Black Americans Don’t Always Respond To The Census. Pennsylvania’s NAACP Is Trying To Correct That

Oct 21, 2019

Census officials are working to encourage black Americans to participate in the once-a-decade survey.

Broadly, they’re classified as a hard-to-count population. And they aren’t the only ones.

Immigrants, non-English speakers, people who are homeless, and renters are just some of the groups that have been historically under-represented.

The Urban Institute recently projected that up to 3.68 percent of the black population might be at high risk of not being counted. That’s around 1,727,200 people. The group estimated that might also be the case for 3.57 percent of Hispanic and Latinx people, and for 2.12 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Census Bureau-sponsored studies have found that people from different groups decide not to participate for different reasons.

But at Friday’s census seminar at the NAACP’s annual conference, census officials and people in the audience both said black people sometimes ignore the survey because they don’t trust the government with their information.

West Chester University history professor tonya thames-taylor, who prefers to spell her name without capital letters, said there are a few obvious reasons for that tendency.

“They take it as surveillance and policing,” she said. “They see it as, really, an extension of their oppression.”

Consider the Three-Fifths Compromise, in which America’s founders decided to count slaves as three fifths of a person when apportioning congressional representation.

“You’re counted,” thames-taylor said. “But you’re not counted as whole human beings.”

A popular statistic used in census outreach is the amount of federal money the state stands to lose for every uncounted person. The estimate in Pennsylvania is about $2,093 over ten years.

But the Rev. Franklin E. Hairston-Allen, president of the Greater Harrisburg chapter of the NAACP, said he has never found that argument compelling.

He said cities like Harrisburg, where many residents live under the poverty line, might be able to put in concerted effort and count people who would otherwise fly under the radar. But, he said, there is no guarantee the city will get much in return.

“The people in the communities stand in dire need of those dollars,” he said. “We need to make sure … that the funds are transparent and used to facilitate those industries in the community that they’re collected for.”

Census coordinator Lynne Newman said she and other census workers go to events like the NAACP conference because turnout efforts don’t work well if local people aren’t involved.

“It’s getting community leaders on board,” she said. “It’s getting everyone. And we’re trying to meet people where they are.”

Taylor said in her experience, it can also help to reframe what the census is about. She said she convinced some of her cousins to answer the census by showing them records of their family members who lived in the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s and ’40s.

It’s about having “a sense of place and sense of belonging,” she said. “It’s a sense of, you matter.”