On March 10th, the U.S. Census Bureau acknowledged it significantly undercounted Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans living on reservations in the 2020 census. The Bureau also revealed that the U.S. white population had been overcounted. These miscounts will undercut the political representation of minorities at the state and federal levels while diverting some financial resources from minority areas to white ones. And they will also aid other efforts in play to deny racial and ethnic equality
The cuts potentially hit close to home; they could directly affect the level of political representation for Blacks in Tulsa and elsewhere in Oklahoma. Resources are at issue, too. The cuts set Black Tulsans, Native Americans and other minorities up to lose out on their fair share of resources.
The census failed to count 3.3% Blacks, 4.99% Hispanics, and 5.6% Native Americans on reservations, while overcounting whites by 1.64%. As a result, the Census Bureau announced 18 million minorities in total were miscounted. These counts are used to determine the number of Congressional House seats to which each state is entitled. Because the total number of House seats is fixed at 435, skewed population statistics can distort the distribution of those seats to the states. As a consequence of the census counts, 13 states lost or gained a number of the congressional seats they previously held. Trump states gained several seats from states which had voted for President Biden. This distribution distortion works similarly within a state when allocating a fixed number of legislative seats to population areas.
Additionally, census counts determine how millions of dollars in government resources are distributed to states and municipalities. Even small miscounts make huge differences. Jeri Green of the National Urban League estimates the distribution of over a trillion dollars could be affected.
Terry Baccus, a Tulsa native and Greenwood District tour guide, wasn’t surprised by the discrepancy. In an interview with the Oklahoma Eagle he said “It’s been going on for decades and they [government agencies] make up the rules as they go along to maintain white supremacy.”
Political factors at work
In other national census counts, minorities were also undercounted. But the gap widened in 2020. Covid played a role inhibiting an accurate population count. But the Trump administration made sure the effect disproportionately hurt minorities. Until the practice was struck down by the courts in early September 2020, the administration had excluded “undocumented immigrants” from the count, although the U.S. Constitution requires the counting of all “persons”. This initial exclusion undoubtedly deterred Hispanics from census cooperation. Additionally, the Bureau stopped the count weeks before the counting period was administratively permitted to continue. This premature blocking of the count affected disadvantaged minorities who are typically slow to register for the census.
The effect on Oklahoma
If Oklahoma is consistent with the nationwide pattern, non-whites were undercounted by approximately 20,000 persons, and whites overcounted by over 40,000 persons. A swing of 60,000 people miscounted in a state of under 4 million is significant. This level of miscount is likely because Oklahoma is among the nation’s lowest states for census self-reporting.
The census has a two-stage process that includes voluntary self-reporting, followed by nonresponse follow-up by the Bureau. The Census Bureau has not provided nonresponse follow-up rates for those not self-reporting at the municipal level. But there is early evidence Tulsa was lagging behind as well. For example, the Tulsa Complete Count Committee (TCCC) staged a car caravan in mid-September through North Tulsa, encouraging households to provide census information, only to have the vote count halted by the administration a few weeks later. In addition, the TCCC reported in a posting made September 27th, 2020, that Tulsans were still lagging 2010 census benchmarks in census registration.
Black Tulsans Disadvantaged
Black Oklahomans, including Tulsans living in predominately minority neighborhoods, stand to lose an undetermined amount of federal and state resources due to the undercount and the white overcount. In addition, businesses and community services use these population counts to decide, in part, where new companies get located, and community services are provided. Black Tulsans cannot be helped by inaccurate population reports that drive scarce resources elsewhere or prevent new community service facilities and businesses from opening.
The census miscount strikes another blow to voting equality already severely undermined by state gerrymandered reapportionment. The underreporting of minorities assisted the ongoing efforts in the Republican part to redraw some Congressional and State districts lines in order to benefit Republicans. The practice is commonly referred to as gerrymandering. While the U.S. Supreme Court has held that racial gerrymandering is impermissible, in a 2018 Texas case, it seemed to shift the burden of proof in such cases. A lower court had ruled that the state needed to “show a lack of discriminatory intent.” The Supreme Court reversed that decision saying the state bore no such burden. The Republican efforts at gerrymandering have sometimes been impeded by state constitutions or by neutral parties drawing legislative district boundaries. So far, the U.S. Supreme Court has left that decision mainly to state courts.
Oklahoma has some limited protection against gerrymandering. Oklahoma’s state constitution (Art. V, § 9A) requires that state Senate districts be compact, contiguous, preserve political subdivisions, and preserve communities of interest. However, those requirements did not prevent the Oklahoma legislature from safeguarding a traditionally Republican congressional seat. They were unpleasantly surprised in 2018 when Democrats flipped the traditionally Republican State’s 5th Congressional District in central Oklahoma.
In reaction to this, and using census data, they reconfigured the district, dropping the non-white population by nine points from 43% to 34%, ensuring Republican dominance. All of Oklahoma’s five Republican Congressional Districts have a non-white population ranging from 30 to 36%, the latter being the greater Tulsa area district. Generally speaking, the Republican grip on the state has been so firm as to require them to only tinker with Congressional and state district lines.
Some argue Oklahoma is on the light side of the stringent voter suppression efforts other states are undertaking. Yet the state certainly does stand out with two existing voting laws. First, Oklahoma is the only state in the union to require a notarization requirement for an absentee ballot cast, and you must register to vote a full 25 days before an election. More voter suppression bills have been introduced in this legislative session. If successful, they will ensure Oklahoma’s ranking will continue in having the lowest state election participation rate among those eligible to vote, as experienced in the 2020 general election.
Census racial disparate impacts are fixed until at least the next census in 2040. Meanwhile, gerrymandering of representation, voter suppression, and diversion of scarce resources away from minority neighborhoods will also continue.