By now you’ve heard that the 2020 Census will determine how much federal funding each community will get for healthcare, schools, housing, food assistance, and so much more. It will determine each community’s representation in Congress, in state legislatures, in city councils, and school boards. And businesses— large and small—will base their decisions about opening stores and other services based on census data for a full 10 years.
But there’s another reason to fill out the 2020 Census — so that future generations will know more about their ancestors.
The Census Bureau keeps your personal information completely confidential for 72 years. Then every decade another treasure trove of 72+ year old census records become public. These records can help families learn more about their ancestors–where they were born, where they lived when, whom they lived with, and how they were related. Importantly for people whose ancestors were enslaved, these records can be murky. For these folks, genealogical research can be painful reminders of the country’s legacy of slavery as records fail to acknowledge their ancestors’ contributions, suffering, or even existence.
In my family’s case our feelings were mixed. We were excited to learn Abraham Lincoln was a cousin. But learning Edmund Pettus was a cousin is not such a source of pride.
Edmund Pettus was a U.S. Senator, Confederate general, and a grand dragon of the Klu Klux Klan. The bridge in Selma, Alabama where the late John Lewis and more than 600 marchers crossed and then were brutally beaten by state troopers in March 1965 was named for Edmund Pettus.
The bridge was named for Pettus in 1940, well after the South had lost the Civil War. According to Alabama historians, the bridge was named for the Confederate general and KKK grand dragon to remind black folks who was really still in charge.
Pettus also raped black women and had black children.
As the movement to rename U.S. Army bases and take down monuments heated up this June, Caroline Randall Williams wrote a moving New York Times essay in which she revealed, “The black people I come from were owned and raped by the white people I come from.” Her great-grandfather was raised knowing that his father was Edmund Pettus.
The census helps us to understand who we are. Those of us whose ancestors came here before the Civil War, whether by choice or by force—we’re a vast network of cousins. We’re cousins of many hues, with those of lighter hues tragically and brutally oppressing those of darker hues for centuries.
The census also tells us that future generations will be increasingly diverse. While Baby Boomers and their elders are predominantly white, less than half of all children under 16 are white. Each day the majority of children born in the U.S. are black, Asian American, Native American, Hispanic, or multiracial. The incredible diversity that is America is made real in census data.
As I reflect on the biblical references to the census and the counting of people – sadly, in biblical times censuses were instruments of control, exclusion, and oppression. In I Chronicles 21, King David takes a census of the people in disobedience to God.
David Takes a Census
1 Satan rose up against Israel and caused David to take a census of the people of Israel. 2 So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Take a census of all the people of Israel—from Beersheba in the south to Dan in the north—and bring me a report so I may know how many there are.” 3 But Joab replied, “May the Lord increase the number of his people a hundred times over! But why, my lord the king, do you want to do this? Are they not all your servants? Why must you cause Israel to sin?” 4 But the king insisted that they take the census, so Joab traveled throughout all Israel to count the people. Then he returned to Jerusalem 5 and reported the number of people to David. There were 1,100,000 warriors in all Israel who could handle a sword, and 470,000 in Judah. 6 But Joab did not include the tribes of Levi and Benjamin in the census because he was so distressed at what the king had made him do.
Judgment for David’s Sin
7 God was very displeased with the census, and he punished Israel for it. 8 Then David said to God, “I have sinned greatly by taking this census. Please forgive my guilt for doing this foolish thing.”
I Chronicles 21: 1-8
In this biblical account, taking a census was a “foolish thing” to do and went against God. It was a tool of control and war. But the founding of the United States was a revolution in many ways, turning a census from a tool of oppression to a foundation of democracy. And that’s what it is today.
As we’ve worked to form a more perfect union (as our Constitution exhorts us to do) our census has been improved. Originally enslaved individuals counted as only ⅗ of a person, and indigenous people not at all. But today all people are counted by our census, including those who have not yet become citizens. And based on the census, funding and representation are allocated across our country. But our census can only be a marvel of democracy if we all participate.
Moreover, by filling out the census, future generations will know about their ancestors, where their forebears lived, where family names originated, and even who was first to cross the border into the United States. Today the Census is an important way each of us can declare “I am here.” And for our children’s children it will be one important tool to learn of their heritage and continue the struggle toward a more perfect union.
But every decade, renters, rural communities, people of color, and poorer folks are least likely to self-respond. This is the first decade that everyone can respond to the Census online or by phone. And the Census Bureau has hired hundreds of thousands of people to go door-to-door to ensure everyone is counted.
But as of this writing, 1 out of 5 households have not yet responded to the 2020 Census. And just recently the Census Bureau announced they would cut short their door-to-door follow-up–doing only 6 weeks of door knocking instead of 10. That means this year for the first time we run the risk of failing to count every single person in the U.S.
At this point it is a matter of faith that we all will be counted. And it will take all of us to make it happen. More than $1.5 trillion in federal funding each year is directed to states and communities based on Census data. That means communities that don’t get counted will see even less investment in schools, healthcare, and infrastructure in future.
Go to my2020census.gov or call 1-844-330-2020 by September 30, 2020. Only 10 minutes can secure your funding, legacy and so much more for your children’s children. Share the 2020 Census with your friends and family to make sure they are counted. If you have already completed the census, make sure others have completed their census as well. If you are a pastor or a person of influence in your church, share the 2020 Census with your congregation.
With limited weeks for door knocking, it will take us all to make sure that everyone is counted especially those that are typically undercounted. You can help increase Census participation by volunteering an hour to text people! Reach out to Census Counts and sign up here to volunteer today! The Census works for us all…when we all participate.
Peace and love,
Dr. Allison Plyer is a member of First Grace United Methodist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is Chief Demographer of The Data Center in New Orleans. She served as Racial Reconciliation Co-Chair of the Tricentennial Commission for New Orleans. She holds a Doctoral degree in demographics from Tulane University, a Masters in Business from the Kellogg School at Northwestern University, and a BA in religious studies from Vanderbilt. Above all, she is a reconciler.