Today in 2018, Black America is nearly 50 million strong, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey. After 400 years, we are still struggling to assert our constitutional, civil and human rights, full U.S. citizenship and “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” New York State, with 3.6 million, has the largest Black population of any state in the nation. And New York is at a critical juncture leading up to the 2020 census. State and city resources must be put in place now, before it is too late.
The Trump administration, March 26, 2018, just added a question to the 2020 census form, without legally required pre-testing (last asked in 1950), which will likely trigger a massive census undercount and have devastating political, economic and social consequences for Black and other communities of color. To paraphrase, the new question is “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
America’s 50 million Black Diaspora population contains more than 11 million continental African, Caribbean and Afro-Latino members. Any noncitizen whose papers, or relatives’ papers, are not yet in order will be highly skeptical about filling out a U.S. census form that includes this question and submitting information to a federal agency, with President Trump’s immigration raids raging all across America. And even if they don’t fill out the form or answer the citizenship question, the Census Bureau still knows their addresses, and census takers (or immigration agents?) will be sent after them to complete the forms. Under penalty of federal law, fine and imprisonment, the Census Bureau should not share this information with any other agency. But today, we are living in a new, unpredictable national governmental climate.
A census undercount means fewer congressional, State Legislature and City Council seats; fewer federally funded programs and services; and less civil rights enforcement, on top of the political and policy mega-shifts in Washington.
Nationally, $675 billion a year in federals funds, services and programs are allocated using census data— $7 trillion locked in by decennial census numbers for the entire decade—and $53 billion a year in New York State and $20 billion a year in New York City are in federal funds and programs. A 2020 undercount means major federal cuts, on top of Trump administration federal tax and budget policies that have killed mortgage interest deductions and other benefits for New Yorkers. Also, civil rights and voting rights enforcement are heavily reliant on census counts to ascertain levels of racial and gender disparities and discrimination. A racial/gender undercount of protected classes will undermine the case for proof of discrimination.
The Trump-Republican controlled Congress cut the 2020 census budget in half, from $14 billion in 2010 to $7 billion. It is imperative that New York State and New York City governments, the philanthropic and private sectors, provide substantial 2020 census education and outreach resources now, or New York is headed for a vast undercount, with dire consequences.
We are already projected to lose one to two congressional seats, from our present 27 seats down to 25— from a high of 45 seats in 1940. New York, the Empire State, once had the largest congressional delegation in America for 100 years. California passed us in 1970, Texas in 2000 and Florida in 2017. A minority/immigrant-based 2020 Census undercount will mean political power, public services and civil rights enforcement reductions at precisely the time when our voices and agenda must be amplified, in today’s perilous public policy climate.
The solution? The good news is that Black America now has a heads up, some lead time, 18 months to counteract this massive political and economic attack on its national well-being and sustainability as the “nation within a nation” that we have been and are now. Many groups are beginning to awaken and organize toward the 2020 census. We need every New Yorker to be counted in the 2020 census, regardless of race, ethnicity, income, age, religion, gender, mobility, nationality, sexual orientation and immigration status. Black New Yorkers, among America’s historically most undercounted groups, must do our part. Or, we will lessen our voices in the corridors of power, reduce our fair share of the blessings of liberty and by our negligence, betray the life chances of our future generations.
Dr. John Flateau is professor of public administration and political science at Medgar Evers College, CUNY and director of its think tanks, the US Census Information Center and the DuBois Bunche Center for Public Policy.