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Opinion: The Census 2010 and the Three-Fifths Compromise

At the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 a deal was struck, a compromise sponsored by delegates James Wilson and Roger Sherman now known as the Three-Fifths Compromise. I call to attention here the decision to count slaves as three-fifths of a person to serve as a profound reminder that from the get-go, counting for our nation has always been problematic, hypocritical and “constitutionally compromised.” 

Anyone today reading the papers, listening to talk radio, watching television or surfing the Web knows counting remains a complicated issue. And, while there may no longer be any juridical question regarding the “whole versus fractionalized” status of any given individual in our country, this country struggles with the notion of truly counting everyone who should count — everyone, that is, who ought to be counted. “Who counts?” remains at issue. Just as there have been so many in our nation’s history who have been “dis-counted,” in every sense of that word, we find ourselves still grappling, during the 2010 Census, with the legacy of how we are constituted — to count and be counted.

It is worth noting that those on the political right have publicly struggled over this issue. They appear to be of two minds regarding who counts. For example, they want, simultaneously, to count and not count undocumented immigrants. On one hand, we have Glenn Beck, et al along with elected officials such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) calling for a boycott and otherwise compelling others to not complete the census form because of concerns over privacy and as an act of protest regarding the inclusion of undocumented immigrants, among other things. On the other we have “pragmatists” (or perhaps cynics is the best word) such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist calling for “including everyone.”

The recently passed law in Arizona (Senate Bill 1070) and the reactions to it sadly highlight the deep fissures within the American political landscape regarding who counts. As a consequence of SB 1070, people who otherwise did not count politically now find themselves ipso facto counted among those who matter most in the U.S. today, namely, those counted as suspects and threats to our nation’s security. Of course, just days before SB 1070, they counted only as cheap labor.

This split represents the troubled — schizoid — relationship our nation retains regarding “who counts.” There remains the historical denial of the existence of millions within our nation and the cynical political willingness to manipulate them for greater congressional and financial clout — i.e. more congressional districts and access to federal monies. The Democrats are guilty of the latter as well but at least they (most of them anyway) express concern for treating people here, legally or not, as people who need access to things like hospitals and acknowledge the work and monies these “uncounted” peoples contribute to the economy, such as taxes on goods and services they purchase and providing the nation with a low-cost labor force.

If people matter, then they count, plain and simple, right? But if we are talking about counting within the complicated context of our representative democracy, then who counts is a legitimate question. It is a question, however, that the right has used and abused for years to de-legitimatize and intimidate, if not, eradicate those they deem unworthy of counting (legal and undocumented alike). But, thanks to the pragmatists among them this time around, McCain and Crist (now running as an Independent because of his potentially poor showing in the Republican primary) are essentially asking their fellow Republicans to count the people many conservatives insist don’t count.

Those Republicans advocating for inclusion of “everyone” are essentially forwarding an updated Three-Fifths compromise. Once again, we might find those who otherwise despise or discount hard-working people pushing for an “accurate” count. They push in order to gain new congressional districts in conservative states like Texas, where those who may now be counted will soon find themselves in congressional districts where they in fact don’t count, for much anyway. It was, we should remember, the states that had the most to gain (slave-holding states) that argued for “counting” slaves while not allowing them to count at all. We should also remember that nonslave-holding states argued against counting slaves for fear that the South would unfairly benefit from the larger population, an argument some politicians make with regard to undocumented immigrants. As a nation, we continue to struggle with our history of counting.

It might strike some as an old point to lament but it is another powerful manifestation of how the legacy of racism continues to spawn hypocrisy and injustice. Given this state of affairs, does it matter if we now count more efficiently and accurately but no more ethically than when we were morally compromised the first time it counted?

          As a country we have gotten good at counting. We count money (or lack there of); we count weapons (real and imagined); and we count our allies and enemies. We count just about everything. And yet, things still don’t really add up! That is, we still lack something, something fundamental, something genuinely consequential, namely something authentically democratic: meaningful representation of the multiplicity and diversity that has been, is and will be the United States.

          We have been, from the beginning, miscounting who we are. Until we start counting for real those who really count, I suspect we will continue to find ourselves poorly constituted to count as a nation. 

Dr. Ron Scapp is the founding director of the Graduate Program in Urban and Multicultural Education at The College of Mount Saint Vincent, where he is also professor of humanities and teacher education. This essay is based on a presentation at the 38th Annual Conference of the National Association of Ethnic Studies held in Washington, D.C. in April.


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