Census Fear: Why Some U.S. Residents Fear Being Counted : Code Switch Right now, the U.S. Census Bureau is trying to count every single person living in the country. It's a complex undertaking with enormous stakes. But some people are very afraid of how that information will be used by the government — especially given how it's been misused in the past. The first in our series about who counts in 2020.
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Who Counts In 2020?

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Who Counts In 2020?

Who Counts In 2020?

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

This is CODE SWITCH from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

And I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: Gene, do you know what day it is?

DEMBY: It's not our anniversary, right? No, it's not our anniversary. Oh, it's the first day of April.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

DEMBY: And that means, you know, it's April Fools' - normally, a day reserved for pranks, with jokes and all sorts of chicanery, you know, except for this year because of that rona.

MERAJI: Yes, paying such close attention to the corona pandemic has wrenched our attention away from a few other things like the fact that it is April Fools' Day. But more importantly, it's Census Day.

DEMBY: Census Day. Turn up, turn up.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Census Day is supposed to be filled with kickoff parties and events and all sorts of social engagement around getting people to fill out the census. Shereen, remember back before in the ol' days, the good ol' days when we used to go outside to party and socialize? Remember those times?

MERAJI: Yes, the good ol' days of January 2020.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: I miss those days. By the way, Gene, the cupid shuffle's got nothing on the census shuffle.

DEMBY: (Laughter). OK.

MERAJI: So when we get out of here, I'll teach you that (laughter).

DEMBY: Six feet apart by Zoom.

MERAJI: That's right. Obviously, I'm joking. There's no such thing as a census shuffle. It'd be totally dull.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: But it is true that Census Day is supposed to gin up excitement about filling out the census. And here's a quote from an invite to a now-canceled Census Day event that was supposed to take place in St. Paul, Minn., quote, "there may be trivia, there may be swag, there will definitely be data." And as fun as that sounds, (laughter) that is no longer happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And lots of community events like this have been canceled all across the country.

DEMBY: And all of that is messing with this big logistical undertaking. Y'all know the deal. Once a decade, the Census Bureau tries to count every single person living in the U.S. And as we discussed before on the pod, that endeavor is not just about numbers. It's about power. The census helps determine political representation, how trillions...

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: ...Of dollars in federal money gets distributed to places like schools and public hospitals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CARDI B: The census is about power, money and respect for our communities. And remember, the citizenship question is off the census no matter what anybody tells you. Immigrants, with or without papers, count, too. (Speaking Spanish).

DEMBY: Cardi. That was Cardi.

MERAJI: Cardi B.

DEMBY: She was in this ad for the census. And I've been seeing lots of ads like this on Instagram and YouTube. I think we've all been spending a lot of time on Instagram and YouTube lately (laughter)...

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: ...And hearing these ads on the radio. And one thing I've noticed, Shereen, is that the vast majority of the people in these ads - they seem to be brown people.

MERAJI: And there are reasons for that. Communities of color have historically been undercounted on the census. Our numbers are never quite what they should be. We're more likely to live in multi-family housing, which is often miscounted. Census outreach to people of color hasn't been all that good in the past. And there's a very big reason, which is fear.

DEMBY: Right. So there are a lot of reasons people feel uncomfortable giving the U.S. government a whole bunch of detailed personal information about their identities or encouraging other people to do the same, people like Nicole (ph).

NICOLE BREINER: Given the current political climate, there's no way that I can say, yes, fill this out. You will be safe.

DEMBY: And people like Sarah (ph).

SARAH ALHAJJI: I'm mostly afraid of filling out the part of the census that asks me to state my ethnicity. I am Arab American. And it is no secret that there is a level of surveillance already on Arab-American communities.

DEMBY: And you're going to meet both of them in a second.

MERAJI: And we're also going to hear from people who say that despite all that fear, filling out the census is crucial, especially for people of color.

LIZETTE ESCOBEDO: You know, one of the things that we've been telling our community is that if there was ever a time that we saw the direct effects and the direct impact of school count, it's now.

MICHAEL COOK: The same intensity, the same passion that people should have about voting - they should have about responding to the census. It's that important.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: So that's what we're talking about today - the tension that comes up when people need the government in order to access resources and to participate in civil society but also fear the government.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: It's the first up in CODE SWITCH's month-long look at who we are and who counts in 2020. And to get into all this, we have our teammate, Karen Grigsby Bates. What's good, KGB?

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hey, you two.

MERAJI: So Karen, you've been looking into why some communities of color have been afraid or at least uncomfortable with filling out the U.S. Census. What'd you find?

BATES: Well, first off, I found that the resistance to the census is a very American thing. It's not just, quote, unquote, "colored," - I'm using your air quotes here, Gene - "Americans."

DEMBY: I'll allow it.

BATES: Margo Anderson, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is the pre-eminent census historian. She says resistance to answering the census goes back to the country's founding.

MARGO ANDERSON: Different groups either object to the whole enterprise, or they attract particular questions. And we've changed the questions over the years. We have asked some very offensive things on the census over the - historically. There were questions in the 19th century about whether anybody in your household was insane or idiotic.

MERAJI: I had no idea that was a census question. And I pride myself in knowing a fair bit about the census.

BATES: Well, that one was a really old census question. This census is actually mandated in the Constitution of the United States. In 1787, a requirement was baked into it that demanded that a census be taken every 10 years on the year zero to apportion the seats in the House of Representatives. And so the first one started in 1790. But right from the jump, the census didn't count everyone. And it certainly didn't count everyone equally.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: White males of voting age who were considered heads of household were responsible for answering the census questions. Enslaved people were counted as three-fifths of free people. You probably remember that from your American history class, right? And for a long time, Margo Anderson said, American Indians didn't get counted at all because they weren't considered citizens. When Native Americans did eventually start being counted, they were divided up into two categories. One was Indians not taxed. That included people who lived on reservations.

DEMBY: What about the native people who did not live on reservations, though?

ANDERSON: There was another category because, of course, American Indians did live in - among the Euro-American and African American populations. And those folks that were in that category came to be called - in rather unfortunate terms - civilized Indians.

DEMBY: Wait, what? Civilized Indians? Civilized Indians. What?

MERAJI: Mmm hmm.

DEMBY: How long were we doing that?

ANDERSON: Finally in 1890, Congress mandates that there be a full count of the native population, the indigenous population, both tribal and within the rest of the country. And in 1924, in the Indian Citizenship Act, the concept of Indians not taxed disappeared because all Indians were declared citizens.

BATES: Margo Anderson says census outreach has been an evolutionary process and that the Census Bureau has gotten better and better at reaching out to communities of color. But as you can imagine, with this kind of history, people of color wouldn't necessarily feel like the census was representing them.

DEMBY: Right. And it wasn't even until, you know, relatively recently that people started self-reporting their identities for the census. Like, the primary way that people used to get census data was a census worker would come to your door, eyeball you and just decide which race you belonged to.

I mean, racial self-identification started in 1960. And then after that, for a little while, the census was doing a combination of both. They were having a census worker do the descriptions. And some people were self-identifying. And then in 1980, the census moved entirely to people self-identifying. So before, somebody was just basically taking a wild guess.

MERAJI: I am so curious what they'd put me down as.

BATES: I'm pretty sure Persia-Rican was not a category.

MERAJI: I mean, it's still not a category. But...

BATES: It's not.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: Throughout the years, though, there have been all kinds of ways the government and the Census Bureau have shown exactly how little they understand communities of color. When it comes to the race box, mulatto and quadroon were included as racial categories at one point - so was Hindu even though, of course, that's a religion, not a race. And Mexicans got their own separate category for the first and only time in 1930.

MERAJI: Yeah. According to Harvard historian Jill Lepore, Mexican was added in 1930 because the U.S. government was worried Mexican nationals would pretend they were American citizens by claiming they were Native American.

DEMBY: Wow.

MERAJI: But then 10 years later, Mexican is gone.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

MERAJI: It's not on the census anymore. That's the 1940 census. But the federal government had its eye on another race category.

BATES: Oh, yes, it did.

TOM IKEDA: My name is Tom Ikeda. And I'm the executive director of Densho.

BATES: Densho is the Japanese American Legacy Project. Tom talked to us from his home in Seattle where, like all of us, he's shut in to try to flatten the coronavirus curve. Densho is a project that started 24 years ago to record lots of oral histories, mostly of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Tom's parents and grandparents were imprisoned in one of these camps.

MERAJI: A little history lesson - after Pearl Harbor, there was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment in the country, kind of like after 9/11...

BATES: Yeah.

MERAJI: ...With Muslims.

BATES: Yeah. And Tom and the others involved in Densho think it's critically important for these memories to be kept alive and available to younger generations so they can remember and learn and not repeat a lamentable chapter in American history. The numbers of living people who experienced or remembered being imprisoned in these camps are dropping quickly. Like most of the World War II generation, they're just dying out.

DEMBY: All right. So where does the census come into all this?

BATES: Well, Tom was trying to figure out how the government knew where all the families were that it wanted to target for forced removal to the camps.

IKEDA: They had to have help some place. And where they got this help was actually census data, that, you know, they can get down to the block level and find out where Japanese Americans were living.

BATES: So this information was used to draw boundaries - you know, Japanese presence here. And the people within those boundaries were targeted for removal.

IKEDA: They were able to do this very quickly. And that was with the assistance of the census, when that came information should not have been used in this manner.

BATES: Remember Margo Anderson who we heard from a minute ago? This was her baby. She dug relentlessly through mountains of census information to reveal the role census information had in wrongfully incarcerating some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry - most of them U.S. citizens - from their homes on the West Coast.

MERAJI: How does something like that happen when census information is supposed to be confidential? What happened?

BATES: Well, World War II happened and with it, the Second War Powers Act, which required all government agencies to open their information, including their confidential information in the interest of national security.

DEMBY: So the Japanese American community on the West Coast got rounded up and shipped off to remote parts of the country because the government thought they had divided loyalties. And it turns out that the government knew where they lived because of the census. So that would probably make me very, very, very hesitant to give the census my info.

BATES: Me, too.

MERAJI: There were also some German and Italian immigrants who spent time in these camps but fewer, like a tenth of the number of people of Japanese descent who were wrongfully imprisoned. So it makes sense that people are concerned about the census, especially people of color.

BATES: Yeah. There have been enough bad things that our communities have experienced that we've got long collective memories about - Indian boarding schools, the Tuskegee Experiment, illegal surveillance of mosques, these World War II concentration camps. We've talked before on the show about the huge outcry that happened when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross wanted to add a question to the census asking about people's citizenship status. The census is actually part of the Commerce Department. I don't get that, but it is.

MERAJI: (Laughter).

BATES: That effort was ultimately unsuccessful.

MERAJI: As Cardi B has been reminding people. I love her.

BATES: And not because the Trump administration didn't push really, really hard for it. And a number of people from Japanese American organizations raised the alarm and helped defeat inclusion of that question. Here's Tom Ikeda again.

IKEDA: We said this is not a good question to ask in the census - and in particular, because it could be used against immigrants. And furthermore, it could also be a threat that would keep immigrants from participating in the census because they know that the government could use this information in different ways.

BATES: Just as they did to his family.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: When we come back, we're going to talk more about fear and the U.S. Census. And we'll talk to someone whose job it is to encourage people to fill out the census.

MERAJI: Except she says she can't, in good conscience, do that this year. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

BATES: Karen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALHAJJI: I am mostly afraid of filling out the part of the census that asks me to state my ethnicity. I am Arab American. And it is no secret that there is a level of surveillance already on Arab-American communities.

BATES: Sarah Alhajji (ph) lives in San Francisco. She's in her early 20s. And this is her first census on her own. Our producer, Kumari Devarajan, asked Sarah if there were things that happened in her community or even her family that would be the basis for the fear she's expressing.

ALHAJJI: You know, we've had people come to our house.

BATES: She says her community has had to deal with harassment and surveillance.

ALHAJJI: Just being told directly to our faces, like, you are under investigation, and we refuse to tell you exactly why. You are not entitled necessarily to that information.

MERAJI: So given all those concerns, did Sarah say whether she plans to fill out the census?

BATES: Yeah, she's got a big decision to make. So hang on a bit, and we'll get there. But first, I want to introduce you to someone who's directly involved in the process. It's technically her job to get people involved.

BREINER: Given the current political climate, there's no way that I can say, yes, fill this out. You will be safe. Yes, the benefits of filling this out for our community are greater than the risk that you would put you and your family in if this information fell in the wrong hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: This is Nicole Breiner (ph). And she's not just anyone. She's an elected official in the Washington metro area - not in D.C. but just outside it.

BREINER: Our town is very diverse.

BATES: It's pretty mixed - a combination of white, Latinx and black.

BREINER: A number of those latter groups live in some of the multifamily housing that's located in our town.

MERAJI: I know a lot of areas around D.C. have big populations from Central America and East Africa. Does Nicole's community have a significant immigrant population?

BATES: It does. And I asked her if she thought people from other countries who were living here might be hesitant to fill out the census if they'd come from places where the government was an oppressive presence.

BREINER: Actually, the concern isn't so much, I come from a country where I cannot trust the government so I don't feel comfortable filling out the census; the concern is, we all now live in a country where we cannot trust the government, and so I don't feel comfortable filling out the census.

BATES: In some places with large undocumented populations, ICE has shown up at hospitals and schools to pick up people who don't have papers. And Nicole also thinks that original and now-blocked citizenship question also did not inspire trust. She believes the anti-immigrant sentiment that is rampant in some parts of the country, especially as it's directed toward Latinx immigrants, is a huge hindrance.

BREINER: You know, based on everything that's happened over the past few years and even just in the last few months, it feels like the checks and balances that you would normally rely on to feel like this sort of a process would remain secure no matter who is in the White House or no matter who is making decisions, it feels like those aren't there anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Wow. Here is someone who is trained to explain the census to people. She knows that the resources her community gets, they're dependent on an accurate census count. And knowing all this, she still doesn't feel like she can beat the census drum at least in certain parts of her community.

BATES: Nope, she does not.

BREINER: A government that is willing to put people in cages right now, children in cages is not going to responsibly carry out a process that is meant to have everyone's voice count, right? They're showing us already what they think of people's voices and especially these particular people's voices. And to me, it's just irresponsible to try to encourage those same folks to become a part of this process and fill out this information.

ESCOBEDO: If there was ever a time that we saw the direct effects and the direct impact of a full count, it's now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: Lizette Escobedo works for the NALEO Educational Fund. NALEO stands for the National Association of Latino-Elected and Appointed Officials. And Lizette's job is census outreach. She's one of plenty of people who think now is exactly the time to get people of color filling out the census. And like everyone else, she's figuring out how to do this on top of trying to keep her family safe during this pandemic.

ESCOBEDO: Yeah. I'm like, listen. All my family is Mexican. And in their mind, social distancing - it's like, oh, so let's get together in one person's home? And I'm like, listen. That's not what it is. So it's been a whole education process.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Oh, yes. I'm still trying to do this with my family. I called my grandparents this weekend, and everybody was over at the house. They were like, well, they can't go anywhere, so we're all going to go to them. I'm like, this is not how this works.

BATES: (Laughter). It takes a while for it to sink in. Lizette knows that some people might be anxious about the census. But she also trusts the government to keep that information confidential. And she believes the information people supply is critical.

ESCOBEDO: Clearly, we need more hospitals. Clearly, we need more community clinics. Clearly, we need more, you know, food programs for children. We need to make sure that our schools are well-resourced and well-funded. I think now that's all playing out. And so if there was ever a time to encourage folks to participate and not discourage them, it's now.

DEMBY: So Lizette works for a group that's supposed to represent Latinx people.

BATES: Yep.

DEMBY: But given the stuff Nicole has been worried about and the stuff we've heard about misuse of information, how does Lizette think about those things? Like, she - is she not worried that those might be legitimate problems and concerns?

BATES: Well, she's not worried herself. But she knows some people will be anxious.

ESCOBEDO: We can't dismiss the fact that our community is scared. And we can't dismiss the fact that Latinos and immigrants have been under attack.

BATES: But there's a but. Lizette says there are a bunch of organizations across the country, including Lizette's organization NALEO, MALDEF - the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund - Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the NAACP that have joined together to act as watchdogs.

DEMBY: OK. So what do watchdogs do in this case?

BATES: Well, they'll be ready with hotlines and websites to answer questions from people who might be worried about whether their information will be protected, and to take immediate legal action if they hear about anything suspicious.

MERAJI: Who are you going to call?

BATES: Census busters, yes (laughter).

ESCOBEDO: We have our community's back, right? And so we want to make sure that if folks see anything or hear anything, even if it's disinformation, misinformation to that end, that they're connecting with us and that we have the legal experts behind it to make sure that our communities feel safe and protected.

BATES: There's one thing in particular that makes Lizette feel safe about the census. It's also what makes Michael Cook, the chief public information officer at the Census Bureau, feel safe.

ESCOBEDO: Title 13.

COOK: Title 13.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Quick explanatory comma for Title 13. It was passed in 1954 to ensure that the personal information people gave to the census remained private and couldn't be shared with other government agencies. So the data that is shared - it's general data. It doesn't identify individuals. Michael reminds us that it's illegal for census workers to share this information outside the agency.

COOK: One thing I want everybody to understand - the laws that guide the work that we do, Title 13, are so strict that - and they state clearly that the information that we collect cannot be shared with any other federal agencies. And the personally identifiable information that we collect about you - those details, that information can't be shared with anyone outside of the Census Bureau.

BATES: Michael Cook has worked for the Census Bureau for 21 years.

DEMBY: I mean, like, at another job, that would be a long a** time, but that - at the Census, that's two censuses.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: But they're 10 years apart.

(LAUGHTER)

COOK: I thought I'd only be there three years. And here I am, 21 years later, still there.

MERAJI: Wow. They are probably offering excellent benefits at the Census Bureau. Or he must really care about this stuff (laughter).

BATES: He does. He usually works until late. And certainly, that's what he's been doing this year. In fact, it's only because of the coronavirus and everybody having to work from home that he's able to eat dinner with his kids right now. Michael is almost religious about the need for everybody to be counted. And he's confident that our census information is locked down tight.

COOK: What is released - they are statistics about your community. And these statistics are released in aggregate in such a way that they do not identify you and who you are. Information comes in. Statistics flow out. And that information is used to impact your life.

MERAJI: Yeah. And we've already talked about how impactful the census is. We're talking about roads and schools and hospitals and political representation. It's a lot.

BATES: It even gets down to the granular level. Michael says when you walk into a store, the kinds of hair care products that are on the shelves, the space reserved for salsa - those things are based on...

DEMBY: Census data.

MERAJI: Yeah. We did a CODE SWITCH episode about how as soon as Hispanic landed as a category on the census, marketers and corporations went after that data (snapping) so fast.

COOK: Target is using census data to determine exactly where they put products.

BATES: That's Targey (ph) to most of us.

MERAJI: (Laughter) You know, Karen, it seems kind of wild that on the one hand, we're saying census data's only used in aggregate and that it can't be misused. But on the other hand, corporations can use that data to identify what demographic groups are living in what neighborhood just so they can market straight to them, like, in the best way possible.

BATES: Yeah. That's general publicly available information. And lots of entities use it, not just stores. Michael Cook says it's really important knowing a community well enough to know how to serve it. And there's another overarching reason he really, really wants you to answer the census for that full and accurate count.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COOK: When we talk about people of color and the fact that, you know, when the census began in 1790, someone who looks like me - I was three-fifths of a man. I wasn't even a whole person. But my forefathers, the people whose backs that I'm standing on, they have made it so that, you know, they bled and died so that I could vote. The same intensity, the same passion that people should have about voting they should have about responding to the census. It's that important.

MERAJI: Karen, what people like Michael and Lizette are saying - it's powerful. And I hear that. But it's also part of their jobs to convince people that filling out the census is important.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: And I'm still pretty torn. I mean, laws change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: And civil rights get violated all the time in this country. Michael said it himself. At one time, he was considered three-fifths of a person on the census.

DEMBY: Right. And like, you know, even outside of the census, we are living in a moment where people are just becoming more wary and more protective of these big entities taking their information and collecting it and wary about how that information is being used.

MERAJI: So who are we supposed to believe?

BATES: Hansi, where are you?

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: I am huddled underneath a blanket in my bedroom, talking to you on the phone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BATES: I wanted to get more perspective on this. So I wanted to talk to someone who's been reporting on the census for a while and doesn't have any vested interest in whether it gets filled out or not. So I called our former CODE SWITCH teammate, Hansi Lo Wang, who's been covering the power, politics and money behind the U.S. census for more than three years now. And Hansi's in New York.

WANG: I've made up a little - I have a little blanket tent I'm sitting under.

BATES: (Laughter). Things we do for our jobs, right?

MERAJI: Yeah.

BATES: Hansi pointed out to me that as people are trying to decide whether or not to fill out the census, it might be helpful to understand exactly what questions are and aren't being asked. He reiterated that that controversial citizenship question will not be part of this year's census.

WANG: What will be asked are questions about how many people are living in a home, whether that home is owned with or without a mortgage or loan, whether that home is rented or occupied without rent, a phone number for a person in that home, the name, sex, age, date of birth and race of each person living in that home, whether each person is of Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin and the relationship between the people living together in that home.

DEMBY: So it's like personal information. But it's not that personal. You can probably know a lot more about someone by Googling them.

MERAJI: But don't do it to us.

(LAUGHTER)

BATES: You're right. In some ways, this information isn't all that different or more personal than the things many people share on social media or in other public spaces. But (laughter) the difference is they're not the government. And so if something happens that they don't like, a shampoo company or a social media company does not have the power to round you up and ship you off somewhere.

MERAJI: Yeah. I guess the counterpoint to that argument is that the government could shake down Facebook or Twitter or whatever social media site and get all of this personal information from you. And there's no Title 13 protecting you from that information sharing. So yeah, I don't know. It does feel a little bit like this is a whole other CODE SWITCH episode (laughter). But either way, it's kind of scary putting all your information out there.

BATES: And the government is still the government. And Hansi says he's encountered people who are still having a really tough time knowing what to do in terms of whether or how they answer the census or encourage other people to.

WANG: I was at a gathering of faith leaders from around the country at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., back in February. And it was an event the Census Bureau put together, trying to rally support and encourage different leaders from different houses of worship to talk about the census amongst their congregants.

And ultimately, that discussion turned when a few folks stood up and said essentially, you know, I'm really concerned. What can I tell my congregants at a time when there is increased immigration enforcement in our communities? And so many members of our congregations - this is top of their mind. This is a challenge amongst what the Census Bureau calls trusted voices. And a lot of these trusted voices have - I've heard from them that they're concerned about, can we really do this in good faith and encourage people to participate in the census where they themselves are not sure if they're putting their credibility on the line? On the other hand, it's a real push and pull. It's a real conundrum because all of these community leaders know firsthand how important this data are.

BATES: So you're walking a really fine line.

WANG: It's a very fine line. And it's at a time when - where demographers are saying the country is getting browner. But if the numbers don't ultimately show that after the 2020 census, we could be left with this - these multiple realities of on paper, we look like one country. And in certain communities, we're living a different reality.

DEMBY: Which gets at what Sarah Alhajji was saying to us. She's the young woman we heard from before who was considering whether or not to fill out the census form for the first time. She was saying that there's this lived experience she has as an Arab American. And that's very different from the way that her identity gets written down on a census form.

ALHAJJI: None of the options feel correct. It feels really weird filling out my race under white because that is the only place where I'm considered white.

BATES: That double vision of the United States is something the Census Bureau is still grappling with. And it's one of many, many big-picture issues on the line here.

WANG: When we're talking about the census, we're talking about very high stakes...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: ...Because it is only done once every 10 years. Ten years - a decade's worth of implications. This impacts how voting districts are redrawn. This impacts how an estimated $1.5 trillion - with a T - a year in federal funding goes out to Medicare, Medicaid, schools, roads, other public services. And these numbers also determine each state's share of congressional seats and electoral college votes for the next 10 years. And so we use these numbers to reset the political map that we all have to live under through 2030.

BATES: Oh, and there's one more thing - the coronavirus.

MERAJI: I thought we were going to get through the rest of this episode without mentioning that. But, yes, the coronavirus.

BATES: Yep. All of the plans that people at the Census Bureau and all of these advocacy groups, everything that they had planned to do - working with faith leaders, doorknocking, events organizing, person-to-person contact...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WANG: All of that has stopped because people are worried about their health. You know, there already was a really high risk of undercounting people of color, immigrants, other historically undercounted groups because decade after decade, the numbers showed there's not been a fair census count. And so you have now this pandemic that really exacerbates existing challenges.

BATES: All of that aside, Sarah Alhajji says she's made her decision.

ALHAJJI: I'm still uneasy. But I think I've hit a point now where I will fill out the censuses even if I feel as though other repercussions may come with it.

DEMBY: Isn't that, you know, a pretty good encapsulation of what it means to be a person of color? Engaging with things that are supposed to be your civic duty - like, a sense of responsibility coupled with a whole lot of side eye.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRIAN MCKNIGHT'S "BACK AT ONE")

MERAJI: And that's our show. And since we're talking about who counts all month long, we thought the song giving us life would be a little bit of a throwback about counting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK AT ONE")

BRIAN MCKNIGHT: (Singing). It's undeniable that we should be together.

DEMBY: (Laughter). That's (laughter) wow. That's "Back At One" by Brian McKnight. If you did not know, let's trade lives. And it really doesn't have anything to do with what we're talking about (laughter). Is it a jam? It's not a jam (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK AT ONE")

MCKNIGHT: (Singing). If all things in time, time will reveal. Yeah. One, you're like a dream come true. Two, just want to be with you. Three, girl, it's plain to see that you're the only one for me.

MERAJI: I don't know. I don't know. In fact, I think that we should use this moment to just ask the audience what better songs about counting there are out there and tweet at us - @nprcodeswitch (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Kumari Devarajan and edited by Leah Donnella and Steve Drummond.

DEMBY: And shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH family - Jess Jiang, Natalie Escobar and LA Johnson. Our interns are Dianne Lugo and Isabella Rosario. I'm Gene Demby. Be easy, y'all. And stay safe.

BATES: I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. Wash your hands. Stay inside.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. Practice social distancing. Actually, don't practice. Just do it.

DEMBY: There's no try. There is only do.

MERAJI: Six feet or more. Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: (Singing). One.

I hate you for getting that song stuck in my head. I never liked that song.

DEMBY: I hate that song - hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Oh, my God.

(LAUGHTER)

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