(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)
San Marino High School

Latinos and black people are at risk of a census undercount

With a new decade comes the decennial census on April 1 — the enumeration of the U.S. population to ensure that communities receive a proportionate amount of $675 billion worth of government funding.

The future economic prosperity of American neighborhoods can be determined by the census count, with benefits and/or repercussions that can last a decade. This federal funding can be used for public projects such as highways, schools, libraries or other vital programs, according to the US Census Bureau website.

Former census director John Thompson told the Brennan Center for Justice that the Census Bureau has been underfunded by about $200 million since 2012, and the lack of proper provisions has created a domino effect of setbacks. 

“The Bureau canceled tests in 2017, slimmed down the 2018 End-to-End Test, and has been delayed in testing its IT systems for 2020 because of funding uncertainties,” Thompson told the Brennan Center for Justice.

The 2020 census could undercount up to 1.7 million black people and up to 2.2 million Latinos, which would be the worst undercount of these ethnic groups in the last 30 years, according to NPR. Estimates like these are believed to be “a little bit on the conservative side,” according to Thompson.

Undocumented U.S. residents also experience a lingering fear of President Donald Trump’s proposal to include a citizenship question on the 2020 census, though it was rejected.

capture Latinos and black people are at risk of a census undercount
(Chart by the Urban Institute)

A census undercount can be a result of a home address not included in the census address roster, a fear of government, privacy, language issues, and mobile populations such as renters, among other barriers, according to the Census 20/20 Project.

The attitudes marginalized communities can hold that make census participation seem futile — Afro-Pessimism and Latinx Critical theory — are often overlooked reasons to an undercount.

Afro-Pessimists believe the world’s semantic field structure is made up of anti-Blackness, according to Frank B. Wilderson, the scholar who coined and developed the theory.

Afro-Pessimism is a lens through which anti-black racism is the foundation upon which society stands, Wilderson said.

Of course, detractors will claim that this perspective is extreme and outdated, with no justification to be present in a place where African American representation abounds with movies like “Queen & Slim” or TV series like “Key & Peele,” labeling Afro-Pessimism as an obsession with the past that causes the anachronistic image of the slave to permeate modern society, according to a 2016 essay by Jared Sexton, a UC Irvine professor of African American studies. 

But Afro-Pessimism is not the mental process of a single madman; other scholars like Sexton have defended the theory, attempting to breakdown the psychology behind it: The identity of the black community cannot be fathomed without the source of an established memory, and the future fails to promise anything more than what the past has provided, according to Sexton’s essay.

As written by Wilderson in a poem from his book “Incognegro: A Memoir of Exile and Apartheid,” it’s this narrative of “natal alienation and social death,” of being without a true place of belonging, that can pervade the minds of African Americans and make their lives seem predestined for systemic racism and poverty, thus discouraging participation in a seemingly pointless census. 

And the idea isn’t all that far-fetched; in a study conducted by Michael Dawson and Julie Merseth for the University of Chicago, optimism within the black community exponentialized between 2005 and 2008, the two professors note, but the more notable event during the Obama era was how quickly these attitudes regressed between 2009 and 2010.

capture 1 Latinos and black people are at risk of a census undercount
(Table by Michael C. Dawson and Julie Lee Merseth of University of Chicago)

Racial pessimism (regardless of which race), as Dawson and Merseth concluded, were also exacerbated by racist sentiments and opposition against immigrants, both of which have been established as the norm through Trump’s desensitizing track record.

Other factors that contribute to a miscount of African American populations include the disproportionate incarceration and premature death rates that black men are subject to, which causes their count to be “missing” in their respective communities, as the Urban Institute has pointed out, but the possibility remains that black communities might be disincentivized from census participation, seeing no end in their cycle of — in Wilderson’s terms — “gratuitous violence.”

A parallel fate is suffered by the Latino community as contextualized by LatCrit theory, which states that the United States, as structured within the Constitution, is based on a Black-White paradigm and the notions of White supremacy.

As such, the Latino experience is systematically erased and invisible within the black-white paradigm, says professor Trucios-Haynes of the University of Louisville, that can cause the Latino community to feel a sense of futility in improving “an indeterminate Latina/o racial identity.”

In fact, the questions within the census themselves force Latinas/os to be grouped within the dominant racial paradigm to perpetuate otherization, placing the minority outside the racial constructs of the United States, according to Haynes’ “Why ‘Race Matters’: LatCrit Theory and Latina/o Racial Identity.”

But the government isn’t the only guilty party that discriminates and invalidates Latinas/os as a race. Private organizations like the College Board also perpetuate the systemic erasure of the Latino community as a racial group. 

San Marino High School junior Andrea Covarrubias, for example, recently voiced her frustration with a pre-ID session she took for AP testing last school year, which often asks, “Are you Hispanic,” as the first question. 

“I said ‘yes,’ and then the next question asked, ‘What race are you?’ And I’m like, I just told you I’m Mexican,” she said. “I get so confused … because Mexico [was] colonized by so many Spaniard people … And at this point, I don’t know what I am.” 

Mexican-Americans have been further ostracized by African Americans, criticizing the former as “free-riders” who benefit from the work and success of the latter without actually contributing prior to and ever since Trucios-Haynes’ research was published in 2001 by <span style="text-decoration: underline;"UC Berkeley’s La Raza Law Journal.

And that’s not even mentioning the Latinox community’s list of grievances against Trump, who has — as professor Shelton of the University of Arkansas puts it in her essay “Who Belongs” — enforced racist sentiments by overlooking the beneficial contributions of immigrant populations and spreading misinformation.

Concerning undocumented Latino students, Shelton also said that U.S. discourse discriminates against undocumented students by using dehumanizing language and impeding opportunities at institutions of higher education, but perhaps that statement rings true for all immigrants of the Latino community, regardless of education level as each one endures “institutional oppression” of a nativist society.

As a result of this — to borrow Dawson and Merseth’s phrase — “intensified racist discourse,” more Hispanics expect a worsening situation for their community and have become discouraged about the economic growth and stability of their children, according to Pew Research Center.

This same hopeless outlook on financial affairs can permeate other facets of Latino life such as political participation, to the point where the census is not so much a promise of possible success through much-needed community funding, but a waste of time and the false hope of a government prone to betrayal with deportations and asylum denials.

capture 2 Latinos and black people are at risk of a census undercount
(Chart by Pew Research Center)

Complacency and learned helplessness are seldom the solutions sought for the betterment of the future. While Afro-Pessimism and LatCrit theory might define the attitudes of select individuals, we must do our best to prevent their mentality from becoming reality by ensuring each person is accounted for in the census. The whole, after all, is greater than the sum of its parts.