Marc MorialOp-EdOpinion

MORIAL: Congressional Hearing Highlights Challenges, Importance of 2020 Census

“Despite the positive changes we have made throughout history, there is a persistent trend of bad actors playing politics with the survey in order to disenfranchise racial minorities. We see a present-day example of this type of bad faith provision in the 2018 announcement that the Department of Commerce planned to add a citizenship question to the census. There was no valid reason for this proposal other than a concerted effort to suppress the response rate of minorities and new immigrants.” — Rep. William Lacy Clay

A leadership gap, inadequate funding and staffing and a deliberate campaign to intimidate immigrants and communities of color all make the 2020 census among the most challenging in American history.

This was my recent testimony before a special field hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties regarding the upcoming Census.

The hearing, titled “Getting Counted: The Importance of the Census to State and Local Communities,” was held at Queens Community College at the request of Reps. Carolyn B. Maloney, co-chair of the House Census Caucus, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Days after the hearing, irrefutable evidence emerged to bolster my testimony that the “citizenship question” is a ploy to rob vulnerable communities of their political power. A political strategist who played a key role in adding the citizenship question authored a study concluding the question would allow lawmakers to draft even more extreme gerrymandered maps to shift power away the targeted vulnerable communities.

The National Urban League has a long history of playing an active role in the decennial census, beginning with Urban League Executive Director Whitney L. Young Jr.’s testimony before the House Subcommittee on Census and Statistics in September 1970.

Continuing his legacy, the Urban League has served on past census advisory committees, and I’ve had the honor of chairing the Census Bureau’s 2010 Census Advisory Committee at the invitation of President Barack Obama’s secretary of commerce, Gary Locke.

During this week’s hearing, I testified that the racial and political polarization of our society puts at risk the most important element of our representational democracy. Distrust of government is historically high, and the looming presidential election threatens to politicize the process. Hostility toward immigrants, emanating from the highest offices in the land, has created a climate of fear inhibiting people from responding.

We must combat these threats. An inaccurate census will deprive communities of accurate data for most federally produced statistics, such as the Consumer Price Expenditure survey, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Center for Educational Statistics and a host of others.

An inaccurate census will deprive communities of critical social, demographic and economic research conducted by think tanks, academic institutions and the private sectors.

An inaccurate census will deprive communities of billions of dollars in federal funding.

An inaccurate census will deprive communities of the just enforcement of civil rights laws and constitutional protections like fair housing and voting rights.

And, most importantly, an inaccurate census will deprive communities of fair political representation in the U.S. Congress, the Electoral College and state and local legislatures.

Over the past 60 years, census accuracy has steadily improved, but some groups still experience higher undercounts and omissions from the census than others. These include racial and ethnic minority groups, immigrants, single-parent households, non-English speakers. Other populations that are chronically undercounted are renters, mobile young adults, people displaced by natural disasters and the formerly incarcerated.

In the 2010 census, the Black population had the highest net undercount and omission rate of any major race or ethnic group.

Overall, 9.3% of the Black population was completely missed in the census, based on the Census Bureau’s post-2010 census demographic analysis.

The undercount rate for Black men age 18-49 was very high — 7.6% — meaning almost 8 percent of all African-American men in this age group were undercounted. And because Black men experience disproportionately higher rates of incarceration, they are more likely to be counted in the communities where they are imprisoned — typically rural jurisdictions — than in their own communities.

Prison gerrymandering, as this practice is known, along with the fact that Black communities are undercounted and non-Hispanic white communities are more likely to be overcounted, represents a massive transfer of political power and violates the constitutional principle of one person, one vote.

We urge every community to get involved and to encourage their neighbors, family members, church members, and coworkers to participate in the census, to count everyone in the household, including babies, foster children and extended family members. It is important, safe and easy.

In addition, we urge Congress to continue to hold oversight hearings to shed light on issues the public needs to know about regarding census readiness, especially cyber security, the 2020 Census Integrated Communications Campaign and field infrastructure.

Morial is president of the National Urban League.

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