In October of last year, Robert Santos offered dire warnings that President Donald Trump’s involvement with the census virtually guaranteed that the 2020 count would be “one of the most flawed censuses in history.” Trump had tried to add a citizenship question to the survey, before courts struck the proposal down, and to deduct undocumented populations from each state’s count. The administration had also reversed course on when the final census numbers were due, originally agreeing to extend the deadline four months because of the pandemic before walking back part of that extension.

Santos, the vice president and chief methodologist at the Urban Institute, a liberal think tank, and then the president-elect of the American Statistical Association, warned that the actions jeopardized the entire process—on which congressional reapportionment, redistricting, and the allocation of some $1.5 trillion a year in federal funding depend. Asked by Bloomberg CityLab if he thought the census was “being rigged to produce an outcome that is favorable to Republicans,” Santos replied, “I wouldn’t say it’s being rigged. It’s being sabotaged.”

Just more than a year later, Santos, who grew up on the West Side of San Antonio, finds himself set to run the Census Bureau. In April, Joe Biden nominated him for a five-year term leading the agency, and in early November the U.S. Senate voted 58–35 to confirm him. When he is sworn into office in January, he will become the first Latino to serve as director of the bureau. Among his responsibilities will be determining the extent of the damage, if any, that the Trump administration ultimately did to the 2020 count: he will oversee the Post-Enumeration Survey, due to be completed in 2022, which measures the accuracy of the census by independently surveying a sample of the population.

Until the Biden administration called to gauge Santos’s interest in the position in February, it’s not a job he ever saw coming. As a child, he had always been drawn to math. Both of his parents worked at Kelly Air Force Base, San Antonio’s biggest employer in the sixties. He was educated by Irish nuns at Little Flower Catholic School, and graduated from Holy Cross High School. When his elder brother Rene was killed in Vietnam in 1969, Santos said at his Senate confirmation hearing, it left him with “a pain that endures to this day”—but also a draft deferment. “With his sacrifice to our country,” Santos said, “I was free to attend San Antonio College, Trinity University, and then the University of Michigan to follow my dual passions of statistics and helping people.”

While rising to the very top of his field, Santos, who lives in Austin, is a man of varied interests. He is a grill master, cooking backyard barbecue three or four times a week (he also loves Smitty’s Market in Lockhart and Cooper’s in Llano). He hunts wild boar in Edwards County where his sister-in-law has a ranch. And he has also been a member of the South by Southwest Photo Crew since 2012. 

Texas Monthly chatted with Santos last week about how the census treats Latino identity, how Texas might have cost itself another new congressional seat in reapportionment, and how spending all that time in camera pits made him a better, more creative statistician. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Texas Monthly: Texas gained two congressional seats, the only state to pick up more than one seat in reapportionment. But it fell about 190,000 residents short of gaining a third seat. The Texas self-response rate was 62.8 percent, below the national average of 67 percent. Might a more aggressive effort by the state to encourage census participation have made a difference?

Robert Santos: Texas has not had the highest self-response rates to decennial censuses. California pumped well over $100 million into getting a count and I think that they bore fruit from that investment. Texas, on the other hand, did not have that type of investment on getting the count out. [The Golden State, which had a 69.6 percent self-response rate, spent $187 million on its campaign, while the Texas Legislature declined to allocate any funding toward increasing participation in the count.] And we just need to understand what the impact was, and the Post-Enumeration Study should shed some light on that.

TM: You were unsparing in your criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of the census. Do you think your criticism was fair? 

RS: I stand by all my past statements. I expressed concern about the challenges and barriers that were being posed to the completion of the census. You had to be worried about them, because of their impact on the quality and accuracy of the data that we collected. There are good things about the data apparently, according to the quality assessments of organizations, such as the American Statistical Association Quality Indicators Task Force, which made conclusions about the utility of the data now that it’s collected. The apportionment data has been assessed by those folks to be fit for use. It’s good. [Santos, president of the ASA in 2021, was cochair of the task force until he stepped aside on being nominated to be Census Bureau director in April.] At the Urban Institute, my colleagues have done a study and they concluded, roughly, that things weren’t as bad [as expected] at the overall level. 

That still leaves the open question about subpopulations. It’s pretty clear from looking at some of the self-response rates down at the neighborhood level, the census tract level, that there was a differential between the suburbs that are more well-off and inner cities and communities of color. Those suburbs featured very high self-response rates and the inner cities tended to be lower in the self-participation rates.

The Post-Enumeration Survey is still in the field collecting data to my knowledge, and we’re going to learn from that. And from my perspective, it is really important to understand where the strengths and where the weaknesses of the data are because no census is ever perfect. I’ll know more in a month about that, but I expect that there will be ways to revise, if necessary, specific counts. 

TM: Is it meaningful to you that you’re the first Latino census director?

RS: It hits me in the heart. I’m honored that I can be the first. I just wish that I wasn’t. 

TM: When you were being vetted by the administration you felt it was important to alert them that you are not fluently bilingual. Why?

RS: I think that it’s important if they were going to say, “Here’s the first Latino,” to understand that the Latino population, the Latinx population, is highly diverse and we need to celebrate that diversity. And the diversity not only includes things like being Mexican American or Cuban or Puerto Rican or Central American or whatever, but it also includes gender, and it includes language capabilities. I wanted to make sure that the administration did not have an expectation that I had a capability—that would have been beneficial—to have interviews in Spanish.

TM: Since 1980, censuses have had both a “race” and “Hispanic origin” or “ethnicity” question. For the 2020 census, the bureau recommended combining the two questions—effectively counting Hispanic/Latino as a race (and introducing a new race category of individuals identifying as Middle Eastern and North African)—but the Office of Management and Budget, which has the final say, didn’t act on the recommendation. Do you like that idea, and as director would you pursue it with OMB? 

RS: My initial preference going into all this is for a single question. But having said that, I’m all for coming up to speed and learning why we do this and what the risks and benefits associated with single versus dual questions are. 

There are researchers and scholars on both sides of the issue. There’s the perspective that if we want to capture the most accurate information on who people believe they are, we need to ask them in a way that reflects how they think about it. And if you think that way, then it makes more sense to ask a single question. On the other side, there are researchers who believe it’s really important to get as much refined information as possible about the ancestral, racial, and ethnic makeup of the population so that we can ultimately know more about who we are as a nation and be better able to serve ourselves and serve the public. And from that perspective, folks are advocating keeping the Hispanic question separate from the race question.

TM: Does the way the census currently catalogs Latino identity match the way Latinos self-identify, in your experience?”

RS: On the census, I say “yes” to Hispanic. I say “yes” to Chicano/Mexican American. And then under race, I’ve always said “other” and then handwritten in “mestizo”—a mixture of the peoples of Spain who came as part of the conquistadores as well as the indigenous populations that lived in Mexico and Texas when Texas used to be part of Mexico.

People who are Latinx use different terms to describe themselves depending on the situation, the location, and the people that they’re speaking with. Prior to grad school, I would have simply called myself a Mexican American. After grad school, I accepted many monikers for myself. If I’m back in the neighborhood, in San Antonio, we call ourselves Chicanos. If I’m at a conference giving a presentation on research methods, I’ll use Latinx. And if I’m among friends in D.C., I might use Latino or Hispanic or whatever, depending on who the crowd is. So it’s tailored. It’s interesting.

TM: You’ve said becoming a music photographer and longstanding member of the SXSW Photo Crew has made you a better statistician. How? 

RS: Back in, I’d say 2006 or 2007, I went to the Austin City Limits Festival, which is an outdoor festival over three days, and I saw the folks in the camera pit and I said, “Man, I want to do that.” And so I went out and bought a camera. I found a way to get a media pass to ACL 2009 and 2010 with Elmore Magazine in New York City. And I took a bunch of pictures and turned them in, and by the second year they really understood that I didn’t know what I was doing. But they’d given me an opportunity to just start to learn how to be an artist as a photographer. I culled through the thousands of pictures I’d taken and put together a portfolio and submitted it to South by Southwest, and, lo and behold, the Photo Crew selected me.

I get to see with South by Southwest all of the innovation, the high tech, the wild and open thinking. And I’ve tried to take that type of creative thinking and leveraging of technology and use that in the American Statistical Association. 

TM: Texas, with its size and growth and diversity, is sometimes described as a demographic preview of America’s future. Do you see it that way?

RS: I don’t know about the future. I think Texas is unique because of its history and because of its self-righteousness of being, so to speak. I’m a native Texan. I’m bullish on Texas. I absolutely love the state despite being in conflict with some of its politics. Prior to accepting the nomination, my goal was to stay in Texas for the rest of my life and try to make it the best place possible.