Statistics in the News: Chapter 4 Generating
New Data: Census Taking and Sampling
The Case of the Vanished Cajuns
If you visit Southern Louisiana, you will encounter lots
of French-sounding place names, like Breaux Bridge, Eunice,
Chataigner, and Lafayette. And you will meet people with names
like Comeaux, Thibodeaux, Robicheaux, and Vidallier. You will
meet them at the lunch counter over plates of catfish and
jambalaya or bowls of crawfish bisque, calling each other
"cher" and "tante" and "n'onc" and listening to the local
radio station playing songs written in a strange mix of English
and French, accompanied--always--by accordions and fiddles
You will have stumbled upon Acadiana or Cajun Louisiana,
home of a fabled culture that reaches back to the 1760s when
large numbers of French-speaking Roman Catholics settled here.
They had been deported from Acadia, Nova Scotia, after refusing
to swear allegiance to the Church of England and the British
King. After wandering for thousands of miles, they settled
in the midst of bayou, swamp, and prairie and made a living
farming, fishing, and hunting. And over time, Acadian turned
Yet recently, a strange thing happened. The 1990 U.S. Census
had counted 407,319 Cajuns (note the precision!), but a mere
decade later, the 2000 Census only turned up a mere 44,103
descendants of those early settlers. The Cajuns were bewildered.
"Did we all die? Is nobody having children?" they asked. "We
know we're here. Mais yeah! [for sure]" they said.
The U. S. Census Bureau suggests two possible explanations
for the obviously faulty data--both examples of the kind of
bias noted in the text. One type of bias arose in the
planning stage, the other in the processing stage.
First, census forms since 1980 have contained this question:
"What is your ancestry or ethnic origin?" The forms provided
space for a written answer, along with several examples to
guide the respondents. But the examples have changed from
census to census! Thus, in 1990, one example was Cajun.
more likely than not, lots of people chose it. On the 2000
form, however, Cajun had disappeared, having been replaced
by French-Canadian. Apparently, lots of Louisiana residents
couldn't think of themselves as Canadian.
Second, many census workers reclassified written answers.
When respondents wrote Cajun French, the workers substituted
French-Canadian, in line with one of the examples on
the form. No wonder that Louisiana Cajuns seemed to have disappeared,
while the census reported an unusual increase of French-speaking
Louisiana residents: from 550,000 in 1990 to 665,000 in 2000.
Source: Adapted from Rick Bragg, "Reported to be Vanishing,
Cajuns Give a Sharp 'Non'" The New York Times, August
16, 2001, pp. A1 and A15.
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