OPINION: The 2020 Census Has Been A Nightmare, And You Should Be Terrified

The recent reporting on the preparations for the 2020 Census has revealed — like almost every aspect of the Trump administration — a terrifying though unsurprising devotion to upholding structural racism. The reinstatement of the question about citizenship included in the U.S. Census Bureau’s released final questions does not even attempt to hide anti-immigrant intentions.

Providing extensive identifying information and an indication of citizenship status to a blatantly xenophobic federal government is dangerous for some members of immigrant communities. Out of a justified fear of deportation or detention, many will not fill out the census, and the national immigrant population will be underreported by the survey, depriving people of resources and aid.  

The defense offered by Department of Commerce officials is that the question will protect minority voters. This is a baseless claim, given that this question was last included in the census 15 years before the Voting Rights Act existed. This intimidation tactic is meant to reduce immigrant responses and erase the existence of millions of people in this country.

However, the citizenship question is only one of many red flags in the lead up to a disastrous census. Institutional incompetence and a drive to perpetuate white supremacy plagued the preparations for the national count before this particularly nefarious incident. When the quality of life, political power, and quantifiable existence of communities is on the line, the U.S. Census Bureau’s continuous malpractice is something to be aware of and incredibly concerned about.

Problems begin with the fact that the Bureau remains underfunded, which jeopardizes an exhaustive count being possible. If the hundreds of thousands of census workers who need to get household responses cannot be hired, accuracy is in peril off the bat. Though Congress recently increased the Bureau’s funding last month, it is hardly enough to fix the understaffing problems, which can only be solved through massive, continuous budget increases.

An accurate count is also made less likely by Census Bureau’s stalling on the rollout of the first digitized census. Though meant to increase responses, online counting will severely limit accurate statistics on rural and impoverished communities. If communities cannot easily access an online questionnaire, and if the Bureau already cannot employ enough workers to manually count rural communities, the areas will be misrepresented and remain underserved.

The federal government’s monumental cybersecurity failures will also turn many away from responding. Fearing both external hacks and the misuse of data by the federal government itself, the public has had little assurance when it comes to the Trump administration handling personal information, and little is being done to rebuild this trust before the census.

The nightmare of conducting the census has been previewed in the documented mismanagement of the Bureau’s only trial run in Providence County, Rhode Island. With a nearly nonexistent advertising budget, county residents experienced mass confusion and didn’t know the test was coming. Even before the citizenship question was added, residents of cities with large immigrant populations such as Central Falls had already expressed reservations about completing a government questionnaire.

The racial classifications on the 2020 Census have also been designed to provide incomplete and misleading U.S. demographics. For years, there had been mounting public and internal pressure to reform the survey’s racial categories to include Middle Eastern or North African (MENA), mixed race, and Hispanic (which is currently an ethnicity within racial categories) options. Adding these designations would more accurately account for present and rapidly growing U.S. demographics, better capturing the nation’s true diversity, and embolden advocacy efforts for these targeted groups.

The Department of Commerce announced in January that there will not be a MENA category on the 2020 Census. The administration's travel bans targeting Middle Eastern and North African countries make the malicious intent obvious: the erasure of millions of MENA Americans, a growing segment of the U.S. population whose specific interests must be addressed. It denies those targeted and surveilled by the national security apparatus the basic right to self-identify, perpetuating their status as foreigners who don’t belong. To have no MENA category is to signal that these Americans do not matter, that they should only be counted in monitoring security threats.

Omitting a MENA category from the census is also a method of reinforcing white supremacy. The Bureau’s research showed that including additional racial categories drastically decreased the number of “white”-identifying respondents on the census, which has been artificially inflated for decades. Refusing to add the category helps keep America statistically more white and minimizes the presence and perceived political importance of people of color.

The census has incredible implications for the entire population that make these issues terrifying. Census results are most notably used to draw local, state, and congressional legislative districts, as well as determine the number of seats each state gets in the House of Representatives.

Equally important, though, is that census results are used to allocate federal spending for education, healthcare, and transportation. At least $675 billion are allocated annually based on census data, and this includes money for Medicaid, Medicare, Section 8 housing, Title I Educational Grants, and other crucial programs.

State power is reinforced and repositioned through the census results. Resources are distributed, and representation is given based on these statistics. The results additionally signal to the nation’s lawmakers who matters (and who does not) when it comes to major policy decisions.

Those counted by the census are recognized as present in this country.

Attempts can be made to mitigate the damage of the 2020 Census. Encouraging representatives to support continued federal budget increases is a start to improving turnout, though this doesn’t address the anti-immigrant question of the racial categorizations themselves. Removing the citizenship question is currently being fought for in a recent lawsuit filed by 17 states, seven cities, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, along the grounds that it violates the Constitution and the Bureau’s mandate to count the entire U.S. population.

Although launched by a strong bipartisan coalition, there is still the possibility that the suit will fail in court, though, given that the Census Bureau isn’t technically blocking people from being counted, but rather disincentivizing and intimidating them so that they decide not to. The standing of the suit will come down to the interpretation of malicious intent by a federal court.

Under the Trump administration, the census will attempt to ensure the existing power structure. The data will undercount poor, urban, immigrant, and minority populations, perpetuating the institutional disenfranchisement of already underserved communities.

Instead, the 2020 Census will overrepresent affluent, suburban areas with smaller immigrant populations. It will subsequently concentrate economic and political resources into majority white Republican districts, which will be capable of winning elections for years to come in spite of the country’s rapidly changing demographics.

Christopher Eskilson PZ ’18 is an English & World Literature major and Media Studies minor from Los Angeles, California. They are a former managing editor for TSL, and currently an editor at CGU’s Foothill poetry journal. They enjoy reenacting David Lynch movies, reading maps, and finding the best vegan nutella.