Friday, June 21, 2024

With the census, there are worse things than being called ‘Negro’…

January 9, 2010 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( Have you heard the census is still calling us Negroes? This sentence popped up on my Gchat window from a concerned colleague. While for many this would set off a firestorm of concern, as a sociologist, I was not surprised, confused, nor concerned. I know the census has the word Negro on it and it has for many years now. It was even on the 2000 census form, so why the big deal now?

I believe we have bigger fish to fry with the census than the use of Negro. “Like what?” you ask. How about 478 billion dollars and political representation. Yes, you read that right, large amounts of federal dollars directed at community services and boundaries for political representation are determined by the person knocking on your door asking for information about who you are and who lives with you.

The census, a constitutionally mandated enumeration of the population, is collected in en masse ever ten years with smaller surveys occurring in the years between.

The collection of data around race has always been controversial. The 2000 census represented a watershed in data collection in regards to race, largely because people were able to “check all that apply” allowing more accurate count of the multiracial population, but the decisions of the past still matter today.

Office of Management and Budget Policy Directive 15 breaks down which racial and ethnic groups will be used on the census and their respective definitions. Under the category of black it states, “A person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa. Terms such as “Haitian” or “Negro” can be used in addition to “Black or African American.” The actual form you receive will ask, “What is person 1’s race? Mark one or more races to indicate what this person considers himself/herself to be.” One response is “Black, African Am., or Negro.”

While I agree that Negro is antiquated and passé, I must also acknowledge some of our older brothers and sisters still identify with the term, which is why it has been kept on and was on the 2000 Census. The matter of label choice is a complicated one among all people, and this is particularly the case for black people. There has never been a consensus on nomenclature, though we all have preferences. While some are ready to raise the protest signs to get Negro taken off the form, time would be more wisely spent advocating for the counting of imprisoned people among their home communities and assuring we do not continue to be undercounted.

The census currently counts prisoners in the area in which they are imprisoned rather than their home communities. The central issue is that this serves to inflate the number of residents in predominantly rural white counties, where many prisons are increasingly located. Alternatively, the home communities of prisoners receive lower than actual estimates. This situation has been discussed as a contemporary version of the Three Fifth’s Compromise utilized in the antebellum South. In 2006, it was estimated that approximately 41 percent of the adult American prison population were black. Having these members counted in their home communities could serve to increase political power and resources. This power could eventually serve to curb the pathway to prison.

Every ten years when the census rolls around there is controversy about the undercounting of communities of color, youth and the poor as well as the overcounting of the affluent. Few recognize these under and over estimations continue to empower some communities and disempower others. While there is a long-standing tension around the census and race, we owe it to ourselves to concentrate our attention on the things that will encourage political power, not political appropriateness. Now that is something worth fighting to change.

Written By R. L’Heureux Lewis

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