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Statistics for Business and Economics: Excel/Minitab Enhanced
Heinz Kohler
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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 and such.

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 into Cajun.

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 On the 2000 form, however, Cajun had disappeared, having been replaced by French-Canadian.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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