The coronavirus has disproportionately claimed African American lives nationwide, unmasking structural racism that continues to deepen disparities in healthcare trends and life outcomes across America.
Seventy percent of COVID-19-related deaths in Louisiana are African American, and health experts have explained how this disparity is due to the high rate of underlying conditions that Black people in our state are prone to, such as hypertension, diabetes, and asthma. These disparities are unacceptable, but you might be surprised to know that something as simple as filling out the Census can ensure we have the resources and political will we need to finally address them.
Thanks to decades of federal, state, and local policies that fueled racially segregated housing patterns, African American families that live in urban areas are more likely to commute to work on public transportation and live in neighborhoods with environmental hazards and pollution. For many of us, several hours of commuting back and forth to work make it difficult to access healthy food options outside of fast food, often the only food available in the neighborhood.
Renters in Louisiana unfortunately lack basic protections available in most other states against substandard conditions like toxic mold. The threat of eviction makes it more likely for us to live with health hazards in our homes rather than risk retaliation from our landlords. Poor food options lead to health issues, and exposure to mold for long periods of time may cause asthma and many of the other autoimmune disorders that make COVID-19 deadly.
African Americans are dying from living in segregated neighborhoods with environmental hazards and a lack of access to employment and nutrition. When it comes to improving these social determinants of health, the census is a game changer.
New Orleans is a prime example of the importance of getting an accurate census count. The 2010 census count occurred within five years of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of families remained displaced at the time, which resulted in the city reporting a loss of 29 percent of its population from 2000. That means a decrease in funding critical to the city’s capacity to sustain neighborhoods, infrastructure, and programs — all of which are now functioning to support our residents who have returned, as well as newcomers.
We lost 37 percent of our African American population and 47 percent of our children in the age 5-17 bracket. Programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), National School Lunch, Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance (CHIP), Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers, WIC, and Child Care Development all depend on the population count. Today, there are about 20,000 families on the Housing Authority of New Orleans’ waitlist. We can get more funding for these important programs so that families can have access to food, medical care, housing and education by simply getting an accurate count of our residents in the 2020 census.
From the beginning, it has been a struggle for African Americans to be fully counted in the census. Before the first official census was taken in the in 1790, the United States Constitutional Convention agreed to the “Three-Fifths Compromise” to only count three out of every five enslaved people in order to boost political representation for the slaveholding South. The Thirteenth Amendment of 1865 effectively ended the Three-Fifths Compromise by making slavery illegal. Still, Black households have yet to be counted equally in our decennial census.
Even today, we’re still working to ensure African Americans are equitably counted. Black people make up 12 percent of the U.S. population, but as of 2014 the NAACP estimated that more than 30 percent of all prison inmates are Black. This is critically important for the Census because incarcerated people are counted as residents of the census tracts where the prisons are located, which means the funding they could be bringing to their hometowns are reapportioned to the neighborhoods next to prisons.
This also means that their hometown neighbors miss out on representation in Congress and the Electoral College. Seventy percent of prisons are in rural communities, which are largely white, meaning a lot of communities have Black families that are not only missing their incarcerated loved ones, but also missing out on funding for their communities and political representation that could help change outcomes for children who are navigating the school to prison pipeline.
As we continue this ongoing struggle for full representation in our communities, we’ll need all the help we can get in New Orleans. The good news is that filling out your census is easy to do, and it’s something we can all do to ensure African Americans, people with disabilities, the elderly, and other often undercounted groups are getting our fair share. It’s also the number one way to ensure our city gets what we need so we can all recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s one of the simplest ways to make an impact on our communities, but we only get this chance once in a decade.
Karléh Wilson is the Policy Analyst at the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center. She grew up in Gonzales, Louisiana and completed her Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy at Yale University in 2016. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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