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The federal agency that measures racial diversity is led mostly by white people

An NPR analysis has found that for years people of color have been underrepresented in the top rank of career civil servants at the U.S. Census Bureau, whose headquarters in Suitland, Md., are shown in this 2018 photo.
Claire Harbage
An NPR analysis has found that for years people of color have been underrepresented in the top rank of career civil servants at the U.S. Census Bureau, whose headquarters in Suitland, Md., are shown in this 2018 photo.

In her three years working at the U.S. Census Bureau, Mónica García-Pérez remembers rarely seeing or hearing people like her.

"I would never forget those years," says the economist who was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and helped develop data analysis projects at the federal government's largest statistical agency from 2006 to 2009 as a graduate student. "I created long-lasting friendships and long-lasting memories."

García-Pérez says if anyone were to ask her about other Latinos she met inside the bureau's headquarters in Suitland, Md., a suburb just southeast of Washington, D.C., she could name very few.

"You will see Latinos mostly in service work by the lunchroom, or you will hear Spanish in those areas," she adds. "But I personally did not see that within the units that I interacted with."

While the civil servants she did meet were, as García-Pérez puts it, "very loyal to do the right work" for the country's once-a-decade head count and national surveys, she often wonders how a bureau with more racial and ethnic diversity could better produce the data that governments, along with businesses and researchers, rely on to understand the people living in the United States.

"I think what has been done has been done professionally," García-Pérez says of the bureau's work as the government's main supplier of data. "It's what could be done and what other discussion could be opened" if there were a workforce that actually mirrored the country's demographics, she adds.

Starting next month — more than two centuries since the country's first national count in 1790 — the bureau is expected to be led by the first Latino and second-ever person of color to head the U.S. census: Robert Santos, one of the country's leading statisticians who is Mexican American and a Biden administration appointee confirmed by the Senate for a five-year term.

But under the bureau's director, the permanent full-time staff (which does not include the temporary workers hired specifically for the decennial count) at the federal agency in charge of measuring the demographics of the U.S. still doesn't reflect the country's racial and ethnic diversity. And that's especially true among its highest-ranking civil servants in the Senior Executive Service who run its day-to-day work.

An NPR analysis has found that close to 4 in 5 senior executives at the bureau identified as white and not Hispanic or Latino, according to the latest public data from June.

Nationally, people of color make up about 2 in 5 U.S. residents. But at the bureau, only about 1 in 5 executives identified as either American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black, Latino, Pacific Islander or multiracial. While there is a relatively high share of executives who identified as Black compared with other groups, people of color as a whole are underrepresented among these leaders.

The fact that the bureau's Senior Executive Service is overwhelmingly white has raised concerns about whether the agency is providing equitable opportunities to reach its top rank of staffers and how committed it is to its own stated goal of achieving "a workforce that reflects the rich diversity of the American public that we serve."

"To say we're going to be 'America's Fact Finder,' which was the tagline for a while, it just kind of doesn't carry much credibility if America to you is only non-Hispanic white America," says the bureau's former associate director of the 2010 census, Arnold Jackson, who is African American.

In recent years, executives who identified as Black have filled a share of the bureau's highest civil servant positions that is comparable with the proportion of the U.S. population made up by Black people, according to counts released by the Office of Personnel Management.

But those numbers only tell one facet of a complicated story about racial and ethnic groups who have been historically underrepresented at the highest levels of the bureau's leadership. Beneath the limited public data tables about the bureau's workforce, some former staffers and longtime census watchers tell NPR, there are long-standing barriers to diversifying its staff. And for outsiders, it's nearly impossible to fully understand the goings-on of this often-overlooked federal agency.

The government has not released the racial and ethnic breakdown of a select group of executive-level decision makers who form the bureau's Operating Committee, which includes the deputy and associate directors. And there have been either so few or zero executives who identified as American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Latino, Pacific Islander or multiracial that privacy protections have prevented the government from making those specific counts publicly known for years.

The bureau has undercounted people of color for decades

The Census Bureau declined to make a representative available for an interview about the racial and ethnic makeup of its staff.

In a statement, the bureau told NPR that it "continues to work on ensuring that its stated commitment to fair and equitable treatment" is "reflected in its hiring and promotion practices," and it is "committed to attracting, developing and retaining a diverse and inclusive workforce."

Citing internal numbers that the bureau did not make available to NPR, the agency said that the share of permanent employees of color it has categorized as supervisors from grade level 13 of the federal government's General Schedule pay system through the Senior Executive Service rank has increased 5 percentage points in the past five years, from 37% in 2016 to 42% this year.

The bureau's statement also noted "this pattern is present" among its senior executives.

But NPR's analysis of the most recent data that is publicly available found that while the share of executives of color has grown about 2 percentage points since 2016, that proportion shrank by more than 7 percentage points when compared with 2010.

This lack of diversity can also be found in many other parts of the federal government. Some census watchers say they are particularly concerned that it persists at the same agency that has, decade after decade, undercounted Black people and Latinos, as well as Native Americans living on reservations.

Those undercounts have, in turn, produced inaccurate census data that has been used to determine each state's share of congressional seats and Electoral College votes, redraw voting districts for all levels of government, and distribute federal money to local communities across the country.

"I do believe that this is a part of the puzzle," says Desi Small-Rodriguez — an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA who served on the bureau's National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic and Other Populations — of the need to diversify a Senior Executive Service at the bureau that is predominantly both white and male. (The Office of Personnel Management has released only a binary breakdown of "gender" data about the bureau's employees.)

"We need people to understand, firsthand ideally, the obstacles, the barriers and the systematic exclusion that so many populations have faced in this country," adds Small-Rodriguez, who is Chicana and a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation. "And it's really difficult to do that if you're a white man because you have never experienced that in your life in this country."

Calls to diversify the bureau's leadership go back decades

For decades, civil rights groups and other outside advisers to the bureau have also urged the agency to diversify the racial and ethnic makeup of its staff.

"This needs to be achieved at all levels, particularly at the executive level," Rita Takahashi of the Japanese American Citizens League said at a 1988 meeting of the bureau's former race and ethnic advisory committees.

"The underrepresentation of the minority groups in the U.S. Census Bureau could potentially lead to insensitivities [as well as] inequitable statistical gathering and processing of data in assessing the quantity and needs of these groups in the 1990 census," warned K.L. Wang, a co-founder of the Organization of Chinese Americans, during the public comment period of the same meeting.

Ahead of the 2000 count, concerns about "too few" American Indians at the higher ranks of the bureau's employees were flagged by Gregory Richardson, a member of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe who served on the former advisory committee on the American Indian and Alaska Native population.

The bureau's hiring practices have also come under scrutiny over the years. During the 2010 census, the bureau was hit with a class-action lawsuit that claimed its screening process for temporary jobs discriminated against Black and Latino applicants with arrest records, including those who had not been convicted or even charged of a crime. The case was settled in 2016 when the bureau ultimately agreed to revamp its policies, costing taxpayers $15 million to create a settlement fund.

In addition to hiring and promoting more staffers of color, Small-Rodriguez notes the bureau — as well as the professional fields that feed its top ranks — needs to work on training all demographers and other technical experts to better understand the experiences of people of color.

...they could not comprehend the reality that a large segment of the Latino population does not consume its information exclusively in Spanish.

Arturo Vargas — the CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund who has served on the bureau's National Advisory Committee — says it is increasingly important to track the cultural competencies of the agency's leadership.

"The bureau cannot afford not to have all of the competencies and expertise needed to make sure that it counts 1 out of 5 Americans," says Vargas, referring to the fact that Latinos, at close to 19% of the U.S. population, now make up the country's second-largest racial or ethnic group.

It's not clear exactly how many Latinos have been serving as senior executives at the bureau in recent years because OPM does not release numbers about groups of fewer than four individuals to protect people's privacy.

Vargas says the underrepresentation of Latinos at the bureau's executive level likely hampered its initial plans for researching how to encourage Latinos to participate in the 2020 census.

At first, there were no focus groups or other testing planned exclusively for Latinos who primarily speak English, a growing group in the U.S. according to the Pew Research Center's analysis of the bureau's own data. The bureau, instead, recruited predominantly English-speaking Latinos to be part of more generalized focus groups.

"I had to advocate for the Census Bureau to look at the full diversity of the Latino population," Vargas says. "When the bureau was designing its communications plan with its contractors, they approached Latino outreach as synonymous with Spanish-language outreach, and they could not comprehend the reality that a large segment of the Latino population does not consume its information exclusively in Spanish."

The Census Bureau showcased its Spanish-language posters and commercials for the 2020 census advertising campaign at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in January 2020.
Michael A. McCoy / AP
The Census Bureau showcased its Spanish-language posters and commercials for the 2020 census advertising campaign designed for Hispanic audiences during an event at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., in January 2020.

"They replicate themselves"

Vargas says he is hopeful that Santos — the bureau's incoming director from the Biden administration who has been vocal about diversifying the membership of the American Statistical Association, where he has served as president — will prioritize tackling the underrepresentation of Latinos and other people of color at the bureau. (Santos, whose term at the bureau does not start until January, declined NPR's interview request.)

In June, President Biden directed the bureau and other federal agencies to assess their diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility efforts. When NPR asked for a copy of the preliminary assessment the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau, submitted to the White House, the bureau said it referred the request to its Freedom of Information Act office (which has since received a formal FOIA request from NPR).

I've seen kids go two or three years into their professional careers and just not know what's going on, but that something is amiss.

The bureau has regularly issued goals about diversity, including in its current strategic plan. Still, an enduring insularity has stopped the bureau from making substantial progress, explains Arnold Jackson, the former associate director of the 2010 census whose multiple tenures with the bureau also include serving as chief information officer, leading operations for the 1990 census and consulting on the 2020 count.

"When I came there many, many years ago, I was told by the highest-level people in the organization who had recruited and hired me that the culture of the organization was best viewed as a tribal culture," where a lot of people have similar socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, says Jackson, who first joined the bureau in the 1980s.

"And they replicate themselves," he adds. "It's not necessarily a good or a bad thing in terms of people who are comfortable with each other. However, it does work to the exclusion in many cases of African American, Latinx and certainly Native American candidates for the Senior Executive Service."

Some civil servants of color, Jackson says, have been able to climb the bureau's ranks, working their way up the 15 grade levels of the General Schedule pay system — but only, it appears, to a certain point.

"When you got to the [GS-13] level, it was almost like a cliff," he explains.

Not having the right connections or chances to show higher-ups potential for promotions could block a staffer's path to becoming a senior executive.

"It can be very subtle and very nuanced, but it starts very early," Jackson says. "I've seen kids go two or three years into their professional careers and just not know what's going on, but that something is amiss."

The bureau also needs strong talent pipelines

More than a decade after she first walked through the glass doors of the bureau's headquarters during her three-year stint at the statistical agency, Mónica García-Pérez has been working on another challenge to diversifying its workforce — building and strengthening pipelines of potential job candidates from historically underrepresented groups.

As a past president of the American Society of Hispanic Economists,García-Pérez has helped lead mentoring and other outreach programs for students and junior faculty who often have to contend with the stereotype that professions related to math or science are only for certain groups.

To keep up with the country's changing demographics, the bureau will need to make sure these future generations of economists, statisticians and other technical experts of color see the value of public service.

And that will require sustained investment from its current leadership on many fronts, she notes — a level of change that will likely spark friction at an institution as established as the bureau.

"It's a place that I really wish a lot of Latinos had a chance to experience because it's a place where people will learn and will be able to grow," adds García-Pérez, now an economics professor at Minnesota's St. Cloud State University. "I just think that maybe the door's a little bit blurry for some groups — the door to entry."

NPR digital news and graphics intern Rina Torchinsky contributed to this report. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 6, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of the web story said that the U.S. government has not made public the count of Census Bureau executives who identify as Black. In fact, the government has, including for years going back to 2006.
Hansi Lo Wang (he/him) is a national correspondent for NPR reporting on the people, power and money behind the U.S. census.
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