Who Has Voice In America?

Elana Needle

For more than 200 years, the United States has counted the population once a decade for the express purposes of defining political representation and allocating federal resources. As stipulated by Article 1, Section 2, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution: For the government to function the people must be counted.

September 23, 2020

Elana Needle, Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity

For more than 200 years, the United States has counted the population once a decade for the express purposes of defining political representation and allocating federal resources. As stipulated by Article 1, Section 2, clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution: For the government to function the people must be counted.

But since 1790 when the population count was first conducted, this seemingly straightforward enumeration process, known as the decennial census, has raised questions that still strike at the core of our political system – who has voice and power in our representative democracy, and to whom does America belong?

This year those questions and their consequences loom especially large. Coronavirus has hampered the U.S. Census Bureau’s ability to conduct in-person outreach, leaving historically undercounted communities of colour at risk of losing even more political representation and access to federal resources, and President Trump has instructed the Commerce Department to exclude millions of immigrants from the reapportionment totals that are used to reallocate seats in the House of Representatives. Thankfully, that decision was rejected by a three-judge federal panel.


With the count deadline in flux, I sat down with Atlantic Fellow Elana Needle, director of the Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative, who is co-leading a multi-state, community-led Get Out The 2020 Census campaign to reach Black, American Indian and Alaska Natives, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Latino communities primarily in Florida and Michigan. She sheds light on why the census matters, particularly for communities of colour.

This is an edited version of our conversation.

DH: Why does the Census matter? Why is the 2020 census particularly important for Black, Indigenous and people of colour?  

EN: The decennial census decides everything from where schools are placed to how federal dollars are distributed during national crises like COVID-19. Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latino people continue to be undercounted and under-represented in census data, which has real implications for political representation, and therefore, in the allocation of resources, policy making and implementation. Many of the social, political and economic issues that affect the daily lives of people of colour stem from how census data are used.

DH: Who should be counted by the Census?

EN: Every single part of the US and every single person in the US is supposed to be counted every decade, but throughout history the count has been politicised. When the Constitution was first ratified in 1788, only free people and indentured servants were counted as whole persons. Slaves were counted as three-fifths of a free person and Mexican Americans were considered white. Indigenous people weren’t counted at all. It wasn’t until the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to everyone born or naturalised in the United States that Black people were counted as whole persons and the census began counting (and taxing) Indigenous people.

DH: But questions over who should be counted still haven’t been settled yet, have they?

EN: That’s right. There is and has been an ongoing debate over the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 decennial census. The only reason it won’t appear on this year’s census is because the Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s rationale for including the question.

DH: Given this context, how have census data been weaponized in policy debates?

EN: Unfortunately, there are several examples of census data being used to enforce racist policies. In the 1800s, there was a movement to start asking about naturalisation and country of origin, English fluency, and residence status. Those data were then used to enforce immigration quotas and to restrict immigration from specific countries, particularly from Asian countries. Census data were also used to arrest and detain Japanese people in internment camps during World War II. And in the 1930s, when the Census began counting Mexicans as non-white for the first time, the data were used to forcibly remove them from America.

DH: And what would you say is the present-day impact of that history?

EN: There are several reasons why people don’t want to participate in the Census but among them is a fear of how that data will be used. Census data are constitutionally protected. That means Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) cannot request citizenship information about individuals from the Bureau. The Bureau can share aggregate data, but individual information is protected from release for 72 years by the U.S. Constitution.  

DH: We know COVID is deeply affecting communities of colour but how is COVID impacting the census?

EN: This year’s Census was in trouble even before COVID hit. It has been underfunded for at least three years to the tune of approximately $15-20 billion and that means there’s a build-up of all of the things you need to conduct a massive government statistical survey. COVID hitting is the perfect storm. Between the funding and COVID, the Census Bureau delayed all field operations.

DH: It must be challenging to go door to door while dealing with COVID and the tense political climate.

EN: That’s right. There are all sorts of challenges to knocking on doors right now. We don't want to scare or upset people. That’s why we’ve pushed the self-response option harder than we normally do.

DH: So then what can be done. How is the Racial Anchor Collaborative reaching communities of colour?

EN: We’ve been working to reach what's called “hard to count” communities. Those are folks, deemed by the Census Bureau, to be more difficult to reach or less inclined to complete the self-response form for a number of reasons, mostly because of educational and access issues, but also from a fear over how the data will be used. We’re trying to defray some of those issues and ensure that the Census at this point is not used in any detrimental manner.

We also launched a new platform makemyfamilycount.org, with promotional materials on the Census in 10 different languages. We developed multi-racial materials that explain the Census in ways that are culturally relevant. But there are large populations of folks who didn’t grow up with the internet and aren’t on social media, and so we’ve been doing a lot of on-the-ground work as well.  

DH: As a white woman from the United States and as a policy advocate trying to engage communities of colour, what lessons have you learned or are you learning?

EN: I’ve learned the importance and value of trusted messengers. This means that while I have worked on the Census for years and understand the political implications of it, as a white woman I may not be the best person to go into a Black community to talk about it. There are plenty of people who work on the Census, who are true experts, from each of these communities. What I can do is ensure that the organisations representing specific communities have input and the chance to frame whatever we're doing so anything that we produce reflects real collaboration.

DH: How has being part of AFRE helped expand your view of the work you do and its importance?

EN: AFRE helped me to see my work through a transnational lens. I used to think my work was American-focused, but a lot of countries take censuses and there was a lot of comparison around the citizenship questions to other countries’ censuses. Disappointingly, we're seeing a mirror effect of what’s happening here in other countries as they push further to the right. Prior to AFRE, I didn’t think a lot about what makes the white supremacy movement global but now I do.  

If you haven’t yet completed the 2020 Census, you can do so by clicking here.

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For more than 200 years, the United States has counted the population once a decade for the express purposes of defining political representation and allocating federal resources.

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