The Black Count Matters: Why We Must Be Counted in the 2020 Census

The peculiar institution, coined by South Carolinian John C. Calhoun, seventh vice president of the United States (1825-1832), was a euphemism used by white southerners to describe slavery in the South, a time in our history when Blacks were counted as “fractional” persons in the U.S. census.

The decennial census, a necessary, constitutionally mandated exercise repeated each decade since 1790, shares a peculiarity of its own, not completely unassociated with Calhoun’s coinage of the term during slavery. At that time, the census deliberately counted Blacks as less than a “whole”—three-fifths of a person, specifically. Now, it involuntarily undercounts the Black population—disproportionately and differentially. Current plans for the 2020 census, however, have caused Black organizations and communities of color to question the involuntary nature of the decennial undercount of historically undercounted communities this time around. The reasons are many.  

For starters, the Census Bureau’s prison-based gerrymandering residence criteria, reaffirmed in 2017, counts incarcerated individuals where they are held in federal or state custody, often in far-flung rural locations, rather than at their former home jurisdictions.  Racial disparities in prison sentencing disproportionately affect African Americans and directly jeopardize an accurate census count of Black and Brown populations.

According to studies, African Americans are 12 percent of the U.S. population yet incarcerated at 33 percent of the country’s prison population. Prison-based gerrymandering violates the Black community’s constitutional right to “one person, one vote” by inflating the power of predominantly white rural districts, where many prisons are located, to the detriment of urban districts, where many incarcerated persons and their families maintain a permanent residence. It further denies our communities full representation in the halls of Congress, the Electoral College and on many other state and local legislative bodies.

Similarly, prison-based gerrymandering skews a community’s fair share and allocation of approximately $800 billion in federal funding, by shifting funding away from the home jurisdictions of incarcerated persons and their families, and sending it directly to the “upstate” or rural locations of their confinement; thereby taking food out of the mouths of Black and Brown children.

In addition, according to the census, while the net undercount rate for white children ages 0-4 years old was 2.7 percent in the 2010 census, it was an alarming 6.5 percent for Black children and 7.5 percent for young Latino children. According to Census Bureau researchers, the undercount of Black and Brown children has increased each decade. It is not expected to abate in the 2020 census without massive education, outreach and messaging to Hard to Count communities, reminding them to count everyone in the household, including: foster children, step children, grandchildren, infants, “play cousins” and everybody else.

Funding for Healthy Babies, WIC, Headstart and other programs are not funded to their full potential in our communities due to the undercount of young Black and Brown children. The inaccurate count of Black children has the same political consequence as prison gerrymandering: reduced political representation, diminished federal funding and a threat to civil rights protections under the law.

Finally, the Trump administration’s brazen effort to impose an untested, unjust “citizenship” question to the 2020 census has struck fear across documented and undocumented immigrant communities of color.

Currently under Supreme Court review, if the citizenship question goes forward and the census experiences a sizeable undercount, states with large immigrant populations will lose political representation in Congress. An undercount would also shift power away from urban communities toward rural, politically conservative areas, providing disproportionate political power to these communities.

Coupled with well organized—and well-funded—voter disenfranchisement campaigns aimed at people of color in several states, the citizenship question exposes the Trump administration’s effort to hide or suppress America’s multi-ethnic, “browning,” rather than reveal it.  Worse, many view the citizenship question as a concerted effort to diminish the influence of minority voters—what a New York Times Magazine article recently called, “the 50-year campaign to roll back the Voting Rights Act.”

Because the census is used to determine a community’s political representation and allocation of federal resources, a low count in African-American communities could turn back the number of members in the Congressional Black Caucus as well as Black elected officials in statewide offices across the country.  The ramifications for Black and other communities of color are incredibly high in terms of what’s at stake for economic and political power.  If we are not counted, we have to live with the results of fewer resources, less representation and fewer civil rights protections (the latter of which are monitored and enforced based on census data) for at least the next 10 years.

The census is scheduled to begin on April 1, 2020, in the midst of what we can expect to be a messy presidential election season.  But we cannot afford to be distracted—not for one minute.  We must all stand up and be counted in the 2020 census.  Our very existence as Black people in this country depends on it.  

Tell your friends, neighbors and family members that the census is safe and their data is protected by some of the strictest laws in the nation.  It cannot be shared with local, state or federal entities, not even the White House. Tell them that their count ensures that their fair share of billions of dollars in federal funding reaches their communities for programs like housing, health, transportation and education. 

Finally, tell them that the Black Count Matters—still.  This country’s constitutional framers understood the power of the Black count in 1790 when we were enslaved.  Clearly our count (and our vote) is just as powerful today.  Stand up and Be Counted!