2010 census a civil rights issue, activists say

Civil rights leaders nationwide are gearing up for the 2010 census, which they say is one of the most important issues facing the economic and political development of low-income working-class communities, especially people of color and immigrants.  

The census, which calls for a count of the country’s population every 10 years, is virtually the basis for all demographic information used by educators, policymakers and community leaders in distributing government resources, redistricting and other important decisions.  

The 2010 census marks a critical moment in U.S. history, and a united multi-racial front to encourage people to get involved will determine its success, civil rights groups say. 

Many feel the 2000 census undercounted an estimated 16 million people, predominantly low-income communities, that resulted in the diluting of minority voting rights and reducing of federal funds and government services to those that need them the most. 

The 2010 census, the first since 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, will take place as the country faces its deepest economic recession since the Great Depression and during a time when civic engagement among minority communities is at the highest level since the civil rights movement. 

Speaking at a July 28th workshop titled, “Census 2010 is a benchmark for a New America: How to Achieve an Accurate Reflection of Our Nation’s Diversity,” during the National Council of La Raza’s Chicago conference, civil rights leaders discussed the challenges that lie ahead.  

“The 2010 census is absolutely the most important civil rights issue today,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “It is the most important thing we can get involved with in the next 12 months,” he added. 

Vargas said that low-income communities have never been fairly counted in the past. 

“There cannot be a true census if the Latino community is not correctly counted,” said Vargas. 

Vargas said every 15 seconds the U.S. grows by one person and that every 30 seconds that person is Latino. 

Due to the current recession and its economic toll on towns, cities and states nationwide, plans drafted in 2006 and 2007 regarding next year’s census plan need to be revised, said Vargas. 

“Too many families are experiencing rising unemployment and millions of families have lost their homes due to foreclosures,” said Vargas. “These families, rather than living the American dream are living the American nightmare,” he said. 

“We need to reach these people now, more than ever – people who have been marginalized and experiencing great pain and we need to see the 2010 census as part of our economic recovery,” said Vargas. 

Terry Ao, with the Asian American Justice Center, said being counted in the census equates with political and community empowerment. 

“When our numbers are undercounted, we miss out,” said Ao. “Our communities should get the services they deserve.” Ao continued, “Ultimately we all want the same thing – an accurate count of our communities that incorporates fairness, equal access and opportunities.” 

Both Vargas and Ao said the message in getting folks to participate must resonate with the community and cut across cultural and language barriers. 

Noting slavery, racism, political discrimination and electoral disenfranchisement when it comes to U.S. history, Vargas said the fight to fairly count every person today is still relevant. If people do not participate or boycott the census, it moves our struggle and progress for civil rights backwards, he said. 

When it comes to the immigrant population, conducting the census will require the Latino community to actively engage undocumented households to play an important role, said Vargas. Convincing the immigrant population, estimated at 12 million, to actively engage in this effort will be critical, he said.  

“We need to convince immigrant communities to play an active role in being counted as the next step to empowering our people,” said Vargas. Immigrant families need to know that any data collected on behalf of the census will be confidential and it is illegal to share such information with any other agencies, said Vargas. 

Some areas, if not fully counted have much to lose, they said. For example in Minnesota a congressional district, mostly made up of people of color, is only 2,000 people away from losing its seat. These areas cannot afford such a loss, they said. 

The panel was asked how President Barack Obama views the census. Obama has made the 2010 census a top priority, they said. “I think we will see the Obama administration get more involved in the next period,” said Ao. 

Speakers on the panel said using the census is an important way to reach out to communities in support of other important issues such as health care reform or voter registration drives. Grass roots organizing efforts related to social justice and building pro-active relationships door-to-door with community residents are important incentives to mobilize around the census, they said.  

In the audience was Chicago native, O’Kema Lewis, a private consultant and research specialist in education funding. 

“The census is critical to the funding of educational programs,” said Lewis to the World. “And an inaccurate count could make us lose a lot of money. And what really creates federal dollars,” she asked. “The census does.” 

Education is the largest source of revenue and is a critical component, said Lewis. “If certain areas are not counted then the funding of many states will be jeopardized,” she said. 

plozano@pww.org