Bureau collects, and the system by which Census questions are developed.

    The letter asserts that “The Census data prove that most of those who speak a language other than English at home are Proficient Bilinguals”. However, the Census data do no such thing. The Census only asks about the *English* proficiency level of people who speak languages other than English within the home. In order to be a proficient bilingual, one must speak *two* languages proficiently. But the Census gathers no information about how proficient such speakers are in the other language(s) that they speak. Given the amply documented language loss among heritage language speakers resulting in a shift to monolingual English speakers within 3-4 generations, it is highly likely that many people who speak a language other than English in the domestic sphere and who speak English “well” or “very well” are in fact *not* proficient bilinguals at all, but rather English-dominant speakers with limited competence in their heritage languages. Therefore, the category options proposed in Dominguez’s letter cannot possibly accurately reflect the data collected.

    As for the Census Bureau’s alleged unwillingness to change the language questions: As Jennifer Leeman clearly explains in her article in the May issue of Anthropology News (which the writers of this letter unfortunately seem not to have read), the Census Bureau itself does not come up with census questions. Rather, Congress and Federal Agencies charge the Census Bureau with adding new questions. Therefore, if the AAA deems new language questions necessary (which I believe they are), it is incumbent upon AAA to work with other Federal agencies or through congressional committees to get *them* to charge the Census Bureau with adding new questions. (Leeman’s article details the problems with the current questions and suggests new questions that need to be asked, so I will not rehash that information here.)

    The key undertaking of anthropologists is to observe and understand how social systems work. It is therefore an embarrassment that our professional organization would write a letter that makes clear that AAA has no idea how the Census Bureau works, or what kind of data it collects. This is especially appalling given that the association published an article, which it then ignored, that clearly lays this information out. If as a professional organization we hope to have an impact on the social institutions we study, we need to show that we understand those institutions, otherwise no one will take us seriously.

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