Racism Answers The 2020 Census

08.01.2020 by leftoutmag


By LEFT OUT Editorial Board

Every 10 years the U.S. population is asked to answer twelve questions in the Census. This year, Census 2020 has everyone from Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker to local community organizations gearing up to ensure a high turn out, particularly for so-called “Hard-to-Count ” populations, a term often referring to poor and working class Black communities.  The information that is captured in the census is the data that helps determine everything from the number of congressional seats each state is awarded, to the amount of federal dollars allocated to cities and states. LEFT OUT Magazine took a look at what is at stake for the 2020 US Census for Chicagoans. 

According to the United States 2020 Census website the Census will “count every person living in the 50 States, District Of Columbia, and five U.S. territories.” Mandated by the U.S. constitution and conducted by the US Census Bureau every 10 years, the Census provides critical data that can impact federal institutions and spending in municipalities across the country. In Chicago, the 2020 census data will impact the number of Illinois Congressional seats, local city planning, and the determination of billions of federal dollars, earmarked for Illinois, is of great concern to the Black community. At the Illinois Census 2020 Get Out The Count (GOTC) convening grassroot organizations like the NAACP and Rainbow PUSH, health service organizations like Howard Brown Center, and private/public consulting firms were in unanimous agreement that Chicago the homeless population will be among the hardest groups to account for in the 2020 Census. 


The population data derived from the 2020 Census will ultimately determine the political power states have in Congress. A state’s congressional delegation is based on population size, which in turn determines the number of seats a state has in the Electoral College. According to an earlier population data analysis report, Illinois was among at least nine other states at risk of losing congressional seats as a result of the 2020 Census. Other states included Alabama, California, Michigan, Minnisota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.  

More recently, the COVID19 pandemic has curtailed door-to-door population count efforts, adding to concerns about an accurate tally. Additionally, the expected results of the 2020 Census could initiate important redistricting processes in many states, including in Illinois and Chicago, where progressive socialist alder people were elected in numbers for the first time in the city’s history.  

Some of us will remember the controversy and confusion surrounding redistricting processes and racial gerrymandering that led to the dilution of Black political voting power after Republicans cut congressional district maps along racial lines in order to solidify congressional favorability in Washington. Gerrymandering continues to be a practice of Democrats and Republicans alike in order to gain influence in the House, resulting in lopsided representation that has often left Black communities silenced and ignored. Increasingly, prisons and prison populations play a role in congressional district mapping as well. New York Times Editor Brent Staples unveiled this bristiling actuality about prison gerrymandering: “There are many ways to hijack political power. One way is to draw state or city legislative districts around prisons-and pretend the inmates are legitimate constituents.” 

While Illinois and other states have reinstated voting rights to prisoners, many prisoners are incarcerated miles away from where they live, sometimes hundreds of miles. According to the Prison Gerrymandering Project,  “The way the Census Bureau counts people in prisons creates significant problems for democracy…It leads to a dramatic distortion of representation at local and state levels and creates an inaccurate picture of community populations for research and planning purposes.”  

Therefore, communities can receive a disproportionate amount of federal funding partly because of their proximity to a prison populated by residents of other localities. Meanwhile, the people in prisons-disproportionately Black and incarcerated for reasons deeply linked to racism and class inequality-are not counted for the communities they live in and would return to after their sentence.  Krystal Peters and Antonio Lightfoot from the Chicago Workers Center For Racial Justice summed it up like this: “If you’re from Chicago and [imprisoned] in Dixon [Dixon Correctional Center, Dixon, IL] you’re counted for the Dixon population. Because Dixon counts them, they get a whole bunch of resources and they get more electoral votes and all that stuff.”  Antonio went on to say,  “They do it strategically. Those same people don’t have a right to vote while they’re in the penitentiary.  When you have a loved one in custody, who is incarcerated you’re still accepting phone calls, sending money, so that person deserves to be counted in your census.  When that person is paroled they’re coming back to that address They’re not going to Dixon, IL.”    


Census data has a dramatic impact on local voting rights and political representation. It can also determine how a state spends its federally allocated dollars. A study conducted at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy shows that census-guided spending makes up a significant portion of the national economy. “In fiscal year 2017, 316 federal spending programs relied on 2010 census-derived-data to distribute $1.504 trillion to state and local governments, businesses, and households across the nation,” which is about 8% of the US Gross Domestic Product for that year. If that seems like a lot of money, consider the compounding issue that some of the “hardest to count” groups include renters, low wage workers, workers living in shelters, youth 18-24 years old, and single-parent mothers.  According to a 2019 Reuters report and the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless “Over 80,000 people are considered homeless in Chicago”, 80% of which “live doubled up in homes of others due to hardships.”  

There is no doubt that the potential pitfalls of a poor census turn out will be hardest felt among poor and working families.

But of those “hardest to count” residents, Black Chicagoans overwhelmingly experience the brunt of poverty and inequality, which is, of course, deeply shaped by racism. Take the issue of affordable housing, for instance.  In early 2019, over 70% of  Chicago residents, many of them from Black communities, voted in a non-binding  rent control advisory question in favor of repealing statewide rent control, sparking debate and organizing among residents, community groups, and grassroots activists and the real estate groups, making Chicago, already infamous for its real estate red-lining, a key battleground on the issue. Grassroots coalitions like Lift The Ban introduced legislation in Springfield, IL, HB255 and HB2192 that called for the elimination of the 22 year old ban on rent control and a cap on how high rents prices can climb, arguing that tieing rents to inflation numbers via the Consumer Price Index-influenced by wage increases-would provide a more accurate picture of household income and thus allowing rent to stay on par with what households could actually afford.  Although both bills have been sitting in rules committee of the Illinois House of Representatives since March of 2019 their passage-amid the COVID crisis-would be in stark and desperately needed contrast to the supply and demand rubric real estate groups have said they prefer, and would provide overdue relief to the student homeless population-a staggering 98.3% of whom are Black according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless- and the over 35,000 Black families doubled up in homes across Chicago. 

A representative for the Rainbow Push organization, National Director of PUSH Excel Rev. Janette Wilson, said that Rainbow PUSH had formed a coalition of grassroots organizations to coordinate the GOTC effort in Black communities vowing that no person or group of people in Chicago’s Black neighborhoods will go uncounted including Black immigrant populations who will likely be detered due to the xenophobic and anti-immigrant histeria whipped up by the current Trump administration.  Even with these concerted and coordinated statewide efforts, fears of a low (the lowest) 2020 census response loomed large among many in attendance at the convening.  The last four months of the COVID19 pandemic has most likely increased fears among organizers, especially since Chicago’s Black and immigrant communities have been among the hardest hit by the virus.


Four years of racist fear mongering, violence, and threats to immigrant communities will no doubt have a negative impact on the response to the 2020 census. But, there are also fears of how the data found in the census is used against Black communities. The negative impact of census data is historic, dating back to the 1940s whereby data from the US Census was exploited to identify people of Japanese ancestry to send them to internment camps.  As a way of addressing this tarnished history, the passage of Title 13; US Code codified into law a series of protections meant to ensure privacy and confidentiality of the information provided by census respondents.  Some have said more detailed information-particularly around ethnicity, which is a question on the 2020 Census-could benefit Black communities, including Black immigrant communities. Still, concerns prevail within the Black community about the misuse of personal information. These fears are unfortunately well founded, looking at the role of the government in Black communities across the U.S..  In Chicago alone, the Chciago Police Department is mired in a history of police harrassment, sexual assault, brutality, corruption and murder.  Likewise, the city has long been accused of contributing to an orchestrated the widespread economic divestment, and consequential exodus, of the city’s Black residents.   

As the U.S. confronts an unavoidable reckoning with its racism, surviving both the global pandemic, and a blithering racist for a president the attempt to unveil the relative importance of the 2020 Census, though often mired in confusion and obscured by the litany of daily tasks most americans have to consider, is apparent.  However, the long history of racist disenfranchisement of communities of color, particularly Black communities, using Census data certainly requires continued scrutiny, along with the importance of the 2020 Census itself.  In a time where Black communities, and protests are all calling for increased and immediate reinvestment in public institutions, services, and programs, as opposed to increased policing-in seeming perpetuity- and incarceration, accurate and just census data can contribute to creating a clear path for reinvestment into working class and poor Black communities.  The results of the 2020 Census will determine many things, Chief among them the political rights of state and local prison populations and their families, as well as the continued fight to increase political power and greater economic stability across working class and poor Black communities. 

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