Marc Morial, center, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Urban League, talks with reporters outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 8, 2021
( Susan Walsh
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to the Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. The 2020 census was a bit of a mess. There were serious concerns from the start about the quality of the count. According to two new analyses, the census may have dramatically undercounted Black people across the country. According to one of the reports, the Black population could have been undercounted by a rate three times as high as the undercount 10 years ago. For more on this, we're joined now by Marc Morial, who is President and Chief Executive of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans. Marc, it's great to have you with us.
Marc Morial: It's so great to be with you. Thank you for having.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's go on back to the beginning when advocates like you and so many others were saying that there were likely to be challenges. What were the key problems, even at the start of the census?
Marc Morial: At the start, we assembled a group called the Black Census Round Table, which worked in conjunction with an entire coalition of people who wanted to ensure that there'd be a complete, full and accurate count and that hard to count communities that have historically been undercounted would be emphasized in this count.
The concerns were early on that the focus of the advertising campaign was not sufficient to really reach the undercounted communities or the, let's say hard-to-count communities. We also had concerns that census cut back by 50% the local offices where people could go in and pick up a form or a person could go sign up to become a census enumerator or door knocker. Those were early concerns about the plan for this census.
As the census evolved, COVID hit. When COVID hit, I knew we had a larger problem. There would be a larger problem with the census. We urged the census bureau to double down, pause the census, but use the time, if you will, modify its plan to ensure that people would be fully counted. That included a suggestion that they extend the deadline for people to be able to sign up.
We also had concerns, and this is important. The way the census works is there's a initial stage where people had an opportunity to fill out the form online, a second stage, where they had an opportunity to fill out a form by paper, and a third very important stage, which is where enumerators or door knockers go out all across the areas that have not yet responded to the census or homes that have not responded to the census to get a response. I think in this instance, that third phase may have fallen substantially apart for many, many reasons.
We raised those concerns. Then we were alarmed that after the census extended the time, Trump administration officials got involved in it, and the time was cut back. That led to a federal lawsuit that we filed with a number of other plaintiffs, including a number of cities to force the census to extend the time further. We won that case both in the district and appellate courts, but ultimately the Supreme court allowed the census to end the count early.
All of the signals, all of the flags, all of the concerns were there throughout that there would be an undercount. I'm not surprised. I'm highly, highly peeved that census did not take the additional steps. When I say census, the professional staff at the census is excellent. They were urging that these steps be taken. I think they were overruled from the top. I think you'll probably find that the White House interfered and sought to politicize this census as they did from the very beginning with the attempted addition of a citizenship question.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You've laid out for us how this happened, or at least in part how it looks like it happened. Why does it matter?
Marc Morial: It matters to everything when it comes to political power and economic power. The census is the fundamental, if you will, foundation of reapportionment and redistricting all across the nation. When you have an undercount, you have a dilution of power, a dilution of the ability of African-Americans and other hard-to-count communities, Latinx and others to be fully, fully included in any reapportion or plan.
For researchers, the census is essential to understanding how many children do we have in the nation and where do they live. The growth and distribution of the population. Then for the federal government, it's used to decide how many important programmatic dollars are distributed, not only amongst the states but also by states for the distribution of formula dollars within a state. This census did not accurately and fully count the American people.
Melissa Harris-Perry: These originalists on the Supreme court, who typically are quite concerned, conservative members of the court, quite concerned with original intent. Yet one of the sources that you've located for us here in how this undercount happened was a decision by the court to go ahead and end the count.
Marc Morial: The Supreme court is less about original intent and more about conservative philosophy. The idea that, in COVID, the court would not require the census bureau to extend the time period for as long as necessary for them to stand up and knock on every door that had not been counted six or seven times as they intended to do. We know not now whether they even knocked on every door. We know not now whether they hired all of the enumerators because typically with the census transparency is a difficult thing.
We are asking for congressional hearings, so that there be some transparency. We're asking census to release their own undercount report and not delay it. Very important that there be transparency as to what happens, it be an examination and a look back, because of the concerns not only that this undercount occurred, but that there was political interference. That's an important thing because traditionally, no matter who the president is, the census bureau have an opportunity to fully fully do what is necessary to ensure account.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're talking about midterm elections that are likely to happen under these districts that will be apportioned and redistricted based on what may be a faulty census here. Is there any way to fix it?
Marc Morial: Well, there are states, I believe, who are looking at ways to use a more accurate set of numbers for their own state legislative redistricting. I certainly would encourage states to examine how they can ensure that this undercount does not unconstitutionally and illegally dilute the votes of communities, urban communities, and Black communities, and Latinx communities.
Secondarily it's clear, there will be a round of litigation, challenging many, many congressional district maps and state legislative maps. Let me point this out, this is why it is essential that Congress passed new voting rights bills. It is essential because the same Supreme court that cut the census short has been literally hell bent on gutting the voting rights act to very, very bad decisions in the last 10 years, one in '13, in one last year, undercut the voting rights act as a tool to try to address abuses, unconstitutional discrimination, racially-motivated gerrymandering in the reapportionment process.
We've got a lot of work ahead of us, but as a census, we need the house of representatives, the people's house to hold comprehensive hearings and do a look back on the census, make a determination as to what occurred to ensure that if it could be remedied it's remedied, but to ensure that this does not occur in 2030.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Marc Morial is President and Chief Executive of the National Urban League and a former mayor of New Orleans. Marc, as always, thanks for talking with me.
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