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Analysis

Make Black Lives Count

A full count of Black communities in this year’s census is key to dismantling systemic racial inequities.

July 20, 2020
census sign
Mandel Ngan/Getty

Protesters who have taken to the streets in support of the Black Lives Matter movement are fighting to make sure Black lives count in more ways than one. Many have highlighted the importance of completing the 2020 Census to the fight against the systemic racism plaguing our democracy.

That’s because an accurate count of our country’s Black communities is essential to correcting long-running racial inequities in the way power and money are distributed in the United States. And right now, that count is at serious risk.

The census is a once-a-decade, constitutionally required effort to count everyone living in the United States. The results of the census determine how much political representation each state receives in the House of Representatives, how many Electoral College votes each state casts for president, and how the states draw neighborhoods into congressional and legislative districts.

The results also determine how over a trillion dollars in federal funding is allocated across the country for basic needs like healthcare, school supplies, roads, and food assistance. Communities that are strongly represented in the count can claim significant political power and money. Black communities are alarmingly in danger of losing out on their fair share.

The 2020 Census began in April, and as of today, 62 percent of households have responded. But that number hides an important part of the story. Preliminary outlooks suggest that the Black community is at risk of a significant undercount in the 2020 Census, and weekly analyses have shown that Black people disproportionately tend to live in areas with lower census-response rates.

An undercount is damaging in any year, but a major Black undercount would be catastrophic in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, which has laid bare the economic and health challenges faced by communities of color and underscored the importance of Black political power to charting a more just and equitable course for our towns, cities, states, and country.

The fight to ensure a full count of Black communities this decade is also about fixing injustices in the ways Black communities have been counted for centuries.

The census has never perfectly counted everyone. But, at the Founding, overtly racist law mandated the undercounting of Black people in the country. The Three-Fifths Clause of the Constitution ­­— a racist compromise the founders made to appease the southern slave states—required the census to count slaves as three-fifths of a person. That skewed counting gave Southern slaveowners increased congressional representation and more votes in the Electoral College.

The abolition of slavery and subsequent amendments to the Constitution changed the legal requirements for how the census would count people. The 14th Amendment required that representatives in the House be apportioned according to the “whole number of persons” in each state. Thus, beginning in 1868, the census was required to count all persons — including former slaves — equally.

This new legal requirement, however, did not in practice lead to an accurate count of the Black population. As statistical methodology improved in the wake of World War II, studies began to show that the Census Bureau was repeatedly counting Black people at significantly lower rates than whites. For example, a 1947 study on census quality that compared 1940 Census data with Selective Service records showed that the 1940 Census failed to count 13 percent of Black men of draft age (as compared to only 3 percent of all men of draft age nationally).

This “differential undercount” has persisted through recent censuses. The 2000 and 2010 Censuses, for example, both undercounted the Black population by about 2 percent while they overcounted the white population. And the 1990 Census undercounted the black population by roughly 5 percent. In effect, undercounts in modern censuses have been functionally disempowering Black communities, just as counts before the Civil War had been disempowering them as a matter of law.

To help combat this problem, non-profit groups have launched ambitious initiatives to “get out the count” in historically undercounted communities. In 1970, census advocates created the Make Black Count initiative. The National Urban League resurrected that initiative prior to the pandemic to address factors that would undercut Black participation in the 2020 Census.

One such factor is a high level of distrust in the current federal government within the Black community. As a result, some fear that participating in the 2020 Census may result in harm to them. However, federal law prohibits census data from being used against anyone.

A host of other organizations — including the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human RightsColor of ChangeNAACP, and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration — are working to boost Black census participation this year through organizing, communications, advocacy, and the courts.

All of this work is based on a simple truth: to help make Black lives matter, they must be counted. The coronavirus has shown us just how high the stakes are for Black healthcare, housing, schools, and more. An accurate count of the Black population can help correct for disparities not only by funding these services adequately, but also by ensuring fair political representation for those fighting racially motivated police violence and other racial injustices.

Elevate your voice today by filling out the 2020 census.