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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.