What the census means for the future of black voice and power in California

Man standing in front of screen with a picture of the United States map on it.

The 2020 U.S. Census is underway and could impact representation and funds for communities around the country, as it did in 2010. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Census Bureau)

The 2020 U.S. census is not just a way of counting the number of people living in a city or state, but a way of apportioning government money — and political power.

To that end, who gets counted, and why, can shed light on which communities will be represented in the political process, as well as which will get funded by the over $675 billion in federal monies spent on schools, hospitals, public works and other vital local resources rooted in that data.

Man in purple shirt smilinh.

Arthur Gailes, fair housing coordinator at UC Berkeley’s Othering & Belonging Institute.

Arthur Gailes, an economist and data scientist with UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, sat down with Berkeley News to talk about the census, which is currently under way, and what it means for the future of black voice, black community and black power in California.

“Effectively reach(ing) hard-to-count populations could be the difference in maintaining or reducing our power to help steer the course of the nation,” he said.

Gailes will join a panel of experts on Friday, Jan. 24, for “The My Black Counts California Census and Redistricting Academic Roundtable” from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. in Room 5400 of the Berkeley Way West building, 2121 Berkeley Way.

Berkeley News: What role will the 2020 census play in the redistricting process?

Arthur Gailes: We’re likely to see a one-seat reduction in California House (of Representatives) members as a result of relatively low population growth in the 2020 census. This limits the federal power not just of our communities, but of the state at large. California has dedicated $187 million to census outreach, and using that money and on-the-ground advocacy to effectively reach hard-to-count populations could be the difference in maintaining or reducing our power to help steer the course of the nation.

How have black and marginalized communities been impacted by their lack of representation?

Outcomes for black people have been improving consistently for decades. Income, life expectancy, prison population, teen births, educational attainment — all have been on an upward trajectory since the civil rights era. That level of progress is outstanding and deserves to be celebrated.

At the same time, the gap in black and white outcomes has remained nearly constant over the past half-century in most, or all, of those measures, and we see very few neighborhoods that produce high upward mobility for black people anywhere in the country.

The corollary to this is that we have yet to find policies that we know will work as well for black communities as they do for the rest of the country. It’s my hope that over the course of this decade, we’ll be more creative, experimental and evidence-oriented in our policy proposals for all of our communities.

How can people help counteract the negative impact the census may have on these communities?

First, marginalized communities — particularly non-English-speaking households and foreign-born residents — are among the most likely to not be counted. To whatever extent we can reach out to those groups of people, we can ensure that their voices can be heard. Second, the census will be used to establish congressional districts. To whatever extent we can tilt those districts toward the fair representation for all of California’s residents, we can help ensure better outcomes for all of us in the coming decade.

How is this type of work rewarding to you?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have dealt with a very diverse set of experiences and backgrounds in my personal and professional life, which has given me the opportunity to work cooperatively with very different people and cultures. A striking and persistent feature of all of these communities has been that the kindness, curiosity and generosity of the individuals within them.

The image we have of people who are different than us is so often contaminated by the histories of our various groups that we can forget that the actual people within them are much more similar to ourselves, and our values, than we imagine. I’ve always found john a. powell’s focus on creating environments, where we can all feel like we belong together, an admirable attempt to bridge the gap between our groups, and connecting with their individual members.