The Census and Black Communities: An Ignoble History

The Census and Black Communities: An Ignoble History
Though today the census serves as the very basis for each community to be able to empower itself to be able to obtain the money, power, and respect that it is rightfully owed and entitled to by the U.S. Constitution, the census has been used by a racist system and power structure to oppress and disenfranchise.
In the earliest days of the nation, as an appeasement to southern states, the census counted each enslaved Black American as only “Three-Fifths” of a human being, a shameful and dehumanizing practice that continued until the abolishment of slavery. During the Reconstruction era, the census categorized and classified Americans based on the purported amount of “racial blood” possessed, which enabled government and private society to further bolster a racist hierarchy in which the “more” Black blood possessed, the lower one’s social, political, and economic status. 
In the Jim Crow era, participation in the census was suppressed under threat of violence or death, on the basis of the idea that if Black Americans were to be fully represented in census figures, that they could, in theory, receive the empowerment they were due, a non-starter for the segregationist and racist ideology enshrined in American society and government policy and procedure at the time, particularly in the South. 
The census continued to be used as a tool of oppression through the World War II era when census data was used to arrest and intern hundreds of thousands of Japanese-Americans in prison camps. Following the War, a national reckoning with the manipulation of the census for nefarious political means led to reimaging of the census through Title XIII of the U.S. Code, which established the complete confidentiality of the all census data, and made the sharing of any such data by the Census Bureau with anyone – including any other government agency, law enforcement, or private entity – a serious crime. Today, this crime is punishable by up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines. Since the passage of these provisions in the early 1950s, there is no evidence of them having been broken. 
The relationship between the census and Black communities began to somewhat shift in the Civil Rights era, as exemplified by the decision by Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress, to choose to be a census-taker in New York City in the early days of her career in public service. Her experience as an enumerator in 1970 shaped her visionary outlook as a congresswoman and as the first Black woman to run for president. In 1970, many Black and Brown residents in New York City refused to answer census takers as they were scared that answering census responses could render them as targets. Many enumerators quit that year, but for Chisholm, as a daughter of immigrants from Barbados, she was able to relate to these sentiments and was able to gain the trust of individual New Yorkers who were fearful of the census.
Despite the implementation of Title XIII, because of the census’ problematic and oppressive history with Black Americans, there has been a lack of trust in the census’ ability to deliver on its promise among Black communities, and the census has, as a result, continued to significantly undercount Black populations across the country. 
“For too long, the census has disproportionately undercounted communities of color, and therefore, our “On the Front Lines” campaign will focus on ensuring Black and brown New Yorkers are fully represented to get the federal funding support they need and deserve,” said Jennifer Jones Austin, Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of FPWA. “For this 2020 census, we are putting an end to myths and scare tactics that have long precluded our community from participating and will focus on community empowerment to prevent the undercounting and underserving of hard working New Yorkers.”
“During this critical inflection point in our national discourse around race and justice, one of the simplest and most powerful actions our communities can take to be seen and heard is completing the Census”, said Lurie Daniel-Favors, Esq, Interim Executive Director, Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College. “Completing the census ensures that our communities get their fair share of federal dollars and political representation. That federal funding includes money for hospitals and other emergency services, an urgent need for under resourced communities of color laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic. The City’s ‘On the frontlines’ campaign captures the voices of our essential workers, reminding us of their courage and sacrifice and underscoring the importance of Black New Yorkers and their vital roles as part of the City’s vibrant tapestry. Black lives matter, and completing the Census is a gear in the system that we must turn in order to ensure we have a more equitable and just future.”
“When we talk about demanding racial equity and social justice, we know that there is no more important act that Black New Yorkers can make RIGHT NOW, than to respond to the 2020 Census,” said Sheena Wright, President & CEO, United Way of New York City. “We are proud to be partnered with Julie Menin and the entire NYC Census team, and we recognize the import of activating Black New Yorkers specifically. The “On The Front Lines” campaign highlights their critical work for this City, and is a clarion Call To Action to ensure that communities of color receive the Money, Power and Respect that they deserve.” 
“On the Front Lines:” Media
The campaign has already run for two weeks on television, and close to 80 percent of NYC Census 2020’s television buy for the month June was dedicated to the campaign. In July, more than 30 percent of NYC Census’ digital ad budget will be dedicated to the campaign, with ads in English, French (for West African populations), Kreyol, and Spanish. NYC Census 2020 will also continue its commitment to community and ethnic media with ads in more than 150 community and ethnic publications in July. More than 20 percent of these publications are written by and for Black communities, and this share of the outlets will also feature the ad campaign.
To date, NYC Census 2020 has launched 15 paid campaigns. Campaigns have launched in 26 languages across television, radio, outdoor installations, 175+ print and digital community and ethnic media publications, and digital ads across 7 types of digital and mobile ad mediums. In addition to community-driven campaigns like “On the Front Lines,” NYC Census 2020 has also previously released PSAs featuring artists, celebrities, and public figures with strong ties to New York City, including singer Alicia Keys, rapper Cardi B, Lin Manuel-Miranda, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Late Night host Seth Meyers, and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. These PSAs are part of a strategy to reach historically undercounted New Yorkers and encourage people to self-respond to the census online or via phone, especially during COVID-19. 
Important Facts about the 2020 Census:
  • The census is safe, easy, and important—and completely confidential. If your landlord rents your apartment illegally, your response cannot be used against you or your landlord in any way. There is no citizenship question or question about your immigration status on the census. 
  • The census is available online and by phone this year: and 844-468-2020. You can complete your census from anywhere. You do not need a census form to fill out the census. All you need is your address to start the process at

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