Census 2020: Wake-up call for New York and Black America: Part 1

The census is an ancient tool of empire. In the “Book of Numbers” in the Bible’s Old Testament, there are several head counts of able-bodied males of the tribes of Israel, to determine the size of their armies to wage war and for taxation purposes to finance government operations. In the New Testament, why was baby Jesus born in Bethlehem? Because his parents, Joseph and Mary, were required by Roman law to return to his stepfather’s ancestral home, Bethlehem, the house of David, Joseph’s lineage, to be counted in the census of Caesar Augustus.

The U.S. Census is the legally mandated national count of all residents in America, as specified in Article I of the U.S. Constitution. The first census in 1790 was supervised by Thomas Jefferson, and it counted 698,000 Africans, more than 90 percent enslaved, and 3.9 million whites in the original 13 states. The U.S. Census has been conducted every 10 years since 1790. The census has several key uses. For one, it determines congressional reapportionment, that is, how many seats each state will have in the U.S. House of Representatives (all states have two U.S. Senators each).

Thus the census also determines how many votes each state will cast for president in the Electoral College, which determines the U.S. presidency—not the popular vote. We learned that in 2016, when Clinton won the popular vote but Trump won the Electoral College vote. And history repeated itself in four previous presidential elections: 1800, 1824, 1876 and 2000.

Four of the first five U.S. presidents were slave owners from Virginia: Washington (John Adams was Washington’s vice president from Massachusetts, and he did not own slaves), Jefferson, Monroe and Madison. This “Virginia Dynasty” ruled significantly because Virginia was the largest slave-holding state in America, according to the census, and therefore had the single largest voting bloc in the equivalent to today’s Electoral College.

Black America went from 698,000, more than 90 percent chattel slaves and white owners’ property, in the 1790 census, whose free labor built American agriculture and infrastructure, to 4 million slaves at the dawn of the Civil War in the 1860 census. As told by W.E.B. DuBois, Eric Foner, John Hope Franklin and other renowned historians, Black slaves were the massive, free labor machine of the world dominant plantation economy of “King Cotton,” sugar cane and other agricultural production, creating vast wealth for the few, exploding American capitalism and increasingly dominating the global economy.

Black political and economic freedom didn’t last 10 years from the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction to the Black re-enslavement with the vicious political bipartisan “Hayes-Tilden” compromise in the presidential election of 1876. This pernicious political deal, ceded to the Confederates, Lincoln’s assassins, now reconstituted as the Southern Democratic Party, control over the temporarily freed Black population, state and local politics, economy and government, and ceded the U.S. presidency to Lincoln’s Republican Party, which was unanimously supported by Black people. This political betrayal resulted in a reign of terror on the Black South, resulting in our mass exodus to the North, Midwest and West Coast. In the largest mass migration in U.S. history, more than 7 million Blacks left the South from 1910 to1970, according to Isabel Wilkerson in her award winning work, “The Warmth of Other Suns.”

Dr. John Flateau is professor of Public Administration and Political Science at Medgar Evers College, CUNY and director of its think tanks, the U.S. Census Information Center and the DuBois Bunche Center for Public Policy.