Little Boxes


The Bureau of the Census wants my help. It is conducting the 1997 Survey of Business Owners and Self-Employed Persons, and it has sent me a form to fill out.

Looking it over, a few questions occur to me. First of all, I don't own a business. Nor am I self-employed. Why is the Census Bureau surveying me?

In the list of frequently asked questions that is helpfully included in the mailing, I find the answer: "Any activity reported on Form 1040 (Schedule C) meets the definition of a business for purposes of this survey."

I report my freelance writing income on Schedule C, because that's what an accountant told me I should do. So now I'm a business in the eyes of the Census Bureau.

The use of tax returns to select the respondents also explains why the bureau is sending out forms for the 1997 survey in the summer of 1999: "The complete sample for the survey cannot be selected until all tax records for 1997 are available."

In the letter that accompanies the survey, the Census Bureau's Thomas L. Mesenbourg politely asks me to "please complete and return your census form within the next 30 days." But that request is immediately followed by a veiled threat: "Title 13, United States Code, requires your response to this survey."

Sure enough, Title 13, Chapter 7, Subchapter II of the United States Code says that anyone who "neglects or refuses…to answer completely and correctly to the best of his knowledge all questions relating to [his business] shall be fined not more than $500." If you deliberately give a false answer, you can be fined $10,000.

That gets my attention, which I guess is the idea. The bureau's question-and-answer sheet says this particular survey, which it conducts every five years, is authorized somewhere else in Title 13. I can't find the relevant section, but that doesn't mean it's not there. Title 13 is long and complicated.

The U.S. Constitution, by contrast, is quite short. And I'm pretty sure it does not empower Congress to authorize the Census Bureau to threaten us with fines if we don't fill out questionnaires about businesses we didn't even know we owned.

The real census–the population count done every 10 years–is required right there at the beginning, in Article I, Section 2. But the Constitution refers to an "actual enumeration," for the purpose of apportioning representatives. It says nothing about surveys for other purposes.

In any case, it is hard to imagine what constitutional purpose could be served by the Census Bureau's questionnaire, which inquires about the business owner's "gender," "race," and Hispanicity. It also asks whether you've done any business with the federal government.

The bureau says "these data are needed to evaluate the extent and growth of business ownership in order to provide a framework for assessing and directing Federal, state, and local government business assistance programs." In other words, the survey helps the government decide how to subsidize entrepreneurs based on their sex, color, or ethnic background.

Far from being authorized in the Constitution, such preferential treatment seems to be at odds with "the equal protection of the laws." Yet more than 130 years after the 14th Amendment forbade racial discrimination by the states, the U.S. government continues to classify citizens according to arbitrary genetic criteria, in the name of equality.

If any of your ancestors came from Africa, for instance, you are expected to check the little box next to "African Am./Black/Negro." Even if almost all of your ancestors were Europeans and your skin is light, you are not supposed to check off "White." A combination answer is not allowed, and there is no "multiracial" category.

This is what used to be called the "one drop" rule, meaning that the slightest trace of African blood was enough to make someone black. Nowadays it's called affirmative action.

When I was in college, a friend told me that a mutual acquaintance had been picked for an internship program aimed at helping blacks. "He's black?" I said incredulously.

The guy did not look black to me, and it's not the sort of thing that comes up in casual conversation. Still, I was embarrassed; somehow, I felt, I should have known.

Such a faux pas, of course, is possible only in a society where people make such a big deal out of categories they insist should be irrelevant.