fb-pixel Skip to main content

The nonexistent question that may haunt the census

Although the citizenship question won’t be asked, its mere evocation was designed to have a chilling effect on vulnerable portions of the population.

US Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham testified during a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, on Capitol Hill, Feb. 12.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

The 2020 Census will not have a citizenship question. Yet it may still achieve its sinister goal — keeping immigrants from participating.

When the Supreme Court last summer prevented the Trump administration from asking census respondents whether they are American citizens, some were quick to declare victory. In reality, it was akin to a small win in a raging war with multiple shifting fronts. Whether or not the question was allowed, its mere evocation was designed to have a chilling effect on vulnerable portions of the population.

“It’s about creating a culture of fear, and when you create a culture of fear, it neutralizes people, it paralyzes people,” LaTosha Brown, cofounder of Black Voters Matter, a grass-roots organization dedicated to protecting voter rights, increasing registration, and fighting voter suppression in communities of color, said in an interview.


“Even now, with the question being gone, what [the Trump administration has] effectively done is create a culture of fear around it,” she said. “There are communities of color, particularly immigrant communities, that even though the question is not on there, they will still be afraid to fill it out.”

If millions go uncounted, it will have a profound effect on how legislative districts are drawn and represented. The mere fact that former attorney general Jeff Sessions claimed a citizenship question would “better enforce” the Voting Rights Act, which Republicans have regularly undermined since the Supreme Court gutted it in 2013, was both laughable and a lie. If this administration is pushing for the change, its goal is to disenfranchise voters in communities of color.

In a congressional hearing last week with Steven Dillingham, director of the US Census Bureau, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York posed questions designed to allay potential concerns about the census. Beyond confirming that there will be no queries about citizenship or immigration status, she asked Dillingham to clarify that collected information will not be used for immigration enforcement or released to the Department of Homeland Security.


“Can you pledge today that immigrants can trust the census bureau to keep their data confidential so that they can participate in the census without fear? Ocasio-Cortez asked.

“Absolutely, congresswoman, and I would like every member of this committee and every member of congress, every elected leader, every appointed leader, every leader in every community to communicate that same message,” Dillingham said. “It is apolitical, the census, it is bipartisan, and we need everyone’s support.”

What was once apolitical and bipartisan has been weaponized, and that began before Trump became president.

Carol Anderson, an African American studies professor at Emory University in Atlanta, literally wrote the book on voter suppression. In 2018′s “One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy,” she explained that gerrymandering in the 21st century was all but perfected by Tom Hofeller, a Republican political strategist who, in 2010, carved up congressional maps to guarantee Republican control of state legislatures.

“He figured out that if you eliminated as many competitive districts as possible, it reduces voter turnout,” Anderson said. “When you know your vote will matter, you show up. When Representative Jim Smith has been the congressman for 49 years, you just assume it will be Jim Smith for 51 years, so you don’t show up.”


Skewed census results can skew competitive districts, allowing a one-party stranglehold on political power — that’s what Republicans want. A stolen election victory is still a victory.

“We see these institutions being shredded, we see all these bills that aren’t being passed,” Anderson said. “Republicans aren’t interested in doing the hard work of governing because they aren’t interested in governing. They want to rule.”

Now it will fall to fair-voting advocates like Brown to work with immigrants, who have reasons to be reticent about anything connected to this government, that it is safe to fill out the census when it’s available in April.

“With the culture of fear and false information out there, there are people who just don’t want to fool with [the census],” she said. “It’s going to take an extraordinary lift from organizations that have relationships rooted in the immigrant community to get people to participate and combat that fear.”

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.