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More than two decades before the Biden administration announced its historic pick to lead the U.S. Census Bureau, James F. Holmes quietly blazed a trail at the federal government’s largest statistical agency.
President Biden’s nominee — Robert Santos, who is a leading statistician and Latinx — is on track to become the bureau’s first permanent, Senate-confirmed director of color. But Holmes — who is African American and served as acting director in 1998 — was the first-ever person of color to oversee the head count that forms the foundation of U.S. democracy.
Holmes’ close to nine-month stint during a key period of preparations for the 2000 census broke with a long history of white people overseeing the once-a-decade tally used to determine political representation and guide federal funding.
Over more than 230 years, more than three dozen white leaders have headed the census, beginning with Thomas Jefferson. The country’s first secretary of state was charged with certifying the number of U.S. residents from the inaugural national count in 1790, when — according to the Constitution’s original instructions — an enslaved person was counted as “three fifths” of a free person and some Native Americans were not counted at all.
Directors of the bureau, which became a permanent agency in 1902, have been chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate. And in the almost quarter-century following Holmes’ temporary tenure as the agency’s acting head (which did not require congressional approval), not a single person of color has filled the bureau’s top position.
“To say that it’s long overdue is the understatement of the century,” Holmes says.
A surprise promotion to acting director
Holmes’ brief stint as acting director began with a surprise offer from Bill Daley, the commerce secretary overseeing the bureau during former President Bill Clinton’s administration.
“I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the secretary of commerce wanted to talk with me about census issues,” says Holmes, who was managing the agency’s regional office in Atlanta in January 1998. “I was quite a ways down in the pecking order.”
At the time, the bureau had just become leaderless, months before the start of the dress rehearsal for the 2000 census. Its previous director — Martha Riche, an economist — had resigned amid a growing political storm over an ultimately blocked plan to use statistical sampling to improve the accuracy of the population counts for redistributing congressional seats and Electoral College votes among the states.
“To be frank with you, we were very concerned at that point about the ability of the census to be effective because there were a lot of difficulties going on operationally,” Daley says. “What Mr. Holmes brought was experience in management and operations, and that’s what the census is about. Forget the politics, and forget statistical sampling and all of that.”
Holmes’ unusual promotion came after three decades of working for the bureau far away from its headquarters just outside of Washington, D.C. He joined the agency as a survey statistician at its Detroit regional office back in 1968, after growing up in a small, segregated town in Georgia and graduating from Albany State University, a historically Black school.
“All of my formal education had been done with Black folks. Nobody else. And when I went into the world of work, there was some apprehension on my part, to be honest, on whether or not I was prepared,” Holmes says. “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.”
Quietly making history at the Census Bureau
Holmes says when he was named the bureau’s temporary leader in 1998, it didn’t immediately dawn on him that the appointment was history-making. While it was covered in reports by The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Post, there was no mention of Holmes becoming the first person of color to ever head the U.S. census — a fact that the Commerce Department’s press release also left out.
For decades, it’s been relegated to trivia, little-known outside the circles of veteran bureau employees and longtime census watchers. This year, the “Notable Alumni” section of the bureau’s website did start featuring a biography of Holmes. In a statement to NPR, the agency says Holmes’ biography was recently added “when we were doing research for people to highlight for Black History Month.” But the webpage makes no reference to the historic nature of Holmes’ tenure.
Still, Daley, the former commerce secretary who later served as one of former President Barack Obama’s chiefs of staff, says when he decided to promote Holmes to acting director, he saw an opportunity to diversify the racial and ethnic makeup of the bureau’s leadership.
“Much of the workforce of the census are African Americans, and so, I thought it would be a strong message to the workforce that it’s a new day,” Daley says.
Before the end of 1998, Holmes was ultimately replaced with a Senate-confirmed director — Kenneth Prewitt, a political scientist who is white. Holmes says he was not interested in leading the bureau in the long term and wanted to return to focusing on the responsibilities of a career civil servant.
“I was not at all comfortable with the political side, especially after serving 30 years on the other side,” says Holmes, who retired from the bureau in 2005 as the regional director in Atlanta.
Hope for a “reflection of their existence”
In the decades since Holmes’ brief tour as acting director, the lack of diversity at the highest rank of the agency has been a concern for some inside the bureau.
“There was no reason to question that on one side of the table because this is the way it’s always been,” says Jeri Green, who worked at the bureau for more than two decades and was a member of the agency’s affinity group for African American managers. “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.”
Green, who retired in 2017 as a senior advisor for civic engagement, says increasing racial and ethnic diversity among the bureau’s leaders could help the agency tackle the longstanding challenges of overcounting the country’s white population and undercounting people of color for the census.
“It never will be perfect, but if there were people of color at the table who could better explain what is going on in these communities, these issues might be addressed,” Green adds.
Holmes says Santos — who is nominated to lead the bureau through 2026 and has said he identifies as mestizo on census forms — could bring not only extensive qualifications as a statistician, but also life experiences that “will add value and richness to the organization.”
“We can just have the numbers, or we can have the numbers with the faces and the stories that are behind them. And to me, the latter is key,” Holmes says. “Otherwise, we’re still making decisions in a vacuum. And any time you make decisions in a vacuum, there are unintended consequences.”
“Born and raised in the barrios” of San Antonio
At his recent confirmation hearing before the Senate, Santos shared how his upbringing helped shape his “dual passions of statistics and helping people.”
“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,” Santos, who is the current president of the American Statistical Association, told lawmakers.
Julie Dowling, a professor of sociology and Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois who recently chaired one of the bureau’s committees of outside advisers, says she is encouraged by Santos’ research and writing on how data about race and ethnicity is collected, especially about Latinos.
“One of the things that made me really excited to see Latino representation in this office is because we’re such a large component of the population now,” Dowling, who is Mexican American, says. “I think it’s really great to bring somebody in that has that kind of experience, both personally and professionally in his work, that he’ll be able to speak to some of that diversity that we have within the Latino population.”
Dowling adds Santos could also help rebuild public trust after the controversy over former President Donald Trump’s administration’s failed push for a citizenship question, which was likely to discourage census participation among many Latinos and Asian Americans.
“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,” Dowling says.
If approved to head the bureau, Santos would join the mostly male roster of Senate-confirmed directors.
So far, only two women have ever taken on that role, both of whom are white.
NPR researcher Brin Winterbottom contributed to this report.