Turn­ing a cor­ner

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - OPINIONS -

Af­ter weeks of dis­rup­tion due to the coronaviru­s pan­demic, the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau en­tered June with a sense of re­newal.

First, the bureau ex­e­cuted its widescale re­open­ing of Area Cen­sus Of­fices (ACOs). Th­ese cen­ters serve as the tem­po­rary hubs for staff, ma­te­ri­als and equip­ment tied to lo­cal cen­sus op­er­a­tions, in­clud­ing door-to-door fol­low-ups with house­holds that have not re­sponded. As of June 8, all six ACOs in Vir­ginia — Fred­er­icks­burg, Roanoke, Crys­tal City, Fair­fax, Vir­ginia Beach and Rich­mond — have re­sumed ac­tiv­i­ties.

Se­cond, the bureau re­ported in late May that it reached the goal of get­ting more than 60% of U.S. house­holds to re­spond to the 2020 cen­sus. The new in­ter­net op­tion has been more pop­u­lar than ex­pected, with 4 in 5 homes choos­ing that method to self-re­spond — almost 10% higher than what cen­sus of­fi­cials had an­tic­i­pated.

“To­gether, we will ful­fill our con­sti­tu­tional and civic duty to count ev­ery­one, in all com­mu­ni­ties, across our vast and di­verse na­tion,” said Steven Dilling­ham, di­rec­tor of the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau, in a re­cent video mes­sage.

The truth is we won’t count ev­ery­one in 2020. We never have. But by mov­ing on­line, we are turn­ing a cor­ner in how we count our pop­u­la­tion. The process should be more ac­ces­si­ble, and the cen­sus al­ways should be part of the big­ger con­ver­sa­tion about how to cre­ate a more equitable Amer­ica.

His­tory demon­strates why. In 1850, there were sep­a­rate ques­tion­naires for “free in­hab­i­tants” and “slave in­hab­i­tants.” Free in­hab­i­tants were asked to list the pro­fes­sion for all men older than age 15, and any­one older than age 30 “who can­not read & write.” The slave ques­tion­naire iden­ti­fied the owner’s name, and the age, gen­der and “colour” of each slave. Both forms had col­umns ask­ing if some­one were “deaf and dumb,” “blind,” “in­sane,” “id­i­otic,” a “pau­per” or a “con­vict.” Not in to­day’s Amer­ica.

In 1960, mem­bers of each house­hold were writ­ten in this or­der: “head of house­hold on first line” fol­lowed by “wife of head.” The race col­umn asked: “Is this per­son white, Ne­gro, Amer­i­can In­dian, Ja­panese, Chi­nese, Filipino, Hawai­ian, Part Hawai­ian, Aleut, Eskimo, (etc.)?” Not in to­day’s Amer­ica.

The days of such hate­ful, di­vi­sive rhetoric are over — on pa­per. On the 2020 cen­sus form, there is no ref­er­ence to the “wife” or the “Ne­gro,” which ap­peared as re­cently as 2010. This year, “Per­son 1” is the owner of a res­i­dence or the in­di­vid­ual who pays the rent. Each sub­se­quent per­son then is asked to iden­tify how they re­late to Per­son 1. There are sev­eral choices, from “adopted son or daugh­ter” to “same-sex hus­band/wife/spouse” to “room­mate or house­mate.” That’s to­day’s Amer­ica.

Un­der the race ques­tion, house­holds can mark one or more boxes for each mem­ber, while adding the ori­gin. Amer­i­cans who are half Ethiopian, a quar­ter Ja­panese and a quar­ter Ger­man have the chance to be counted the way they iden­tify. That’s to­day’s Amer­ica.

This is progress, but only if our na­tion’s diver­sity is fully and ac­cu­rately counted. Is 60% par­tic­i­pa­tion re­ally the bar in Amer­ica? And in Vir­ginia, some “hard-to-count” cen­sus com­mu­ni­ties are de­fined by race: Black and African Amer­i­can, His­panic/Lat­inx, and Asian Amer­i­can and Pa­cific Is­lan­der.

From the start, the cen­sus was no small doc­u­ment for our coun­try. In 1790, the founders im­ple­mented the count as part of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion to help shape rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Congress. The data still dic­tates the distri­bu­tion of seats in the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, as well as the di­vi­sion of $675 bil­lion in fed­eral dol­lars to the states for schools, roads and other pro­grams.

But how ac­cu­rate are those con­gres­sional dis­tricts and who are those dol­lars go­ing to? In Fe­bru­ary 2019, the Ur­ban In­sti­tute warned about the cen­sus’ his­tory of dis­pro­por­tion­ately fail­ing to count African Amer­i­cans. Even af­ter 200 years of re­fin­ing, the 1990 cen­sus un­der­counted black com­mu­ni­ties by 4%. The 2000 cen­sus did so by 2%. The 2010 cen­sus was nearly a per­fect count of the over­all pop­u­la­tion. But by race, whites were over­counted by 0.8%, while African Amer­i­cans were un­der­counted by 2.1%.

Those fig­ures might not seem like a lot. But within a U.S. pop­u­la­tion of nearly 330 mil­lion peo­ple, if you line up groups of 100, knock off two peo­ple of one race and add one of an­other, those mis­takes add up. What will this year’s count look like af­ter jug­gling a pan­demic and protests?

Po­lice re­form, stat­ues and mon­u­ments can be ad­dressed now, as should the cen­sus. An in­com­plete count tilt­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tion or ser­vices to­ward one group of peo­ple over an­other is a 10-year mis­take. For decades, we’ve ac­cepted a process rife with in­equities, and we have un­til Oct. 31 to get this year’s count right.

Cap­tur­ing the unique cir­cum­stances of ev­ery Amer­i­can house­hold is an im­per­fect process. But we have a say in how the world moves forward. For the cen­sus, that say should be as loud as the protests spark­ing calls for change.

End­ing the his­toric un­der­count of Amer­i­cans by race and stop­ping the la­bel­ing of com­mu­ni­ties as “hard to count” needs to be part of the so­lu­tion. Let’s turn an­other cor­ner.

— Chris Gen­til­viso

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