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Op-Ed: How the Trump administration ruined the census for me

Census Bureau enumerators in orange vests raise their right hands to take an oath.
Census Bureau enumerators take an oath in March at Dodger Stadium.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times )

The other evening a census enumerator knocked at my front door. She was hang-tagged and masked, a clipboard in her hands, and she had questions about the residents of an adjacent property.

I wasn’t surprised to see a census taker on my block. In 1980, when I was 18, I trained to be one myself, compelled by the idea of going door to door to make sure everyone was counted, every voice was heard. Despite my inclination to distrust government and authority, I have long liked the ideals, the possibilities, embodied by the census.

The count of all residents is used to allocate resources and representation. Without question, it has been misused (the tracking of Japanese Americans during World War II is a particularly egregious example), but the plain truth is that I’m drawn by the optimism, the engagement, of this once-a-decade collage of who and where we are. It’s a crucial task, and it stands for what I’ve long imagined is the great strength of this nation: a dedication to facts on the ground and a willingness to reassess and change direction, to grow with and adapt to reality.

I’m not so sure that’s an American strength anymore.

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My reaction to the census enumerator offers a case in point. I hesitated to help her, even though I knew intellectually — if not emotionally — that her mission was necessary, even benign.

I can explain my reluctance — my distance — at least in part by pandemic protocol. I asked the enumerator to back up six feet before I even stepped outside. That made it harder to examine her credentials. I put on my mask.

Census takers knock on doors to make sure we’ve participated (I have) and to get the count right, and they are empowered to fill in gaps with neighbors if need be. The one who knocked on my door wanted to know about the upstairs apartment next door. Did I know who lived there?

As it happens, my wife and I had shared words with one resident, new to the block, after she’d let her dog loose in our front yard. We didn’t know her name, but we knew enough to recognize her. I could see her car parked across the street. Still, all of a sudden, it felt as if a little discretion could be useful, as if it might be best to keep what I knew about a neighbor to myself.

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And so, I hemmed and hawed and spoke in generalities, playing up what I didn’t know rather than what I did. I told her I had seen the neighbor but couldn’t confirm the unit she occupied. And as for a roommate? Well, that I honestly couldn’t say.

I felt conflicted. As much as I believe in the necessity of the census, there’s always a reason to be skeptical about what Washington (or Sacramento or City Hall) is up to, and the slow, steady drip of corruption and mayhem coming from the White House over the last four years has done profound and possibly irreparable damage to our institutions — and to my faith in them.

I find myself in a country where the attorney general wields the law not to pursue justice but to protect the president, where the post office may be abandoned as a necessary service for political reasons. Where federal relief is decried as “blue state bailouts” when it goes to places that vote Democratic, and according to a Vanity Fair report, the administration scuttled a national COVID-19 plan in April “because the virus had hit blue states hardest,” so it “would be an effective political strategy” to do nothing and blame the Democratic governors of those states for the catastrophe.

Meanwhile, the president, flailing, lying and behind in the polls, appears willing to do almost anything to undermine the electoral process unless it declares him the winner.

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The administration has relentlessly undermined and politicized the census. First, it was Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ attempt to add a citizenship question to the survey, despite clear data showing it would work against obtaining the “actual Enumeration” the Constitution demands. (Ross’ efforts were shot down by the U.S. Supreme Court.) Then the secretary tried, and as of Tuesday with a Supreme Court ruling, may have succeeded in putting an early end to the count, which would almost assure an undercount in cities like Los Angeles.

Outside my door, in the failing light of evening, the enumerator looked legit. What I told her wasn’t untrue exactly, but under a different administration, I would have almost certainly said more.

It wasn’t until I watched the enumerator walk away to knock on another door, ask questions of another neighbor, that I understood just how much, over these last four years, my optimism about America had receded, and how much my suspicions of government had metastasized.

David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to Opinion.


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