By Frances Weller | March 11, 2020 at 3:00 PM EDT – Updated March 11 at 11:40 PM
NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) – New Hanover County leaders have asked the U.S. Census Bureau to rethink a critical part of its 2020 count survey that, as it reportedly stands, could effectively disenfranchise minorities.
In a letter to Steven Dillingham, director of the U.S. Census Bureau, New Hanover County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said the county’s Complete County Committee learned during its March 5 meeting that if a person declines to answer the survey’s questions regarding racial background and gender, that person would default to “white” and “male.”
“As an African-American man who is a leader in this community, I found the revelation troubling and something I sincerely hope the Census Bureau will reconsider,” Barfield wrote in the March 11 letter. “Our committee consists of community leaders from a variety of races and ethnic backgrounds. Every member was shocked to learn this development.”
Barfield says when he heard about the default, he was stunned.
“My eyes got big and I started asking a lot of questions,” Barfield said Wednesday. “How can you default to white–why not default to other or leave that space blank? And the whole committee was pretty much in shock this could be the case. And we felt it was important to reach out to the census number one in D.C. and let them know our disappointment in that. As for me, it’s an attempt to disenfranchise a lot of people, whether it’s gender. If you don’t answer the gender question, they associate your name with the closest thing that identifies with your gender. If your name is Kim–I know men named Kim–may be identified as a woman versus a man, and vice-versa. And to me it’s just totally wrong.”
Barfield believes the default to ‘white’ and ‘male’ is deliberate.
“It’s outrageous,” he said. “You just wouldn’t think that our government would stoop to that level. I can’t imagine going in and taking a test and if you don’t answer the question, it defaults to being correct, but here its defaulting to another race automatically and it doesn’t say that. It would be one thing when you answered the question it told you that if you don’t answer this question you’ll automatically be deemed as white but it doesn’t say that so the average person when they go to fill out the census they would never even know.”
The decennial count is mandated by the Constitution and counts the population in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories (Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). Each home will receive an invitation to respond to a short questionnaire—online, by phone, or by mail.
The data is used to determine how hundreds of billions of dollars in federal aid is spent and determines legislative representation at the state and federal level.
“Defaulting non-answers to ‘white’ and ‘male’ could skew the data that will be used for the next 10 years to determine federal spending and representation,” Barfield wrote in his letter to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Barfield says this could lead to major dollars lost in minority communities.
“If you’re identified as white and you’re black and a whole bunch of people are identified that way in a predominately black area, you’re going to see a whole lot of dollars that would go into your community not go there anymore and that would be a travesty for many.”
Barfield went on to formally request the Census Bureau to “reconsider this policy and perform follow-up work with those who – for whatever reason – do not answer the questions pertaining to race and gender.”
“I appreciate Commissioner Barfield’s leadership with our Census efforts and for his advocacy on this very important aspect of census taking. I too hope that the Census Bureau reconsiders their policy and doesn’t automatically assign a response for people pertaining to their race and gender. No matter what, we need to make sure everyone in our community knows to answer ALL questions on the census, so that their information isn’t decided for them,” Commission Chair Julia Boseman said.
Invitations to respond to the 2020 Census are expected to be delivered to households between March 12-20. Once you receive that invitation, you can respond online, by phone, or by mail.
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