2010 Census undercount could spell disaster for blacks, Latinos

OPINION - Despite a massive and expensive outreach campaign to minorities, the 2010 U.S. Census missed over 1.5 million blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and others. And a failure to count that many people could have dire consequences in the coming decade...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Despite a massive and expensive outreach campaign to minorities, the 2010 U.S. Census missed over 1.5 million blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and others.  And a failure to count that many people could have dire consequences in the coming decade.

The good news is that the 2010 census over-counted the U.S. population of 308.7 million by only 36,000 people, or 0.01 percent — due mostly to upper-income whites who own more than one home.  The bad news is that the census missed 2.1 percent of African-Americans and 1.5 percent of Hispanics, not to mention 5 percent of Native Americans living on reservations, and 2 percent of those who categorized themselves as “some other race.”

The census poured $15 billion into the effort to get it right.  And while the extensive outreach to communities of color may have prevented the federal government from missing even more people, the census still overlooked a population roughly the size of Phoenix, Philadelphia or Houston.

Why is the census important, and why should we care?  According to the Leadership Conference, a leading civil rights organization, the census serves a number of purposes.  First, through reapportionment and redistricting, the census determines the number of Congressional seats allocated to each state.  In addition, it determines the number of electors each state receives in the Electoral College, which is used in presidential elections.  Further, census figures determine how over $400 billion in federal programs for schools, roads, housing and other services are distributed to the states.  Finally, the private sector make decisions on investment, hiring and where to locate their businesses based on the census data.

Given all that’s at stake, it could be difficult to believe, as the Census Bureau claims, that the under-count will have no impact on how federal dollars are allocated.  And although this national tally has improved in its accuracy over the years, blacks are still most likely to fall through the cracks.  Moreover, the dislocation of the economic crisis hit blacks and Latinos especially hard, as these groups found themselves foreclosed upon, homeless and jobless at alarming rates.  And Spanish-speaking immigrant populations may have been distrustful of government surveys.

But there’s more to this story.  The region most likely to under-count people was the South, including the District of Columbia, Texas, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina and Florida.  Meanwhile, the Midwest and Northeast had small over-counts.  The new South has experienced a major influx of blacks making a reverse migration from the urban centers of the Northeast, the Midwest and California, as well as the largest Latino growth in the nation.

The South — largely the political property of conservative Republicans since segregationist whites fled the Democratic Party over integration and the civil rights legislation of the 1960s — is changing.  Some states of the former Confederacy will soon reach a tipping point in terms of demographics.

Texas is already minority white, with non-Hispanic whites as 45 percent of the state population.  A high Latino birth rate has resulted in a quarter of the congressional districts in Texas with a majority-Latino population.  And states such as Georgia—which is 56 percent white, 30 percent black and nearly 9 percent Latino—are expected to reach a demographic tipping point in the not-so-distant future.  Meanwhile, in the 2008 election Obama prevailed in North Carolina and Virginia, where large black and Latino populations merged with white professionals and Northern transplants to show the face of a new South.  And in Florida, also an Obama state, blacks and Latinos are gaining in political clout.

But if communities of color are not counted as reflected in their true numbers, they will be shortchanged and unable to flex their political muscle.

Nationwide, for the first time in history, black and brown births are in the majority.  In 2011, 50.4 percent of American children born were black, Latino, Asian or others.  This changing reality in the U.S., brought home by the fact that the president is black, has led to the rise of radical hate groups and extremist militias who are preparing for a race war.  And this sentiment spills into the political process.

Hard-right politicians respond to the changing demographics by labeling the president as a foreigner, and by enacting anti-immigrant legislation.  For example, former Arizona state senator Russell Pearce — sponsor of SB1070, the state’s anti-immigration law that critics say targets Latino immigrants for racial profiling — mentored a man named J.T. Ready, a neo-Nazi who killed four people before taking his own life.

And right-wing lawmakers blast the Census Bureau as intrusive and vote to abolish some of its reporting activities, even as they engage in census scams and distribute phony census forms to the public.  This, as they fight changing demographics by enacting voter ID legislation, restrictions on voter registration, and other methods of voter suppression.  Not unlike Jim Crow tactics, these schemes are designed to disenfranchise millions of Americans, particularly the poor and voters of color, so they cannot vote and express the new majority in the South.

But census under-counting and voter suppression provide a double whammy for blacks and Latinos.  Increased racial and ethnic diversity provides hope, as diehard reactionaries and racists will someday be outnumbered and phased out by attrition.  But for now, if people aren’t counted in the census or at the ballot box, it is hard to see them getting out of the gate when they are powerless.  The Census Bureau must get it right in 2020.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove