JSU Newswire
Jacksonville, Alabama

Alabamians' Response To Census 2000

Well count us out

By Dr. Hardy Jackson
JSU Professor of History

Reprinted from the Mobile Register

“Well done, America!” Commerce Secretary Norman Y. Mineta was almost beside himself with glee. “Civic obligation, contrary to skeptical voices, is alive and well across America’s communities,” chimed in Census Bureau Director Kenneth Prewitt.

Why were these men so happy? Because nearly 7 out of 10 homes in the U.S. had filled out and returned a Census 2000 questionnaire.

But they weren’t proud of Alabama. No sir. Barely six out of ten homes in this state sent in the form. We weren’t the lowest response, but as usual we were nestled next to it.

As Gomer Pyle would say, “Surprise! Surprise!”

Anyone who has been around here long enough to cast at least one meaningless vote could have told you that “answer the government questionnaires” will always be right below “clean the grease trap” on our to-do list.

What is surprising is that the census folks up in Washington don’t have a clue why this is so. When asked about the disparity between states like Alabama and the rest of the nation, Bureau Director Prewitt suggested that “poverty and lower education levels of the region” had a lot to do with it.

Well, as Ronald Reagan was oft to observe, “There you go again.”

All some Washington bureaucrat has to do to explain why we do what we do is conjure up the image of the poor Alabamian, shuffling along, barefoot in the dust: can’t read, can’t write, can’t do his civic duty, and folks up there on the Potomac, up there in what some of us call “occupied Virginia,” will smile sympathetically and nod knowingly.

“Now I have this to say about that.” (Richard Nixon's famous response.)

“It ain’t necessarily so." (George Gershwin's.)

If we are too ill-educated to fill out the forms, why did the county homes of our flagship universities turn in forms at a rate even lower than Alabama as a whole? (Now don’t go saying that proves the point, ‘cause it don’t.) And if being poor is the key, then ‘splain to me why Gulf Shores, where homes cost more than most folks earn in a lifetime, had the lowest return rate in the state.

No, Alabamians failed to return the census questionnaires for other reasons, reasons that Washington will probably never understand.

Conducting a private, unscientific, and, in my mind, entirely valid poll of my own, I found that most of those who failed to respond to the census call did so because they felt that if the government really wanted to know how many people were out there, it had plenty of ways to find out without bothering them. As one non-respondent told the census-taker when she appeared at his door to get him to fill out the form, “You know where I am, and you know how many there is of me, so why are you here?”

That question gets us to the heart of the matter. The census-taker was there because the government wanted more than a population count. The form that had not been filled out, a copy of which the census-taker brought with her, was chock full of the sort of questions that well-raised Alabamians simply don’t ask and don’t answer, questions dealing with things that ain’t nobody’s business but our own.

Alabamians learn early in life that you don’t ask somebody how much money they make, or how much they owe or how big their house is, and you sure don’t ask how many bathrooms they have or whether those bathrooms are inside or out. Those things are personal, and Alabama Mamas teach their children not to ask personal questions. It’s not polite, and you don’t need to know.

So it follows that when people ask questions like that, Alabamians conclude that (1) they are not the sort of people we should associate with, and (2) they are up to something.

Now the folks up in Washington tell us not to fret about such as that, ‘cause the government is our friend. Well, friends don’t ask friends about things like indoor plumbing. What does indoor plumbing matter anyway? I once heard of a fellow who believed it was not a good idea to eat in the same building where you go to the bathroom. So he puts his bathroom out back. Now I may not agree with him, but I sure can’t fault his logic. But what will the government do if he tells them where the bathroom is? They’ll add him to the list of poor, ill-educated Alabamians, that’s what.

A friend doesn’t ask questions that make his friend uncomfortable. A friend would never ask you if you were “semi-skilled.” But the government does. And a friend would not ask you if you finished high school. If the government wants to know how many high school graduates there are, then have the schools use some of the federal money they get to compile a list every year and send it in. Don’t come asking us if we are or aren’t. That’s personal.

And since it seemed to a lot of folks that personal stuff was what the census was all about, they didn't fill out the forms. But did it occur to the government that this it might be because they didn’t want to? No! The government immediately assumed that they didn’t answer because they were poor (no indoor plumbing) or ill-educated (never finished high school) or both. So the government sent workers to help these unfortunates do their civic duty.

Now I know some of the folks that Washington hired to light a fire under the laggards. They are good people, and they took their job seriously. And it was not an easy job. How would you like to be a stranger coming up to someone’s home to ask a bunch of personal questions that the resident had already refused to answer? Census workers were hollered at, cussed, ignored. They had doors slammed in their faces. One worker had to stand and listen while a homeowner cited scripture to prove that cooperating with the census was paving the way for the antiChrist, who would use this information to persecute the faithful. (The worker pointed out that Mary and Joseph were cooperating with the census when they went to Bethlehem, but somehow that didn’t count.)

But to be fair, some of the folks the Feds sent out were, how to put this delicately, not exactly what you might expect.

There was the “one-eyed man” who appeared at a non-filer’s door and scared him so badly that he filled out the form just to get rid of him. Another refusenik was visited by what he described as a “hot chick,” who tried to get him to open up his personal affairs to her — he didn’t fall for the ploy, and she went away unrequited and uninformed. A more successful approach was taken by a worker who touched the heartstrings of a homeowner with stories of old folks not getting meals and disaster areas not getting relief, all because people did not fill out the forms. Say what you will, we Alabamians are a sympathetic people.

We are also a people with a sense of humor. I found one family that not only filled out the form but had a great time doing it. Everyone joined in, and when their son decided that he was a Native American they duly listed him as such. Now the folks in Washington may not find that funny, but that’s their problem.

Actually, most of the non-filers I talked with seemed to feel that Washington is the problem. They figure that a bunch of bureaucrats up there, convinced that Alabamians are poor and ill-educated, drew up the questionnaire so it would prove they were right. But when we saw through their scheme and refused to go along with it, did they revise their opinion of us? Of course not! They announce to the waiting world that we didn’t respond because we were too poor and ill-educated to fill out the form. Either way, they confirm what they already believe and make us look bad while they look good.

To my way of thinking, Washington should be happy that they got the response they did. I mean, when was the last time 60% of our citizens followed directions. The census folks should quit bad-mouthing us and look on the bright side. If nothing else, this country has got one more Native American than we thought we had.

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