The U.S. Department of Commerce is well underway in preparation for the 2020 Census. This behemoth project in which the U.S. government attempts to get a count of every person living in the U.S. is mandated by the U.S. Constitution and takes place once every 10 years. It is intended to determine how many seats each state will get in the U.S. House of Representatives and to determine how federal funding will be allocated to states and communities.
Questions included on the census form have changed since the first census was taken in 1790, and those changes are based upon politics, science or social attitudes. The census taker in those early years used only three designations to identify race or ethnicity – free white males, free white females, all other free persons, and slaves – of an individual, for example, determined racial identity. The identities of Blacks evolved over the years to include free colored, mulatto, quadroon (one-fourth Black blood), octoroon (one-eighth Black blood) and finally Black or Negro. African American was added on the 2000 Census. Additionally, in 1960, the census allowed Americans to self-identify their race and in 2000, Americans were allowed to identify themselves in more than one racial category.
Changes proposed for the upcoming 2020 Census are causing uproar among civil and human rights groups. – not over the fact that ‘Negro’ will be eliminated for the first time, nor that Blacks, reportedly, will be given the opportunity to write-in their nationality, i.e. Jamaican, Nigerian or African American. The concern is over a last minute reinstatement of a question proposed by Commerce Secretary John Ross about citizenship. In this current anti-immigration climate, this decision is suspect, and some believe it “is a clear attempt to politicize the process by discouraging minority communities and immigrant communities from participating in the count,” stated Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
While Ross and the Department of Justice, along with Congress, suggest the question will enhance enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, Commerce officials admit that it could have an adverse impact, although “limited.” However, we assert that no matter to what degree, questions asked on the census should not allow for the possibility of any discriminatory impact on participants. If politics are in the mix, the outcome will not serve the needs of people, many of whom already see the handwriting on the wall.