A stranger wearing a badge knocks on the door of a home in Brooklyn. If that home belongs to a person of color, their immediate response may be not to answer the door out of fear.
That’s the challenge that enumerators for the U.S. Census in Brooklyn are facing as they attempt to get an accurate count of people living in the borough. Failure to get a complete count could lead to millions of dollars lost for the very people who need it the most, according to New York lawmakers.
“Black people have been hesitant to interact with the government for many good reasons,” said State Sen. Zellnor Myrie, who represents communities with large populations of Hispanic and Caribbean immigrants in Brooklyn’s 20th District. His comments were made at a virtual teach-in last month hosted by the New York Charter Schools Association along with Achievement First, KIPP NYC, Public Prep and Uncommon Schools NYC.
“There were times in this country when getting a knock on the door from the government was not a good thing”, Myrie said. “Getting a knock on the doors from strangers was not a good thing. There is natural hesitancy and mistrust.”
The decennial U.S. Census count is currently underway and New York City’s participation rate is among the worst in the nation, at just 54% as of May 20. New York City is lagging even further behind at 49.6% percent. And out of the state’s 62 counties, Brooklyn is ranked 49th with a 46.9% participation rate.
Myrie was joined by Assemblyman Victor M. Pichardo, who represents the 86th Assembly District, which includes the University and Morris Heights, Mount Eden, Kingsbridge, Tremont, and Fordham sections of the Bronx and Assemblyman Alfred Taylor, who represents the 71st District, which includes portions of Hamilton Heights, Harlem, and Washington Heights in Manhattan. Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren moderated the discussion.
“We are all aware unfortunately that New York state currently has one of the lowest participation rates in the country.” Warren said. “Of course, there’s a legitimate reason for this, including the current reality we find ourselves in as it pertains to COVID-19. So we’ve got to find ways to reach people and encourage them to be counted. It is imperative that we get this right.”
Myrie said one of the difficult aspects of Census outreach is the lack of trust among residents of the immigrant and black communities. He said the Trump administration’s effort to include a question about citizenship on the Census fostered confusion and fear. A U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer forced the administration to remove the question.
“Even when it was struck down people still feel that it’s going to be on, and so I think one of our main roles is to be very clear when speaking to these communities that there is no citizenship question and that no information can be shared with any immigration authorities,” Myrie said.
Myrie, whose parents are from the Caribbean, said it’s not just Hispanic immigrants who fear the government, which is why it is important for trusted members of the community, including educators, faith leaders, community leaders and elected leaders to reach out to the community.
Myrie mentioned that he draws his inspiration from former U.S. Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress, who was so concerned about minorities being undercounted in Brooklyn in the 1970 Census that she pinned on an enumerator’s badge and walked door-to-door in Brooklyn.
“She was in the weeds and doing it herself because she was a trusted leader,” Myrie said. “It’s really important for us to get the information out and that it come from trusted sources.”
Pichardo said New York is in jeopardy of losing two representatives in Congress if New Yorkers sit the Census out.
“If we were to lose those two votes, it would have been potentially putting us in a position where we would not get the billions of dollars that we need from the federal government particularly now in order to fight this pandemic,” Pichardo said. “That could lead to significantly more deaths in this state. It could have been significantly less resources for our children.”
Taylor said he organized an effort to knock on 3,000 doors in communities with public housing to encourage residents to fill out the Census. He found that you have to be able to answer the question: “What’s in it for me?”
“There’s $26,000 dollars lost roughly for every individual who’s not counted,” Taylor said. “When you look at public housing, the infrastructure, the crowded classrooms, we have dire needs in our community. The people that need it the most in my community are not as informed. So part of this effort is informing them.”
Pichardo said it was important to continue to have conversations about the importance of filling out the Census, a process that takes less than 10 minutes.
“Just 10 minutes is going to determine the next 10 years,” Pichardo said. “These resources are vital to making sure that our communities can survive in this pandemic but more importantly continue to thrive and grow as a state. We need our voices in Congress. We need those dollars.”