Martin Luther King Day Op-Ed:

First the Ballot, Now the Census: Is There Hope for Racial Healing?

By Gilbert F. Casellas

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a 'Southern Manifesto' because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice," he could not have imagined that in the year 2000, millions of African Americans and other minorities would express total disillusionment and disgust with an election system that ultimately sent George W. Bush to the White House.

And when he went on to say, "Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights," he surely did not envision the present controversy over the census that threatens to disenfranchise millions of minorities and rob them of full and equal political representation.

Now that we have lost our battle with the ballot in the recent presidential election, it's time to focus on an even more fundamental fight: the right to be counted in the 2000 census. While the initial head-counting is complete and those numbers have been tallied, history demonstrates that minorities are still missed at a much higher rate than whites and more than half of those missed are children. This rate is called the differential undercount, and it has shown that minorities have been consistently not counted in the census for the last 50 years.

The best way to remedy the undercount is by using modern statistical methods developed by the professionals at the Census Bureau and validated by the National Academy of Sciences. These methods, commonly referred to as sampling, or the Accuracy and Coverage Evaluation (A.C.E.), have come under intense scrutiny from Republicans who are privately afraid that modern statistical methods used to produce the corrected count will assure Democrats of an advantage in the decennial redistricting wars. Publicly they say the use of A.C.E is likely to skew the census count. There is no basis for either claim.

The reality is that a committee comprised of 11 professionals at the Census Bureau is poised to make a recommendation to the Census Director in mid-February, on whether the corrected data helps make the census more accurate. Unfortunately, rumor has it that President-elect George W. Bush, as one of his first acts, may instruct Commerce Secretary-designate Don Evans to block the Census Bureau's development and release of corrected census data.

The repercussions of not releasing the corrected data are very serious indeed. The census helps government to determine funding allocations for social services, make planning decisions, apportion congressional seats and draw district boundaries. If minorities are not fully included in the official count, they will likely lose funding for schools, hospitals and other social programs that are vital to their neighborhoods and communities. Moreover, they will likely be deprived of full political representation. They will, in effect, be disenfranchised for the next ten years.

To ensure that minorities get a fair shake in Census 2000, the professionals at the Census Bureau need to be allowed to carry out their responsibility of achieving the most accurate count possible.

In 1957, Dr. King said, "In this juncture of our nation's history, there is an urgent need for dedicated and courageous leadership if we are to solve the problems ahead and make racial justice a reality." Today, there is still such a need for courageous leadership. If Dr. King were alive, he would urge President-elect Bush to get the most inclusive portrait of America by ensuring the most accurate Census 2000. This would be a good first step towards healing the racial divide that prevails in this country today.

Gilbert F. Casellas is a Presidential Co-Chair of the U.S. Census Monitoring Board, and former Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.


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U.S. Census Monitoring Board
Presidential Members
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