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Photo: Risa Brown and Nahal Zamani
Risa Brown (left) and Nahal Zamani (right) recently spoke to AL DÍA about the importance of data to racial equity. Photo: Risa Brown and Nahal Zamani

How to ensure racial equity in spite of a Census undercount

Leaders for the Racial Equity Anchor Collective recently spoke to AL DÍA about the impact of the undercount in the 2020 census, and what can be done to curb…

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The Racial Equity Anchor Collective is a diverse coalition made up of several national racial justice and civil rights organizations that is driving a movement to embolden government leaders to place racial equity issues at the leading edge of their policies, practices and operations.

In December 2020, the coalition outlined the role of a proposed White House Office on Racial Equity and Inclusion through a memo sent to President-elect Biden’s transition team.

In a conversation with Al DÍA in January, Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro, Deputy Vice President of UnidosUS, said that “racial equity also means that those things [new approaches to criminal justice] are reflected in your budgets, because budgets are really a document of what is important and what our priorities are.” 

In their most recent memo, the Collective provided recommendations to the White House on how to establish more equitable data standards and affirmative practices to ensure better outcomes for BIPOC Americans. 

Communities of color have been undercounted in the U.S. census for centuries, even as recent as the 2020 Census, but like many other issues, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought its significance to the forefront. 

Two “Anchors” from the Collective, Risa Brown, of Faith in Action, and Nahal Zamani, of Demos, recently sat down with AL DÍA to talk about the consequences of this continuous erasure, and the guidelines that their coalition offered to the Biden administration. 

Risa Brown is the national data and targeting director for Faith in Action, which is the largest faith-based national network of people in 501c(3) organizations.

Faith in Action works congregations, religious institutions, schools and individuals around matters of social justice, like immigration, environmentalism, ending mass incarceration, and as Brown says, “building a moral, responsible, and equitable economy.” 

Nahal Zamani is the Director of Movement Building at Demos, a progessive think tank that works to advance racial justice and equity for Black and Brown Americans. 

“We do that through litigation, policy analysis and coordination with grassroots organizations around the country,” Zamani said. 

Zamani said that the Collective has been collaborating with each other for decades to promote racial equity and to ensure that all communities are given the opportunity to reach their highest potential. 

“When the administration mentioned that they were interested in creating this department, we felt that this was a great opportunity to reach out to them and share what we’ve observed and [provide] recommendations that we have about how this entity within the federal government could create racial equity work in a way that is strategic and systemic,” she said. 

“For us, this is like an opportunity to really weigh into our area of expertise of civil society and influence the federal government to do and to learn into the best practices out there,” said Brown. 

“I think the pandemic just laid bare a lot of the inequities that exist in our country,” Zamani said. 

Pre-pandemic, Native American, AAPI and Black and Brown populations already lived in insecure economic situations. As the pandemic hit the U.S., systemic issues like inadequate health care and lack of labor rights became even more clear.

According to the COVID Tracking Project, the virus has been affecting Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color the most.

A study led by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine and Duke University School of Medicine, found that more than half of all in-hospital deaths during the first six months of 2020 were among Black and Hispanic patients.

Brown said that proper data collection is truly the first step in attaining racial equity.

“We know these things anecdotally. We know these things, you know, as a concept. But [for the administration] to actually say explicitly with data that this is how the pandemic has hurt the Black community, the AAPI community, the Latinx community...that’s prolific,” Brown said.

Reflecting on the significance of proper data collection, Zamani said that “data is what guides decision making by government agencies,” and it directly impacts things like vaccine distribution and accessibility for vulnerable populations. 

“And if that data collection doesn't reflect all of the people that are being impacted, then the interventions they do as a result are going to be flawed,” she said.

Zamani stressed that ensuring more comprehensive data collection is not just about the numbers, but about the human beings that the numbers represent. 

“If we think about the Biden administration having a more proactive idea of government and its role in people’s lives, then it follows that the way they create programs, the way that they intervene, the people that they target, have to be guided by these types of information points,” she said. 

Discussions about this kind of data are ones about people’s lives, how resources and funds are provided to states and cities, how schools are funded, who is able to return to work, and who has health care. 

“These are profound things that shape everybody’s lives,” Zamani said. 

Brown is particularly excited about the potential for the Biden administration to become the first to establish a set of equitable standards across the federal government. She brought up the case of George Floyd and made the point that without video footage, the verdict may have ended much differently. 

“There is no national standard for police encounter data. But if or when the administration takes into account our recommendations, it will basically standardize the data collection practices; how we collect, how we measure, and how we analyze, ensuring that we equitably and ethically use the data across the federal government,`` Brown said. 

In her mind, the implementation of these recommendations would be an absolute game-changer.

There are many factors that contribute to the undercounting of BIPOC communities in the U.S Census, and Brown chose to focus on the ramifications of the previous administration’s efforts to shorten it

“I’ve never seen someone work so hard to have poor data created,” she said. 

Census officials appointed by former President Donald Trump decided to conclude survey operations weeks earlier than they had previously announced, leaving little time to reach people in areas deemed difficult to count, despite a pandemic that made the process even more difficult. 

“It was just a perfect storm of inaccurate data and the most adversely impacted were the BIPOC community,” Brown said. “It would have been super impactful for my Latinx ‘bestie’ to have had the opportunity to go to community functions where they would have spoken to her in language, but not just in terms of Spanish as a broad language, but her ethnic dialect.  That was something really, really underfunded. They just lumped Hispanics and Latinx people into one category, totally disavowing each of the ethnic subcultures there.``

Zamani also mentioned how the former president’s lack of concern over collecting and presenting accurate data. His actions ensured that the government won’t be doing anything for certain marginalized communities because they don’t have complete data. 

“We're talking about major allocations in schools and highways and safety nets and budgeting and, you know, all of the things that touch people's lives profoundly, that someone who was raised in privilege is not affected by because they don't need to rely on the government because they get around it,” Zamani said. 

For people like Brown and Zamani who work with Black, Brown and other communities of color, it’s easy to see the impact that occurs when people are not counted in the census, and thus services are not accessible to them. 

“We can’t wait to act against white supremacy and systemic racism. We need to use a lot of tools available, including more robust and accurate data to forge a better future for the BIPOC community and America as a whole. I genuinely believe that these [data recommendations] will help improve the conditions of communities across this country, BIPOC communities, religious minorities, transgender communities. It's going to improve people's conditions across the board,” Brown said. 

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