Activists aim to maximize Black census response through education campaign
By Khalil Abdullah
TriceEdneyWire.com) – Jeri Green, 2020 Census Senior Advisor for the National Urban League’s Census Black Roundtable, is encouraging African-Americans, and indeed all Americans, to self-respond to the census, in part to allay fears the novel corona virus could be spread to households by a census enumerator, the person who knocks on your door with blank census forms and clipboard in hand.
Even as the Census Bureau has announced a package of strategies to delay door-to-door enumeration and counting the homeless, among other initiatives, eventually the hard work will resume toward fulfilling the constitutional mandate on which so many aspects of American life depends.
This is the first decennial census utilizing the Internet. Phone response is an option as well. Green encouraged using either method as an alternative to the standard nine-question paper census form now arriving at many homes. The paper form, addressed to “Resident” – and not to be mistaken for junk mail — is to be filled out and returned to the Census Bureau by mail. Non-responding addresses trigger a visit by a census enumerator.
“In many of our communities, especially the Black community, a significant portion of our community waits for that knock on the door,” Green said during a national media telebriefing: Addressing Security Information and Privacy Issues, Census2020. The event was sponsored by the Leadership Conference Education Fund in partnership with Ethnic Media Services.
Green was joined by Beth Lynk, LCEF’s Census Counts Campaign Director; Lizette Escobedo, Director of National Census Program, NALEO Educational Fund; John Yang, President and Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice; Ditas Katague, Director, California Complete Count Committee; and Lycia Maddox, Vice President of External Affairs, National Congress of American Indians.
These speakers explained the often similar but also unique obstacles to marshalling their constituents’ responses to the census, one they agree will be one of the most challenging in America’s history and “one of the most urgent civil rights issues facing the country,” Beth Lynk observed.
Yang said concern about the privacy of census responses among Asian American families, particularly those with mixed immigrant status households, was heightened by the Department of Commerce’s efforts to include a question on citizenship on the 2020 census form. He said surveys have shown that a significant percentage of Asian Americans, as high as 30 percent in one poll, still incorrectly think the question is on the form.
Similarly, the citizenship question has roiled the Latino community. Some surveys showed that about half of Latinos still thought it would be included on the form, said Escobedo. “This is a significant concern for us.”
Green also cited the historic lack of trust within the Black community, of how the federal government may use census information, as a looming impediment to a successful count. That same sentiment may depress the response rate from African and Caribbean immigrant residents who are increasingly becoming a percentage of the National Urban League’s constituency.
The NUL and its 90 affiliates now have a presence in 36 states and the District of Columbia with the capacity to potentially reach two million American residents, Green reported. The NUL’s Make Black Count campaign, a collaboration with other organizations and religious leaders, has held national phone telebriefings. March’s event drew well over a thousand participants.
Make Black Count is designed to increase awareness and understanding about elected congressional and state representation as well as the allocation of monetary benefits derived from the census. These tax-derived funds are returned, by population-driven formulas, to states, counties, cities, and towns. The federal contribution to rural hospitals, for example, has moved to the forefront of concerns as the demand for adequate bed space and equipment spike in the throes of the corona virus pandemic.
With the corona virus dominating the news, the census is at risk of being pushed to the margins of the public consciousness. By following the Center for Disease Control’s guidance, Yang said his organization, as are the other telebriefing participants, is factoring in recommendations on how to improve public outreach.
“A number of our grassroots-based organizations are moving more toward phone banks, text banks, to create more of a presence on-line because, certainly tabling opportunities, in-person opportunities are becoming restricted and we want to exercise caution and ensure the safety and health of our volunteers,” Yang said. Escobedo said NALEO, for example, is reaching many Latinos through Facebook.
Yang also is concerned about how messaging about the virus and disease is being distorted. “Getting the facts right matter,” Yang emphasized. “We, unfortunately, are seeing a significant increase in hate incidents around Covid-19, corona virus, directed against the Asian community and this is something we need to stand up against. The reality is that this is a health hazard. It is not specific to one ethnic community. One ethnic community is not the carrier of this health hazard in a manner that is genetically based.”
Lycia Maddox, Vice President of External Affairs, National Congress of American Indians, spoke about the uphill climb to achieving accurate representation of the Native American population. “Indian Country has the highest undercount of 4.9 percent, almost double the next population group,” she said of the 2010 census.
Maddox said NCAI has partnered with other Native American organizations and tribal leaders in efforts to boost the response rate in communities that typically qualify as Hard to Count. HTC is a designation that applies to census tracts where the past history of responses to the census have lagged. Immigrant households, and ones where English is not the primary language, consistently fall under that rubric. But other descriptors — low-income households, rural communities, and lack of robust Internet access — apply to a significant percentage of the Native American presence.
As a consequence, tribal nations also comprise part of California’s 11 million Hard to Count population in a state of 40 million residents. The size of California’s population alone sets it apart from the rest of the country, Katague explained. She said Los Angeles County, where 192 languages are spoken, has a population larger than 42 states. California has committed $187.2 million to achieving a complete count, funding that surpasses the combined financial commitment of the 49 remaining states.
Maddox said the corona virus has made its presence felt among Native Americans in other ways. There are instances of some tribes limiting physical access by outsiders to reservations and communities in order to limit the potential of exposure to the virus. Another concern is that the recruitment of Native American enumerators, already difficult enough, will be negatively impacted. Jeri Green and the NUL are painfully aware of this possibility as well.
“We are concerned about hiring,” Green said. “We know that the Census Bureau has to recruit 2.5 million people to hire 500,000 enumerators. We now worry about a greater attrition rate than they’ve had, where people might just say, ‘Okay, well, I’m out of here. I don’t want to knock on doors because of this virus.’ We don’t know.
“But we have been, all along, trying to shift the dynamic and move the needle in the other way, even before this virus came on, and push self-response. And that’s what we’ve been doing, pushing the telephone lines and self-response because we don’t want those great numbers out there in the non-response universe.”
Yet, one estimate is, at the acme of the census response, there could be as many as eight million hits a day on the census website.
“We just have to hope and pray that the Census Bureau’s infrastructure for telephone questionnaire assistance and Internet response are all functioning,” Green said. “They seem to be all systems go.”
Green, a former census employee, now retired from federal service, said, “We are fighting collectively to ensure that the Black population loses no ground–political, economic or civil rights as a result of the 2020 census. The stakes are too high. We must Make Black Count in the 2020 Census.”