In the lead up to the 1850 census, Congress debated whether to include questions that might account for the children of black female slaves. At a time when the black population was increasing, Congress openly questioned whether their children, the next generation, ought to be visible to the American people.
More than a decade later, census Superintendent Joseph C.G. Kennedy concluded—“with certainty”—that America would experience the gradual extinction of its’ black population in his 1864 official report on the population of the United States.
Such machinations appear to us as startling–even horrific, but they were not aberrant. Congress has a long history of using the census as a tool to preserve white political power, undercounting minority populations in order to maintain the perception that whites will always be the majority in America.
Now, as the 2020 census approaches, elected officials are once again threatening to use the census for political purposes. By placing the question of citizenship front and center, and refusing to properly fund outreach efforts, the Trump administration seeks to turn the census into a tool to intimidate communities of color.
This week the attorneys general of Illinois and sixteen other states sued in federal court to block the census from adding a citizenship question.
The problem of a low census count for communities of color is especially acute today because it is coupled with the relatively modern problem of gerrymandering. Because the census is used to determine a community’s political representation and allocation of federal resources, a low count can prevent communities of color from acquiring the political power and funding they deserve. The hyper-segregation of our country feeds this process, making it more feasible to undercount black and brown people isolated in geographic areas that can be neglected.
The Nixon administration’s treatment of Hispanics during the 1970 census is illustrative of this two-fold problem. At that time, Hispanics were becoming one of the fastest growing groups. The federal Inter-Agency Committee on Mexican American Affairs requested that the census contain a question on Spanish origin. The Census Bureau initially declined, insisting that Hispanics would be identified by the questions on language. Even after pressure from the committee, the Spanish origin question was added to only 5 percent of the sample questionnaires and Spanish language instruction sheets were mailed only in select areas. As a result, many scholars accused that census of undercounting Hispanics. In 1974, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights criticized the Census Bureau and its methods of counting Hispanics, describing their methods and procedures as “disastrous.”
Given today’s national political climate—of immigration raids, deportations, and dangerous and racist rhetoric about immigrants and people of color—asking every household and every person in the country about their citizenship will cause fear. Hundreds of thousands of people in our communities will avoid the census for fear of being targeted by this administration. It will raise concerns in households about the confidentiality of their personal information. As a result, the citizenship question will likely cause an undercount of immigrant people of color, supporting the false narrative that whites will always be a majority in the U.S.
Though population experts agree it is inevitable that white people will become a minority and that America is moving toward a genuine multiracial and multicultural society, the Trump administration, through the subterfuge of under-counting minority populations, seemingly has found a way to forestall that inevitability—in perception if not in reality.
Coupled with organized campaigns of voter disenfranchisement aimed at people of color in several states, the citizenship question turns the census into a weapon to deny America’s multi-ethnic reality, rather than reveal it.