The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The census is a threat to communities of color

Yolanda Brewster, 65, is a U.S. citizen originally from Guatemala. The 2020 Census may include a citizenship question that could negatively affect noncitizens. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Bradford M. Berry is general counsel of the NAACP.

Millions of Americans are rightly outraged by the Trump administration’s recent decision to include a citizenship question in the 2020 Census — which, if allowed to stand, will surely reduce participation in the census by immigrant communities. But the risk facing the 2020 Census, and the stakes for communities of color, are much greater than the citizenship question alone.

With fewer than two years to go before the count, the U.S. Census Bureau is alarmingly understaffed, underfunded and underprepared for its constitutionally mandated population survey. That’s why the NAACP is suing the federal government to demand that it immediately step up its preparations, especially with respect to communities of color.

Our case rests on a simple premise: An inaccurate and racially biased census does not meet constitutional requirements. Unless a court intervenes, the census will become yet another tool of voter suppression against communities of color — the same communities that are often targeted by state legislatures determined to depress African American and Latino voter participation.

Last year, the NAACP engaged the Rule of Law Clinic at Yale Law School on strategies to ensure the integrity of the census. We quickly realized the hard road ahead, given that the Census Bureau was severely underfunded and understaffed during critical stages of preparations. Indeed, the amount allocated for census operations in President Trump’s proposed fiscal 2018 budget was so inadequate that Congress added billions more to the bureau’s coffers in the budget deal that was passed in March.

Although that appropriation is welcome, it does not necessarily extend beyond September of this year. Trump has asked Congress to give the bureau $400 million less for fiscal 2019 than it received in fiscal 2009.

Uncertainty around the budget has already had a negative impact on census preparations. The bureau has severely reduced its footprint in the field and has fallen behind in forming partnerships with the specialists and community organizations essential to reaching communities the bureau characterizes as “hard to count.” The bureau also canceled critical field tests for last year and two of the three “dress rehearsal” sites slotted for this year. These tests cannot be rescheduled. This means the bureau will head into the 2020 Census largely blind to how its methodologies, some of them brand new, will affect the count.

This lack of testing is particularly disturbing because the Census Bureau is experimenting with a “digital-first” census for most U.S. households in 2020. This strategy does not take into account the digital divide, which risks discriminating against Americans — disproportionately people of color — who lack reliable access to broadband. It also raises cybersecurity concerns, which the Trump administration has yet to recognize, much less address. Rushing into a digitized census risks undermining the overall accuracy of the count and disproportionately erasing economically disadvantaged households from it.

Our concerns about the census are nothing new. Under our system of government, we have long known that those who aren’t counted don’t count for purposes of drawing legislative districts and distributing federal dollars. But the risks tied to the 2020 survey are especially worrisome.

Faced with a train wreck in the making, the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit in March with Prince George’s County, a majority African American jurisdiction that was one of the nation’s most undercounted jurisdictions in the 2010 Census. Although we are deeply concerned about the citizenship question, like many others in the civil rights community, we chose to highlight the many other structural problems with the 2020 Census preparations in our lawsuit.

By the bureau’s own estimate, the 2010 Census did not account for 1.5 million black and Hispanic residents nationwide. The systemic and ­disproportionate undercounting of communities of color deprives us of badly needed federal resources for medical care, ­K-12 education, housing and transportation while diminishing our ability to be heard politically.  The undercount affects the quality of life in communities of color every day. 

If the Census Bureau continues down its current path, the 2020 undercount will be unprecedentedly severe. History tells us that communities of color will be hurt the most. The original Constitution mandated that enslaved Africans be counted as three-fifths of a person. The three-fifths clause was abolished after the Civil War, but the government has continued to disproportionately undercount African Americans.

Our nation cannot afford a census that systemically and disproportionately undercounts communities of color. The Constitution doesn’t allow it, and neither will we.

Read more on this issue:

Karen Tumulty: The Trump administration’s plan to make people disappear

Marc A. Thiessen: There’s nothing wrong with a census question about citizenship

Christine Emba: White Americans, welcome to the club of being asked, ‘Where are you really from?’

Vanita Gupta: The bitter lie behind the census’s citizenship question

Ward Connerly and Mike Gonzalez: It’s time the Census Bureau stops dividing America