Wrath of the Math: Understanding the Census


Voting for Obama was one thing, but now that it’s Census time again, will Black America really stand up and be counted?

Pradine Content is playing to a tough crowd: a Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn conference room full of young Black men who aren’t really feeling her talk about the upcoming 2010 Census. None of them is here by choice; they are taking part in a program run by the New York City Justice Corps, a non-profit organization that provides job readiness and life skills training for men and women age 18-24 who were recently involved in the criminal justice system. Their offenses include drug dealing, assault and robbery.

Ten years ago, when the last Census was taken, many of them were in junior high school. Their only reference is “the people who knock on your door.” Patiently, Content explains what the federal Census is about, how much money communities—especially impoverished communities—stand to gain from the government if they participate, and how everyone in the room needs to play his part in spreading the word. But her heartfelt concern isn’t quite warming their hearts. Still young, they already have a jaded outlook on life. “Miss, you only here ‘cause you getting a check,” one of them tells her.

Content doesn’t mind spending extra time with groups like this. “I’ve always felt the need to help young Black men,” she explains later. “I know how hard they have it.” Because Black and Hispanic people across the country have been undercounted over the years, there is even less federal and state funding to help end the cycle of poverty, unemployment and federal dependency in their communities. Census results also affect a community’s local and state political representation. The number of seats a state holds in Congress relates directly to how many people live in each district. But it’s a lot to grasp for those who may have voted in 2008 only because a Black man was on the ballot. Content searches for ways to break it all down.

“If you’re not counted, how many more police will the city know to put in your neighborhood?”

“None!” the entire group answers in unison. “There are already too many cops in the ‘hood,” someone yells, to the amusement of the room. “Why you think we here?”

She tries another angle.

“Do you want more buses in your neighborhood?”

“Yeah, sometimes I have to wait like an hour for the bus to come and it’s always crowded,” says another young man.

“Well if you and everyone in your neighborhood fill out the Census, we can see how many people live there and then provide better transportation services.”

Her example snaps everything into focus.

“How many of you consider yourselves to be leaders?” asks Content.

Of the 20 young men seated at the long table, five of them half-raise their hands, including Earl Washington, 24, a tall, brown-skinned man in a red leather jacket.

“Why we just hearing about this now?” asks Washington. “Y’all should’ve had Census commercials for the last 10 years. I should be so sick of hearing about the Census by now, but I’m just learning about it.” By far the most vocal person in the room, Washington is on a roll. “You need people on the radio blasting about it. Make sure it’s on BET. You remember what Diddy did with ‘Vote or Die?’ That’s what the Census needs to do. Niggas take the Census for granted.”

Tags: Census 2010, News