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Minority Representation and Taking the Census

by Danielle Ellis on 2020-07-28T11:26:51-07:00 in Diversity | Comments

Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the census. As I was filling it out, I was reminded of the recent debate over a potential citizenship question, and why that was such an important issue for many people. This question, seemingly innocent and even common on the census prior to 1950, had the potential to completely change who was willing to fill out the census and the nationwide results. It caused a lot of fear from non-citizens, and testing showed as many as 630,000 fewer households would take the census if the question was added. It wasn’t added, but the fear of the question, and of the census as a result, is understandable.

It historically has not been the case that minorities could feel safe filling out the census, and this is still, in part, what perpetuates that fear today. Answers were not always kept confidential, and details like race, citizenship status, or even education level could be used against different groups of people. From the first census in 1790 all the way to the 1860 census, the last before slavery was abolished, all enslaved people were only counted as three-fifths of a person, for example. And with 92% of the Black population in 1790s America, or over 700,000 people, being enslaved (and still 89% or almost four million people in 1860!), this law contributed to less representation for Black people and the sense that the census did not seek to respect or acknowledge minorities. Furthermore, the 1940 census data was shared retroactively with the Department of Justice, including names and addresses of those with Japanese ancestry, in order to aid the government as they forced Japanese Americans into internment camps from 1942 to 1946. The census didn’t just inaccurately represent minorities, it was actively used to target them.

Thankfully, the United States has learned from some of its mistakes. In 1947 new census confidentiality laws were passed, and additional laws strengthened individual data protection in the 50s and the 70s. Now it is against federal law for the Census Bureau to release any information on individuals, and no court order, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer, or executive order could change that. There is no risk of sharing details like your race or your sexual orientation (the 2020 Census is the first to include an option to list a same-sex relationship), and there can be a lot of benefit for the community from getting an accurate count.

Unlike in the past, there are few negatives, and many benefits, to filling out the census as a minority. It is understandable, given past drawbacks, why minority groups are so often undercounted, but now more than ever it is a safe way to quickly have a positive impact on your community. Anonymity is assured, and higher response rates means more accurate details about a community’s needs as well as improved legislative representation. And this is true for everyone, not just minority groups. Filling out the census can create more state and local resources, including services like funding for fire departments and increased aid for Head Start and school lunches. It can even impact things like community parks and SNAP assistance or the amount of Pell Grant aid your child might get if they go to college. With so much benefit, and the past risks no longer a threat, it is important that all people residing in the United States complete the census.

You can take the census online now - it's not too late, and it only takes a few moments to complete. If you have questions or need help filling out the census, stop by one of the Census Assistance programs happening at all 15 JCLS library branches until late September.


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