Altogether, the evidence tells a story that does not match the explanation the Secretary gave for his decision. We cannot ignore the disconnect between the decision made and the explanation given. Our review is deferential, but we are ‘not required to exhibit a naiveté from which ordinary citizens are free.’ Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case.” — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., United States Department of Commerce v. New York
Civil rights groups and advocates for a fair census breathed a sigh of relief last week when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Trump administration’s “contrived” justification for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census.
However, the court did not categorically rule out the addition of a question, should the administration eventually provide sufficient justification.
We must not let down our guard.
We have known from the beginning that the addition of a citizenship question was a blatant ploy to reduce minority participation and rob communities of their political power, and that Secretary Wilbur Ross’ explanation that the question is “critical” to enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was laughable. That’s why we joined other civil rights group in filing a “friend of the court” brief opposing the citizenship question.
As we argued in our brief, “There is no factual or legal basis—none—to support the position that collecting citizenship data from the decennial census is needed for VRA enforcement. In fact, modifying the short-form census to ask for the citizenship status of everyone in the country, as Secretary Ross has proposed, would undermine VRA enforcement.
And we — grassroots, advocacy, labor, legal services, education and faith-based organizations who came together to file the brief — would know. “[We] have been among the most experienced guardians of the VRA and the values it reflects for the past 54 years. In that time, existing citizenship data drawn from sample surveys or the long-form census sent only to small subsets of American housing units have been more than sufficient for robust, effective enforcement of the VRA.”
There has never been a Voting Rights Act enforcement case in history that turned on the unavailability of citizenship data from the decennial census.
We’re relieved the Supreme Court saw through the administration’s flimsy argument, especially since the real motivation behind the citizenship question emerged just days after the case was argued before the justices.
Computer files revealed that a political consultant who played a crucial role in the decision to add the question had authored a study concluding that adding the question would allow the drafting of extremely gerrymandered Congressional maps to drain even more influence away from urban communities and communities of color.
The citizenship question was one of several potential problems that could produce a significant undercount of Black Americans, including underfunding, understaffing and the practice of prison-based gerrymandering. Under current policy, incarcerated persons are counted in jurisdictions where they are imprisoned rather than in the communities where they live. This represents a massive transfer of political power and federal funding for programs like Head Start, Medicare, Lunch programs and transportation infrastructure, from urban districts of color to rural, prison hosting, predominantly white districts.
In the face of this week’s ruling, the National Urban League and the Urban League Movement is recommitted to working for a fair census and urging participation among Black communities.
An inaccurate census will deprive communities of accurate data for most federally produced statistics and critical social, demographic and economic research. It would deprive communities of more than $675 billion in federal funding and the just enforcement of civil rights laws and constitutional protections like fair housing and voting rights.
Most importantly, an inaccurate census will deprive communities of fair political representation in the U.S. Congress, the Electoral College and state and local legislatures.
Blocking the citizenship question is just one step among many in safeguarding a fair, accurate census.
Morial is president of the National Urban League.