Census 2020: How we miss the mark on collecting data | Ana White

Second Lady Gisele Fetterman (Photo Commonwealth Media Services)

The U. S Census is an important piece of documentation. The U. S Constitution mandates that we take a census every 10 years as a way to count our population. Its importance is lost on many individuals, resulting in low registration into the census count.

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The Census, however, holds more weight than we realize. The U.S. Census determines several things that can impact our communities, such as adjustments to electoral districts based on population increase or decreases and allocation of federal funding used in community services such as hospitals, fire departments, and other critical programs such as school lunches and housing aid.

It also is used for demographic data that organizations use for grants, nonprofit organization data collection or even  statistics used for businesses looking to engage certain demographics.

With so much at stake with these numbers, one would imagine that the U.S Census is a fool proof document that can truly identify everyone. But what has been the issue with collecting the  information needed in the U.S. Census?

In the U.S., Census collection has been met with a lot of challenges that deal primarily with how impractical collecting data has become over the years.

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Specifically in Black and Brown urban communities, where housing and homelessness are top concerns, it becomes difficult to obtain accurate information of who lives in households, shifting through complex living arrangements, difficulties in working through feelings of violated privacy and intrusion, and insufficient workers placed in these areas to retrieve data.

Additionally, the increase in costs associated with workers, cost of distribution, and the high illiteracy rate can all have negative effects on collecting census data.

It seems as if the ways in which information was collected has not translated or adjusted to the many nuances of housing in  today’s modern society. With housing being so unstable for many, and families becoming increasingly transient, even schools and other non profit organizations have found it difficult to assess just who lives in homes and communities on a consistent basis.

Perhaps the most daunting task of U.S. Census collection lies in how race and ethnicity is documented. For many, this issue has been one that has plagued our communities for generations.

Race and ethnicity has been both a fluid aspect of our identification, and a hard stop identifier for us, within the United States specifically. As we all know, Race is a social construct, but real and viable in all its benefit and consequence.

Because of this, many individuals have leaned on the ability to self identify at any time they are able to as a way to avoid the labels which have oftentimes been provided as a means to create outliers of individuals and groups being discriminated or thrown into social ‘other’ categories.

Individuals who have long been able to “pass” as a certain race and ethnicity have categorized themselves, at times inaccurately, in order to benefit directly with the perks of belonging to a category of people with less discrimination and prejudice given to them.

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This behavior, resulting from what we know dates back to enslavement, segregation, and the civil rights movement, has shaped and shifted how one identifies themselves, and how individuals can choose to denounce who they are completely for the sake of belongingness.

Further, another issue that lies within collection of data comes with the never ending fear of how racial data is to be used. Many newly documented immigrants, and those in waiting, fear the information being recorded can cause a bullseye effect.

For minorities, recording race and ethnicity creates continued fear of monitoring and enforcing structural racism and oppressive behaviors within structural systems based on the census data collection.

In short, collecting data for race and ethnicity, although seemingly important and critical for some programming, can be difficult to adhere to based on fear of racial bias and divisive behaviors.

The U.S. Census, then, in all of its necessity to capture who truly lives in our societies, can find difficulty in how they calculate these demographics. For many of us, who we are is hardly captured in the U. S. Census.

Many find difficulty in trying to separate race, a social construct, from ethnicity, a cultural identity, in a way that can speak to who we are as an individual.

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Many individuals have a hard time identifying who they are, even within the structure of who we are told we are because we do not or refuse to be categorized in the ways in which the U. S Census has provided for us. There are many who can’t fit themselves into the box, or many who have refused to be boxed in.

And how can we be blocked into a category? If who we are as a people is oftentimes lost in the history books. Many of us are void of our true cultural identity, the complexities of who we are and whose blood we carry.

History has done a disservice to true identification, true lineage, and accurate historical accounts of how race and ethnicity has been fluid and threaded into one another since Pilgrims and Native Americans, enslaved people with slave masters, and increased biracial, more ambiguous racial categories as a result of multiculturalism.

Further, we have seen how history has represented the ideas of ‘whiteness’ and belongingness in its sometimes exclusionary and rewritten guidelines, such as the earlier Irish settlers or the long held concept of how White Hispanics are captured when discussing White racial advantage versus any Hispanic minority disparities being captured under those two seemingly conflicting umbrellas.

Our history and the result of our ignorance over history from a racial and ethnic perspective plays a large role in how people identify or misidentify themselves today.

So can the U. S. Census shift more than it has in its pursuit to capture who truly lives within the United States?

Can it begin to capture who we are as people and acknowledge the very real aspects of how we have come to these categories and how those categories still fall short of how those who wish to identify can choose to do so within those boxes?

Are the boxes an accurate way to capture who we are? More importantly along this line of questioning is the idea of what we aspire to become as a society.

Is this way of capturing who we are ethically appropriate anymore? Are the social constructs, and the recording of them, doing more harm than good? Is the way we are capturing this information culturally competent, fair, and balanced, across urban, suburban, and rural communities?

Are we leaving voices unheard, and if so, how can we make sure we advance the system to set out to do what it is supposed to do more accurately? Recording who we are and capturing our communities with demographics and statistics has many benefits.

However, until we can look at the many layers of how identification, social constructs, and social belongingness plays a role in how we affirm our race and ethnicity, we will continue to miss the mark on capturing who is truly present within our society, and within this country.

Opinion contributor Ana White, of Harrisburg, is the owner of Way With Words Consulting Services, LLC., which specializes in diversity and inclusion professional development training. She also works in mental health services in the Harrisburg area. Her work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.