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Demonstrators rally at the Supreme Court on April 23, 2019, to protest a proposal to add a citizenship question in the 2020 census.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

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The pandemic may leave communities of color undercounted in the census — and cost them billions

With redistricting and public funds on the line, advocacy groups are rethinking outreach during the coronavirus crisis.

Editor’s note, October 15: This article was published in May. On October 13, the Supreme Court allowed the Census Bureau to end its count on October 15 instead of at the end of the month, following an emergency request from the Justice Department. Advocates say this could lead to an undercount of immigrants, Native Americans, and other vulnerable communities.

As a community organizer in Los Angeles, Antionette Saddler has worked to combat police brutality, poverty, and homelessness, particularly in black and brown communities. Now the 26-year-old activist is focused on another issue at the intersection of social and racial justice: the 2020 census.

Historically, “data has shown that black communities are always undercounted, and we see this happening yet again,” says Saddler, a team lead with the California Black Census & Redistricting Hub, a.k.a. the CA Black Hub. A project of the civic nonprofit California Calls, the network of more than 30 organizations aims to maximize statewide participation in the census and redistricting process.

“With Covid-19 hitting our communities at rapid rates, folks are being told to social distance. Which means our opportunity to spread the word to some of the most undercounted communities has become little to none,” Saddler points out.

If these communities aren’t reached, the implications are vast. The census shapes political representation and the allocation of public funding over the next decade, determining state Electoral College votes, as well as how local, state, and federal legislative district lines are drawn.

This is particularly important with a new redistricting cycle slated for 2021. Gerrymandering — wherein politicians in power manipulate district maps and boundary lines to favor their party winning elections — has long been used as a weapon to thwart and dilute the political strength of African Americans and other communities of color.

The US Census Bureau held an educational event for children in Cleveland, Ohio, on February 22.
Michael Mcelroy/AP Images for US Census Bureau

Additionally, the census drives the distribution of $1.5 trillion in tax dollars for communities nationwide and vital public needs: schools, housing, mass transportation, health programs, infrastructure (roads and highways), public safety, Medicaid, emergency services, and more. “Billions in federal dollars flow to state governments and to the local level,” Michael C. Cook Sr., a spokesperson for the US Census Bureau, told Vox. “It’s about power and money. It shapes the future.”

And historically, power has not moved in the direction of America’s most vulnerable populations — the ones who have the most to gain from public services and the most to lose in redistricting. The Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, has projected that more than 4 million people could be undercounted in the 2020 census. And advocates such as the CA Black Hub worry that the health crisis could dramatically impact this year’s census count.

Before the pandemic, CA Black Hub planned its “My Black Counts” campaign around a mix of outreach, including education, digital advertising, social media, telephone calls, and door-to-door canvassing. Starting last fall, they’d reached 25,000 residents — California’s black population nears 3 million — by phone and door-knocking, according to Ama Nyamekye, CA Black Hub’s project manager.

With safety top of mind now, they’ve suspended in-person contact and are using a virtual phone bank platform that enables coalition members to efficiently call and communicate the importance of everyone being counted in the census. At least 5,000 calls were made in April, they say.

Even so, challenges abound.

“I have talked to many community members who didn’t even remember the 2020 census was live, or they feel discouraged right now,” says Saddler. “This pandemic has shaken people, but it is my duty to remind them that they do matter, that they do count.”

Conducting the census in the time of coronavirus

Mandated by the Constitution, every person in America and its five territories — Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the US Virgin Islands — is supposed to be counted in the US census. The first count happened in 1790, occurring every 10 years since, with Congress charged with providing oversight.

While the 2020 census headcount officially kicked off in January in an Alaska Native village, Covid-19 has led to operational adjustments for the Trump administration. The bureau, under the auspices of the US Department of Commerce, announced March 18 it would temporarily suspend field operations. This month it’s beginning a “phased restart” in some areas — i.e., packets being dropped at front doors in areas where households don’t receive mail — with additional operations to resume at different times around the country based on federal, state, and local public health guidance.

Although the count was originally to be completed by July 31, the Census Bureau has moved that date to October 31. It’s asking Congress for a 120-day delay of statutory deadlines to provide a cushion in case field operations need to extend even longer. Moreover, instead of census numbers being provided to the president on December 31, that’s been pushed to April 30, 2021.

Despite deadline extensions and outreach efforts slowly ramping back up, other potential consequences of the pandemic loom. For one, state redistricting timelines could be affected. In April, Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham and top officials briefed the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, telling the members of Congress the road ahead includes determining which states may need to take legislative action delaying the redrawing of political maps. New Jersey and Virginia, for example, hold off-year elections that could be affected by the bureau’s request to delay the delivery of redistricting data.

Meanwhile, New York City, the epicenter for a rash of coronavirus cases, stands to lose billions in federal funding if the city’s nearly 9 million residents are undercounted, according to NYC Census 2020. Moreover, two of New York state’s 12 congressional seats could hang in the balance, advocates say. The jurisdiction has so far had a lower response rate than the national average, according to the Census Bureau.

In the country overall, 58 percent (more than 86.4 million households) have completed the census, as of May 9. In 2010, the final self-response was 66.5 percent, with more than 86 million respondents.

With funding and representation on the line — which could be even more vital in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis — myriad efforts are being undertaken to ensure underrepresented populations are counted during the pandemic.

Communities of color and low-income neighborhoods will feel the greatest impact from underreported census counts

Data shows that people of color, children, seniors, undocumented immigrants, people with disabilities, LGBTQ folks, Native people in tribal areas, the homeless, and low-income people are among the least likely to be counted accurately in the census.

Across the country, both national coalitions and grassroots groups are getting the word out to ensure what the census calls “hard to count” populations aren’t left out. There have been celebrity PSAs (John Legend, Cardi B, and Taraji P. Henson), and other big names (Selena Gomez, Megan Rapinoe, Janelle Monáe) making video cameos promoting the census, too. (Legend is a Vox Media board member.)

Then there is the on-the-ground — or now virtual — work of making sure people are not only aware the census exists but also fill it out. Some groups are getting creative: Color of Change hosted a drive-through community dinner in New Orleans outside Burnell’s Market in the Lower Ninth Ward last month — a few hundred attendees completed census pledge cards and received a catered meal. Meanwhile, campaigns like Census Counts work with dozens of national, state, and community-based organizations and a network of elected officials to ensure a fair and accurate process.

Among its partners is the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which has a joint project with the Arab American Institute Foundation called Yalla Count Me In, a grassroots coalition-led movement to count Arab Americans for the 2020 census (“yalla” is slang for “hurry up” or “let’s go”). Getting an accurate count is imperative: The 2010 census estimated Arab Americans — those with roots in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region — to be 1.5 million; the Arab American Institute has placed the figure closer to between 3.5 and 3.7 million.

Arab communities in the US have long grappled with the race and ethnicity question on the census forms (advocates have tried unsuccessfully to get a separate MENA category), with many households choosing “white” in the absence of more descriptive categories. In 2010, the “Check it right, you ain’t White” campaign encouraged respondents to check off the “some other race” category and write in their family origin (for instance, Iranian, Lebanese, Egyptian, Palestinian, Yemeni, etc.), an option that is available again this year.

For the 2020 census, multiple languages — including Arabic, Portuguese, Mandarin, Tagalog, and Haitian Creole — have been added, and millions of households have also received bilingual census forms in Spanish and English.

Still, Arturo Vargas, a member of the Census Bureau’s National Advisory Committee on Racial, Ethnic, and Other Populations, warns of potential undercounts. Latinos in the country comprise upward of 59.7 million people, according to past census data.

“The Census Bureau’s request for deadline extensions is a sobering reminder of the importance of completing the census in a timely manner without sacrificing accuracy,” he said. “Time is not on our side.”

Vargas is also the CEO of NALEO Educational Fund, a national Latino civic engagement organization that offers resources such as a bilingual national census hotline and has been collaborating with Spanish-language media partners like Univision and Telemundo to get the word out. But as is the case with other organizations, NALEO’s efforts have been impacted by Covid-19.

In response, they’ve pivoted to Facebook Live, Twitter events, and virtual town halls. And in Texas, they’ve shifted from in-person meetings and training sessions for volunteers to virtual spaces, Genesis Sanchez, one of NALEO’s regional census campaign managers, told Vox.

“We definitely have concerns about what this new and changing landscape looks like for Texas, as the state has a significant percentage of hard-to-count populations, many of whom are Latinos,” adds Elizabeth Bille, Texas state director at NALEO. “The challenges in Texas were already significant before Covid-19, highlighted by a lack of state infrastructure and investment, combined with the public battle over the failed citizenship question.”

In March 2018, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census questionnaire, purportedly to obtain improved data for enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. But as Vox’s Andrew Prokop wrote last year, including the question could have resulted in lower response rates among noncitizens and Latinos, which many critics believed was the Trump administration’s goal.

In response, legal challenges were mounted around the country — by state attorneys general in New York and California, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), among others. On June 27, 2019, in a 5-4 decision, the US Supreme Court rejected Commerce’s rationale for adding the citizenship status question to the 2020 census, upholding lower court rulings.

Eventually, the Trump administration abandoned plans to put the question on the census. However, coming on the heels of anti-immigrant fervor, ICE raids, and the Trump administration’s earlier “Muslim travel ban,” advocates say the damage was already done.

“Feedback from the community shows us that many feel left out of our democratic process and don’t believe that participating in the census will benefit them,” said Bille.

How the census has historically been used to hurt vulnerable populations

Undercounting minority communities in the census harks back to the first count of early Americans — and the abhorrent institution of slavery. In 1787, when the US Constitution was being written during the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, delegates debated over the number of seats in the House of Representatives. In 1790, a compromise between Southern and Northern states resulted in the Three-Fifths Compromise, meaning that for every five enslaved people, only three would count for congressional representation and taxation purposes. According to the Constitutional Accountability Center, the accommodation was not intended to relegate black people to three-fifths of a person, but rather was favored by Northern abolitionists to reduce the political power of Southern slaveholding states.

It was such government-sanctioned inhumanity that would later set the stage for gerrymandering.

Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, told Vox via a spokesperson that the 2010 census resulted in multiple lawsuits finding intentional racial discrimination during the redistricting process. One went all the way to the Supreme Court in 2018: Justices reversed rulings by a San Antonio court that had ordered two congressional districts and nine statehouse districts redrawn because they “relied on the manipulation of both African American and Latinx communities, to result in ‘an impermissible racial gerrymander,’” Nelson said.

She also noted prison-based gerrymandering, which results from the census counting incarcerated persons “in their place of imprisonment instead of the community of their last place of residence.” This practice, Nelson notes, results “in the exportation of black and brown bodies to correctional facilities in white rural communities, and the siphoning of both political and financial resources away from underfunded neighborhoods.”

“The census should accurately capture the multiracial, multiethnic country that America is rather than replicating the discriminatory practices of the past that whitewashed our population count,” she added.

To ensure the census count doesn’t leave out racial minorities, the Congressional Tri-Caucus — composed of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus — have helped secure billions in additional funding for census operations. Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV), chair of the CBC 2020 Census Task Force, told Vox that lawmakers have also fought to ensure those funds are being properly allocated — be it diversity in hiring or advertising and spending with diverse media outlets such as black newspapers.

“The same forces who don’t want African Americans and people of color to vote don’t care about an accurate and fair census count,” said Horsford.

According to the Urban Institute, the Decennial Statistical Studies Division of the Department of Commerce estimated “a net undercount of about 4 percent for African Americans” in 1990. This number was lowered to “2 percent — around 800,000 people — in the 2000 census, but the most recent census in 2010 showed no significant change to the Black undercount.” The institute’s own data indicates there could be an undercount of 1.7 million black people for 2020.

“If we don’t participate, we can lose congressional seats. We don’t get the services we are entitled to,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network (NAN), which, along with 40 or so groups (NAACP, National Urban League), is part of the “Unity Diaspora Coalition” to count black communities. “If we don’t participate, we become accomplices in the undercount. We will take ourselves off the grid.”

Nefarious use of data has led some communities to distrust the census — and watchdog groups are keeping tabs

To say that the manipulation of census data has caused distrust in how it’s collected would be an understatement. However, federal law requires the Census Bureau to protect any personal and household information it collects and bars it from sharing such information with any other government agencies for 72 years. That includes the Department of Homeland Security, law enforcement, housing authorities, and public benefits administrators, among others.

To hold the census accountable, advocacy organizations have adopted the role of watchdog. Nearly 300 civic leaders, nonprofit organizations, elected officials, and state and local groups have forged a coalition pledging to help monitor and protect the confidentiality of 2020 census data.

The effort is led by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC). They have vowed to use their collective expertise and influence to safeguard the strict census data confidentiality requirements. A key thrust is assuring people that they should participate in the census and can do so without worry.

“Heightened distrust in elements of the federal government is a threat to our nation’s ability to secure an accurate census, which is so critical to our democracy’s next decade,” said Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president and general counsel.

Despite the federal laws, the potential threat of disclosure runs deep. For example, during World War II, the US government used census data in the internment of Japanese Americans, relocating and incarcerating more than 120,000 men, women, and children.

“We continue to hear concerns reverberating through communities of color, particularly the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities, about the confidentiality of their information,” says John C. Yang, president and executive director of AAJC. “For a community that includes undocumented immigrants and individuals in mixed-status households, it is imperative to remind them about the legal protections that will protect their responses.”

The Trump administration’s xenophobic immigration policies, which have continued during the coronavirus pandemic with an April 22 White House proclamation limiting certain green cards being issued, has only inflamed these fears.

Advocates nationwide told Vox they’re determined to ensure all are represented — not marginalized or erased. Adds Yang: “We have had to fight for a fair and accurate census before, and we will do it again if necessary.”

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