Back Story – Beyond the Numbers: a History of the Census

On December 21st, the Census Bureau released its first batch of results from Census 2010. Those numbers will have far-reaching implications, shaping everything from the way power is apportioned in Congress and federal aid is doled out to the very ways we think about ourselves as a nation. After all – embedded in those multiple-choice Census forms are basic assumptions about who belongs here, and who doesn’t. At its very heart, the Census asks one enormous question with anything but an obvious answer: Who are ‘we’ now?

In this episode of BackStory, the History Guys dig into the little-considered story of the Census – the invisible backbone of America’s democracy. As it turns out, the idea of doling out power based on the actual numbers of bodies in a region was an innovation unique to America. The History Guys explore what was so revolutionary about the concept in the founding era, and look at how census data continued to threaten the power of America’s white elites over the course of the 19th century. Moving into the 20th century, they look at the emerging awareness of a racial “undercount,” and consider the ways that widespread suspicion of government has posed a challenge to the work of the Census Bureau. Over the course of the hour, the History Guys hear from scholars, former Census officials, and ordinary listeners interested in exploring the fascinating story of how we’ve counted ourselves through three centuries of American life.


Melissa Nobles
Vincent Barabba
Al Marquart
Catherine Moore

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