SAN FRANCISCO — I associate the word census with Christmas midnight Mass, with the priest reading St. Luke's Gospel: "At that time there went forth a decree from Caesar Augustus that a census of the whole world should be taken . . . ."
You do not have to be a child, though I suppose it helps, to be awed by the epic event--the ancient world discovering itself. One thousand, nine hundred and ninety years later, the government envelope arrives in my mailbox: Sincerely yours, the Department of Commerce.
For weeks there have been news stories about this census. For weeks political leaders have been urging Americans who live in closets or shadows to be counted, to use the census as a way of voting. The Chinese-American activist tells his fellow Chinese-Americans--legally here or not--that they should fill out the census form for their community's good. The gay activist tells gay men and women that being counted is a political assertion. Last week was the spectacle of census-takers prowling through the urban dark, trying to count the homeless.
The census is important, not as a national tally but for its splintered results. Journalists and senators, social activists and advertising executives will look at the numbers within numbers--the subgroups. Not the "World Book" total--how many of us are here--but how different we are from each other.
Antonia Hernandez, president of the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, is quoted in a Hispanic newspaper with the cadence of a political activist: "Our size must be fully documented to ensure that, economically and politically, we receive our portion of the pie." The pie. The American pie. In the 1960s, the hymn of the black civil-rights movement described an America united. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke with Pauline eloquence of a nation uniting Christian and Jew, old and young, rich and poor, black and white. Within a decade, by the 1970s, the heroic struggle for black equality was replaced by competition for pieces of a pie. The quest for a portion of power became an end in itself. The metaphor for the American city was the committee room: One black, one woman, one person under 30. The new American way.
So why do I hesitate when it comes to Question No. 4--the one in the census referring to race? And then hesitate again with No. 7? Isn't this a straightforward question?
Is this person of Spanish/Hispanic origin ?
I remember, not long ago, talking with several Spanish-language TV executives. None of them, incidentally, was Hispanic. But they were interested in Hispanic numbers. They were expecting that the new census numbers would make their jobs easier and more lucrative. They were pleased especially that Question No. 7 allows respondents to specify their ethnic Hispanic group. Puerto Rican. Nicaraguan. The answers would help ad agencies "target the diverse Hispanic market."
Social activists tell me that numbers are everything in Sacramento or Washington. Hispanics matter because they are a large number, getting larger. To a certain extent it seems logical and right that politicians attend to needs and problems as they grow larger. But what about the needs of those who do not belong to a group that is large and getting larger? Doesn't the single life deserve attention in Sacramento or Washington? Or have I missed the point of democracy?
"I count," someone says. Meaning: I matter. Is there anything sadder than hearing the opposite: "I don't count."
And yet there are people, many millions of them, who do not count or who do not think that they do. They are people of every race, of every color. Most are poor. Most are poorly educated. What they have in common is that they do not think of themselves as in common, as belonging to majority society, our society, or in league with each other. They are people of a margin, at the edge. People who lack the will or desire or ability or energy to speak publicly of themselves as a "we."
We know such people exist and yet we trivialize their plight. We speak, for example, of "minority groups." We use the word minority in a simple collective sense, usually to mean that certain populations are underrepresented in public life. We ignore the deeper, more urgent cultural sense of the term minority. We speak of minority groups without irony or a sense of paradox. We forget that the true minority is the person--male or female, white or black--who for any one of a thousand private reasons is without the consolation of belonging to a group.
Now we speak of "the homeless." Last week census takers searched them out--a government looking for its lost children. The homeless. Perhaps we must cluster them together with such an expression. But the term should not let us forget that the ones--ones--who live in the streets are people alone, lives adrift in a crowd.