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During a chaotic time of shifting electoral politics and COVID-19, it’s good to look at the history of the census so you can make the best decision for yourself. 

By William Lau

Over the past couple of weeks, you might have noticed advertisements and infographics for the 2020 census. I’ve seen them everywhere from television commercials, to ads in local gay newspapers, to posters around college campuses with slogans like “everyone counts,” and “you matter—be counted.” Additionally, different newspapers have been running articles on the importance of being counted for different communities, from the Afro-Mexican community to Native Americans. But what is the census? And what does it mean for different communities in the United States? 

There’s no simple answer. And during a chaotic time of shifting electoral politics and COVID-19, it’s good to look at the history of the census so you can make the best decision for yourself. 

What is the Census?

The census is a survey that aims to count everyone in the United States. That includes undocumented people, international students, etc. The census accomplishes two main goals: it’s 1) the way the United States redistributes which state has how many seats in the House of Representatives, and 2) the way that government funding is distributed to different communities. 

For the first time, the census will be able to be filled out online, as well as by mail and phone, making it possibly the most accessible census since its inception in 1790. And while the census certainly has a racist history, the census bureau is making huge efforts to appear more trustworthy to marginalized communities. 

This year, the census asks for your address, age, sex, race, and if you have Hispanic or Latino origin. While Donald Trump tried to get the question of citizenship on the census this year, he did not succeed. However, as a result, many communities are distrusting of the census, and they’re not necessarily wrong. 


The Importance of Representation

There are two main consequences to your community not being counted on the census—lack of political representation, as well as the loss of or less funding. In an article for Essence magazine, Tracey Ross documents how the historical undercounting of African-American people routinely leads to less federal funding going to their neighborhoods, as well as less political representation. This lack of funding affects everything from how many resources schools receive to the distribution of Medicaid. A decade ago, in 2010, the census missed 9% of Black Americans, which meant that thousands of dollars of potential funding for Black communities were withheld. 

Beyond funding, since the census is one of the most widely taken and reliable surveys in the United States, data from it could be used to create legislation to help certain communities. Them magazine published an article on this issue, and how the queer and transgender communities will continue to go uncounted by the census. This is critical if legislators want to create laws protecting groups of queer or trans peoples. According to the article, “if a lawmaker wanted to ask for $10 million in federal funding to help trans women of color — who suffer disproportionately from employment discrimination, homelessness, and violence — they have no data on how large the community is, how many are unemployed, or how many fall victim to violence. In effect, failing to keep track of queer Americans renders them invisible for the purposes of legislation and policy-making.”

The Dangers of Surveillance

On the other hand, for populations that have historically been targeted by the US government, data from the census could well be used against them. During World War II, census data was illegally used to target Japanese Americans, which eventually led to the incarceration of thousands of innocent people. 

More recently, in 2004, it was discovered that the Department of Homeland Security had requested data on those who self-identified as Arab Americans in the 2000 census, including their zip codes. While Middle Eastern North African (or MENA) is not a category on the census, those who self-identified as Egyptian, Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian, and others were still found through census data. While the Department of Homeland Security claims that this data was simply used for travel reasons, there’s plenty of evidence that they’re a corrupt and racist institution, which could rightfully infer that this claim is not the complete truth. 

Right now, the question of surveillance is particularly important for undocumented peoples, with ICE continuing to incarcerate people even during a global pandemic. Even without the citizenship question on the census, the survey will still ask for individuals’ race and home address. Ultimately, it’s up to individuals how dangerous it is for them to fill out the census. 


Inclusion Without Rights

It’s also easy to forget that representation isn’t always the same thing as fair treatment. While incarcerated people are counted in the census, they cannot vote. This leads to representation being disparately given to white people who live and work in prison towns, giving them more power. 

According to an article by NPR, “In many cases, rural, predominantly white towns see their population numbers boosted by population counts from prisons disproportionately made up of black and Latinx people.” This is why there is a movement to end prison gerrymandering. While this is a problem more with the US prison industrial complex as a whole, it is facilitated by the census itself. 

Your Data, Your Decision

While you are required by law to fill out the census, there is not a concrete way to actually force you to do so, and there are no consequences for not filling it out. Under normal circumstances, if an individual chose to not fill out the census, a bureau worker would come to your door to ask you to fill it out. However, with the COVID-19 crisis happening, it’s likely that the census bureau will scale back on in-person census taking. 

The most important thing is to make the best-informed decision for yourself and your community. So when the census bureau starts sending you mail (or knocking on your door)—know how you’re going to answer. 

William Lau is a writer and student of Ethnic Studies. His research is on anti-Blackness in the Asian American community and the collapse of capitalism. He can be found on twitter @wlllau_

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