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Robert Santos could be the first Latinx Census Bureau Director. Photo: Getty Images/Bill Oxford
Robert Santos could be the first Latinx Census Bureau Director. Photo: Getty Images/Bill Oxford

Biden picks Latinx statistician Robert Santos to lead Census Department in historic first

If confirmed, Santos would be the first person of color to officially serve as the Director of the Census Bureau. 

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On Tuesday, April 13, President Joe Biden announced that he intends to nominate Robert Santos to be the next director of the U.S. Census Bureau.  

As a third-generation native Mexican-American, the administration emphasized that Santos would be the first person of color to permanently serve as leader of the agency if confirmed by the Senate. He would be in charge of major U.S. surveys and the once-a-decade census count used for distributing key political representation and federal funding across U.S. congressional districts.

Apart from a temporary term by James Holmes, a Black man in 1998, every other head of the Census Bureau has been a white person.

It’s a historic move on Biden’s part, but Santos' historic implications shouldn’t overshadow his qualifying accolades. He is one of the country’s leading statisticians, and the American Statistical Association’s president.

The Biden administration listed his accolades in the press announcement: 

“Robert Santos is Vice President & Chief Methodologist at the Urban Institute, Washington, DC. He is an expert in survey sampling, survey design and more generally in social science/policy research, with over 40 years of experience. His career includes: Director of Survey Operations, Survey Research Center, University of Michigan; VP Statistics and Methodology, NORC University of Chicago; and Senior Study Director at ISR Temple University.  Santos is the 116th President of the American Statistical Association (ASA), serving in 2021. He is an elected ASA Fellow and a recipient of the ASA Founder’s Award, the association’s highest recognition for distinguished service and leadership. He is past President of the American Association for Public Opinion Research and an elected member of the International Statistical Institute. Santos has served on numerous National Academies’ panels, the Census Advisory Committee for Professional Organizations (2001-2006), and the CDC National Center for Health Statistics’ Board of Scientific Counselors (2017-2020). He is a long time member of Feeding America’s Technical Advisory Group (2004-2021).”

Santos was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, where he graduated from Holy Cross High School. He received a B.A. in Mathematics from Trinity University in San Antonio and a M.A. in Statistics from University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

Why this matters for the future of the Census and counting Latinos
 
As the Census Bureau's next director, Santos would play a major part at an agency often criticized, specifically regarding the quality of data collection and undercounting of Black and Latinx individuals.

In published articles, Santos demonstrates a knowledge of the nuanced Hispanic and Latinx demographic. In 2019 he co-published an article for Urban Wire, on “Separating Race from Ethnicity in Surveys Risks and Inaccurate Picture of the Latinx Community.”

“We face the inevitable paired set of questions asking about our ethnicity and race. We readily fill in ‘Hispanic/Latino’ for the Hispanic ethnicity question, but the subsequent race question always gives pause,” he writes. “What should we pick? ‘White’? ‘Amerindian’? ‘Mixed’? Or should we choose ‘Other’ and fill in ‘Mestizo’?”

Considering these questions will aid the deeper understanding of the demographic, Santos argues that the process by which the Census Bureau collects survey data, not just for Latinxs, but for other diverse populations, including Black mixed race populations, should be reconsidered. 

“This is especially important for the U.S. Census Bureau and for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the federal entity that mandates the racial and ethnic categories used in all federal survey and statistical reporting,” he continues.

Currently, the Census Bureau faces several court challenges over delaying the 2020 Census results, a byproduct of the Covid-19 pandemic delays in order to run quality checks. 

Santos will be tasked with presiding over the criticism and scrutiny that comes along with delays, and will be tasked with strategizing for the 2030 Census count. 

"If confirmed, I will support the Bureau and its staff in its mission to provide quality population and economic data to the nation," Santos told NPR. "The principles of transparency, scientific independence, and integrity will be key in allowing the Census Bureau to thrive and innovate over the coming decade." 

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