For more than 200 years, the census was overseen by white leaders. Holmes' 1998 stint as acting director blazed a trail for Biden's pick, who may become the count's first permanent director of color.



The Biden administration is on track to make another historic political appointment. Robert Santos could become the first person of color confirmed by the Senate to lead the U.S. Census Bureau. But there was an earlier trailblazer who made history more than two decades ago. NPR's census correspondent, Hansi Lo Wang, reports.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: A couple of years before the start of the 2000 census, James F. Holmes got a surprise offer that would break with more than two centuries of U.S. history.

JAMES F HOLMES: I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out why the secretary of commerce wanted to talk with me about census issues.

WANG: The Census Bureau, which is overseen by the commerce secretary, had just become leaderless. Its previous director had resigned as the agency was preparing to conduct the head count used to determine political representation and guide federal funding for the next decade. And Holmes, who is running one of the bureau's regional offices, was temporarily promoted to become the leader of the entire bureau.

HOLMES: They were interested in someone that understood census operations. And my name kept coming up.

WANG: Holmes joined the bureau as a survey statistician back in 1968 after growing up in a small, segregated town in Georgia and graduating from Albany State University, a historically Black school.

HOLMES: It didn't take me very long to understand that I was just as prepared, just as smart as my white counterparts. And when I came to that realization, I never looked back.

WANG: Holmes says when he was named the bureau's acting director in 1998, it didn't immediately dawn on him that he had also become the first-ever person of color to head the U.S. Census. And since the end of his almost 9-month stint, the bureau has yet to have another director of color.

HOLMES: To say that it's long overdue is the understatement of the century. The first census director was Thomas Jefferson. And you can do the math.

WANG: Going back to that first census back in 1790, when an enslaved person was counted as three-fifths of a free person and some Native Americans were not counted at all, that's a total of more than three dozen white leaders of the census. That lack of diversity has long been a concern for some inside the bureau.

JERI GREEN: There was no reason to question that on one side of the table because this is the way it's always been.

WANG: Jeri Green worked at the bureau for more than two decades and was a member of its affinity group for African American managers.

GREEN: But from the standpoint of people of color, I know that with each change in administration, there are people who await and hope that they will see some reflection of their existence in the United States as a people.

WANG: Since the Census Bureau became a permanent agency in 1902, its directors have been chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate, which recently held a hearing with President Biden's pick, Robert Santos, who's also the current president of the American Statistical Association.


ROBERT SANTOS: Born and raised in the barrios of my native San Antonio, I was fortunate to be in a Mexican American family whose parents secured civil servant jobs at Kelly Air Force Base.

JULIE DOWLING: I'm from Texas, too, and multigenerational Mexican American from Texas. So I'm all like, yay. Like, this is - someone who will understand those kinds of issues, I think, is just really, really great.

WANG: Julie Dowling is a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois who recently chaired one of the Census Bureau's committees of outside advisers. Dowling says Santos could help rebuild public trust after the controversy over the Trump administration's failed push for a citizenship question.

DOWLING: I think that that could be really helpful in terms of turning the tide towards better relations that people will understand the Census Bureau not as it was being used during the Trump administration, you know, where we basically had interference.

WANG: If Santos' nomination gets the Senate's approval, he would join the long list of men who have been Census Bureau director. So far, only two women have taken on that role. And they are both white. Hansi Lo Wang, NPR News.

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