Will We Ever Truly Count?

David Jefferson, Urban and Public Affairs Graduate Student

Urban & Public Affairs grad student, David Jefferson ’21, continues our series covering the 2020 Census! In this week’s blog, he speaks on the history of racial inequity, particularly for African-Americans, that stemmed from being undercounted throughout the Census’ history. He also points to the reasons for participating in this year’s Census, and why it is more important than ever to be counted.

His guest blog post is taken from a class assignment for his course work in “Social Justice and the Census”. After reading this post, follow @USFVotes on Instagram or Twitter to stay current on the conversation!

Since the very first decennial census in 1790, the United States government has consistently undercounted Black people. Black people have always been undercounted dating all the way back to when we were considered as three-fifths of a person for purposes of congressional representation. Let’s be honest here: The Census isn’t a “sexy” or “hot-button” issue. It only happens every 10 years, there isn’t a substantial marketing campaign for it, and people tend to be careless about it because they don’t realize its importance and impact on their lives.

The decennial census ought to be carried out with proper diligence and accuracy, yet for black individuals, it has often been used as a political weapon to further disenfranchise our communities. The census is a critical tool that our government uses to determine the allocation of funds, programs, and the number of representatives each state sends to Congress. Black people and other minority groups have historically been undercounted which can be tied to the lack of economic mobility as well as the lack of investment and upward progress of Black communities. In the last census, 9% of Black people in the U.S. were missed, a rate that was higher than any other racial or ethnic group, and those missing data points mean missing dollars. The racial inequality that persists throughout our country costs communities of color millions of dollars in funding and resources. Specifically, Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of their white counterparts. This means that Black individuals will be counted by the Census as residing within a prison in whatever community that prison is located in. This act known as prison gerrymandering ultimately deprives Black communities of money and resources where these ex-offenders will return to once they are released from confinement.

In Donald Trump’s America, trust in the federal government is at an all time low. The sheer incompetence of this administration is frustrating to say the least. That lack of trust combined with the proposed citizenship question that the Administration pursued in 2019 is all the more reason why people of color would be uninterested and untrustworthy of the federal government.

But, I’m here to tell you that you must rise above any distaste and mistrust that you may have with the government. The Census is bigger than just one person or just one community. Census data is used to determine how much money is allocated towards various programming for states and localities. Know a child who gets free and reduced school lunch? Have a grandparent who relies on Medicaid for access to healthcare? Maybe you know someone who or maybe you are the one who relies on SNAP benefits to provide food for you and your family. All of those programs and many more are all connected to Census data. Being undercounted means that our communities will be stripped away of vital funding, resources, and our voices. An accurate Census is the only way to make sure our communities are heard. It is the only way to ensure that our communities will finally be paid attention to and be given the resources and attention that they deserve.

Participating in the Census is paramount to guaranteeing that our communities get the resources that are needed and well-deserved. Sitting on the sidelines, being uninformed, and failing to keep your friends and family accountable are not options here.

Abolitionists, freedom riders, civil rights advocates, and Black activists all fought hard to achieve progress for Black Americans. Our forefathers and foremothers sacrificed their time, their bodies, and even their lives to guarantee the very right to be counted and to matter. My grandmother fought hard in the 1960s to gain basic rights. During the Civil Rights Movement she found her voice and discovered her passion for justice and equality for all. Our government didn’t want to acknowledge us. It didn’t want us to participate in our own democracy. We simply didn’t deserve a seat at the table. That, of course, changed when powerful figures like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and so many more flipped that table and changed the narrative.

Now, it is our turn to take control of the narrative. It is up to us to ensure that our communities are heard, acknowledged, and finally properly invested in. America has never treated us fairly, and it’s about time that all people of color are treated with the dignity and respect that we deserve. The Census is just a simple questionnaire, but its impact reaches far and wide and means so much for us all. Fill it out and tell your friends and family to do the same. The livelihood, success, and mobility of our communities depends on it.

Read our earlier post on Privacy and the Census.

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