The History Of A Weaponized & Distorted Census

Image:  Census.gov/Screenshot by NPR

Image: Census.gov/Screenshot by NPR

While the Trump Administration’s efforts to vilify and exclude immigrants and people of color are unprecedented, one of their tactics, the weaponization of the 2020 census, is no new concept. In early July 2019, the Supreme Court ruled the Trump Administration’s justification for adding a question on citizenship inadequate, blocking them from attaching it to the 2020 decennial census. The administration’s efforts to add the question had received harsh scrutiny from immigrant rights activists, especially the American Civil Liberties Union, who led the charge against the efforts in a federal court. However, the decision to block the question from being admitted in the census was attained with a narrow margin and Trump has unveiled plans to gather the information through other channels. So, having barely dodged this bullet for 2020, it’s crucial we understand the history of the citizenship question and undercounted minorities in what has always been one of our most politicized constitutional requirements: the census.


So, what exactly is the census and why is it so fundamental? Well, to put it simply, the census is a constitutional requirement and a cornerstone of our representative democracy as it quantifies the United States population and its demographics. Many government functions rely on the data provided by the census, which is taken every 10 years, meaning that the 2020 Census may be only the second in most of our lifetimes. Census data is vital because it dictates the number of representatives each state has in the House of Representatives, how Districts are divided, the makeup of the Electoral College, as well as how federal funding is allocated across the country. With so many administrative functions dependant on a single census, an accurate survey of the entire population is critical to ensuring a government that serves the entire population. Unsurprisingly, the abundant uses for census data have led to relentless weaponization of the census as far back as its commencement. States, political parties, and local governments have all worked unremittingly to skew census data in ways that would favor a political party, gain seats in Congress, votes in the Electoral College, or simply funding. 


So, you may be wondering why a citizenship question would be so detrimental. For one, the question could lower the response rate and cause a massive undercount of noncitizens and people of color, especially Hispanics. Immigrant communities have grown increasingly wary of providing information to federal officials and the citizenship question has been considered a deterrent, barring many non-citizens from responding to the census at all. This is by no means surprising considering that similar data from the 1940 census was used to send Japanese Americans to internment camps. By one government estimate, 6.5 million people might not have been counted if the citizenship question would appear on 2020 census forms. 

Further, the unrepresentative census data would be utilized to facilitate redistricting on the basis of voting-age citizen populations, rather than total populations, causing states like Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas to lose seats in the House. Evidence filed in federal courts suggested that the mal effects would intentionally disadvantage Latinos and Democrats. Not only would states with noncitizen populations lose proper representation in the House, but they would also experience massive fundings cuts. The distorted statistics would remain in use for a decade and could cause states like Texas, with large Hispanic populations, to lose up to $714 million in federal funding when those communities are underrepresented in Census data. 


With the looming threat of undercounts and a distorted census, let’s take a look at a timeline of how this has occurred since the inception of the census itself. 

1790: For the first census, Southerners petitioned for the inclusion of slaves in the population count, artificially boosting their population and gaining more representatives in the House than their Northern counterparts. To stifle the South’s attempts to gain power, Northern states negotiated the infamous “3/5th Compromise.” This was the first instance of groups manipulating the census to gain political power.


1920: As a result of the 1920 census, rural states owed urban ones 11 seats in the House of Representatives but predominantly Republican rural Representatives refused to concede seats to big city-states with large immigrant, Democrat-voting constituencies. 

1940: The first sign of massive minority undercounts was revealed during the Civil Rights Movement when activists found that the 1940 Census undercounted African American males at a rate of 13%, 4 times as much as their white counterparts. 

1970: The Census Bureau reported that it overlooked 5,300,00 people in the 1970 Census and that some areas, especially minority communities in urban districts, were more under-counted than others.

1988: Large urban cities sued when it was found that the undercounting of ethnic minorities in urban centers took power away from big cities and transferred it to whiter, rural districts. New York City won its case but the original, inaccurate count was used for redistricting.

1990: The 1990 Census again managed to miss 4 million people of color and the Census Bureau’s attempts to enstate a sampling system for a more accurate count were blocked by Congressional Republicans who claimed they would lose seats as a result of the change.

2020: The Supreme Court curtailed Trump’s efforts to add a citizenship question which would have lead to a distorted and unrepresentative census but has not yet been able to diminish immigrant communities’ apprehensions over responding to the 2020 census.


Aaditi LeleComment