Census director: One 'mainstream culture' doesn’t make much sense
Outgoing Census Bureau Director Robert M. Groves spoke to CNN about what he learned about America.
August 8th, 2012
08:00 AM ET

Census director: One 'mainstream culture' doesn’t make much sense

Editor’s Note: On Wednesday, the Census Bureau shares its 2010 Census Race and Hispanic Origin Alternative Questionnaire Experiment, one of the largest quantitative efforts done for race and Hispanic origin research. This interview with outgoing Census Director Robert M. Groves has been edited for clarity.

By Guy Garcia, Special to CNN

(CNN) - There was a whiff of doomsday in the air when Robert M. Groves was confirmed as director of the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009.

Plagued by technical difficulties and poor planning, the bureau seemed ill-prepared to tackle the gargantuan task of counting the nation’s growing and increasingly diverse population.

Groves, a professor and director of the Public Research Center at the University of Michigan and the author of several books on statistical surveys, certainly had the right background for the job, but congressional critics questioned whether he had the organizational moxie to get the bureau back on track.

He not only fixed the technical snafus and produced census surveys in dozens of languages to better reach the nation’s polyglot population, but he also streamlined the bureaucracy and completed the 2010 Census $1.9 billion under budget.

In his final week as Census Bureau director, he spoke to CNN about what he learned about America, and what he sees for its future.

Robert M. Groves, Census Director

CNN: How is America changing?

GROVES: My personal experiences as a Census Bureau director have taught me that talking about a “mainstream” culture doesn’t make much sense. It’s hard to go from Manhattan to, you know, Lincoln, Nebraska, without saying, "Gee, I’m in two very different places." People talk differently, they move at different rates, they’re interested in different things, they’re knowledgeable about different things. They interact differently. So it isn’t quite clear to me anymore what we mean by mainstream culture. We are many different cultures in this country, and we’re actually quite proud of that.

CNN: What about the increasing diversity of the population? In the 2010 Census, 9 million Americans checked more than one box when it came to race and ethnicity. Does that mean the ethnic and racial categories that were added in 1970 and 2000 are out of date?

GROVES: That’s a good question. We haven’t made any decisions. On Wednesday we’ll release the findings from a whole set of coordinated experiments on different ways of measuring race and ethnicity. The word “Negro” was an issue in 2010. We actually have an experiment that will tell us if you add that word or drop that word do people behave differently and how they code themselves. We’re experimenting with that to see, and the question is always if we changed the form of the question or the words in the questions, or the groups mentioned, do people respond differently? So we’ll report that, and that will begin a very hopefully transparent dialogue with stakeholders all around the country.

CNN: The 2010 Census also confirmed some important social trends such as the rise of minority households, same-sex unions, or single people outnumbering married people for the first time in history — these things are all changing the American family. Do people understand the degree of transformation that’s going on right now?

GROVES: Well, I think there’s, there are few misunderstandings or myths with regard to these [demographic] trends. So just take marriage, you know, the rate of marriage and age of marriage. These are pretty pervasive trends. Now, we’re a little behind Europe on this, so in a way, you can look  to Europe and say, so what’s the long run effect of this on say, adolescent behaviors and child development and stuff like that? So, I think there are a lot of myths with regard to statistics and once you start studying the data. Let’s take the Asian population, which is often labeled as the model minority. If you dig in to those data and separate it by country of origin, there are very, very, very wealthy Asian groups and very, very poor Asian groups. So, with regard to all of the social trends, I think it’s important to drill down and look at variation. There’s usually a lot of variation within them.

Asian, more than Latinos, are largest group of new arrivals to the U.S.

CNN: How is technology, and the rise of crowd sourcing and social media, changing the Census Bureau?

GROVES: We just released our first API, which is a piece of software that allows other app developers to access our data in a predictable and easy way. And within hours of releasing the beta version of that API we had people writing apps already. So, our goal on this is that whatever device you might have in your hand or built into your eyeglasses or whatever, we’re going to be on it. This is not a desktop world anymore.

Bringing the census into the internet age

CNN: Will people ever be able to fill out their census form on Facebook or Twitter?

GROVES: [We’re exploring] Facebook and Twitter as ways to contact people and alert them that we’re on some other medium. In a way that’s like an old-fashioned networking tool.

CNN: What would be your advice to your successor?

GROVES: Keep the organization transparent. Open up the doors and listen to people from the outside, and over-support change, even if it’s risky. So, the great forces in any big organization are to stability and inertia and so you need something at the top that is biased towards change because everything else is biased towards stability. We have a bunch of young, really smart people who are raring to go, and [you should] liberate them. Let them do their thing. You know? It’ll be good.

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Filed under: Census • Where we live • Who we are
soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. joel wischkaemper

    And we do not have a mainstream language that binds all of this together. What we have is a wildly incompetent throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-if-it-stick process foisted on us by a Democratic Party that cannot keep its word. What we have is a incompetent process that was foisted on us by a Democratic Party that found it was easiest to whang the 'mainstream Americans' rather than admit they are wrong and fix the mess.

    September 29, 2012 at 10:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Ricardo

      Hi would you mind letting me know which hoitnsg company you're using? I've loaded your blog in 3 different internet browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot quicker then most. Can you recommend a good web hoitnsg provider at a reasonable price? Cheers, I appreciate it!

      October 15, 2012 at 12:14 am | Report abuse |
  2. Billy Offspring

    A European person asked me why Americans don't work together more? I told them because we don't have to, we just move to another part of America were we find others that think the way we do. I think our country has always been quite diverse it just is expressed more now than ever from the tooth paste we buy to kind of shoes we wear. There are hundreds of TV networks to service every possible niche in our society compared to 3 major networks 35 years ago.

    September 11, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • Lost

      ..."Babylon is fallen-that great city is fallen, is fallen, and has become the habitation of demons, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hateful bird..." One of the reasons this nation is so divided is that those who feel they are somehow superior to others, are fearful of having to face the humanity that exists in the hearts of those they oppress. It makes them feel belittled that they are wrong to treat people so poorly. But instead of extending peace and equality, they do the exact opposite and retreat into a safe corner where they don't have to face the hurt in the eyes of those they've betrayed. Now look at this country. There is just as much or more prejudice worldwide within other nations, but people view this nation as a template and beacon of hope. The world is watching every move.

      September 13, 2012 at 3:54 am | Report abuse |
      • joel wischkaemper

        The bigotry in this is high. Choice is absent. The condemnation of people who move to communities with like values is scorned. No matter.. those mainstream qualities of the most successful country in the world are rapidly being consumed by the corruption and manipulations in Congress.

        September 29, 2012 at 10:51 am | Report abuse |
  3. willko

    Groves is ensconced in academia and most likely future funded by corporatist think tanks. He's paid to recite this nonsense which makes not a bit of sense. You can bet the data will be used for demographic markets. That's how you sell, make each demographic think they are unique and important...LOL. At one time America was how to find commonality in a heterogeneous culture... groves is a hack....

    August 16, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Report abuse |
    • Eligah G. Barrett Jr

      this is what is missing.Education With Vision

      Education is something most people take for granted. We assume it is something one acquires after graduating from college. Yet the 20th-century knowledge explosion has done little to solve the problems of this world. What’s wrong with education today? More importantly, what is true education?

      September 7, 2012 at 1:30 am | Report abuse |
  4. whitmanguy

    I agree totally with Jorge. America is many rivers. There is no mainstream.

    August 15, 2012 at 8:18 am | Report abuse |
  5. Jorge

    It seems quite self-centered, clueless and autistic for many people in the U.S. to constantly rant about the "mainstream", especially when there is really nothing mainstream about the U.S. except workplace cultures and shopping centers. When American media, religion and government portray their pet concepts of "mainstream," which they try to insinuate upon the minorities of which there are many in this country, they show themselves as nothing if not self-serving or perhaps at their most harmless, inane and annoying.

    August 10, 2012 at 7:33 am | Report abuse |
    • willko

      Perhaps you could give examples of "pet concepts"that are "insinuated" upon minorities. You make about as much sense as Groves.....

      August 16, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Report abuse |
      • Jared

        You probably don't travel much huh? Anyone who has seen any decent bit of this country knows very well how diverse it is. If however you have never left a 100 mile radius around your podunk home down your likely to believe that everyone is the same and like you because its LITERALLY all you have know all of your life.

        Its like the movie says "you cant be told what the matrix is, you have to see it for yourself"

        September 20, 2012 at 7:37 pm | Report abuse |