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What is Juneteenth?

Juneteenth marks the moment at which many of those who had been enslaved in the United States finally learned of the Emancipation Proclamation and the way in which it ultimately applied to all parts of the country — a full two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) declared freedom for those who were enslaved.

Juneteenth reminds us that slavery didn’t simply end with the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Black Lives Matter movement and the disproportionate impact COVID-19 has on Black communities shows us that to this day our institutions have been subject to manipulation over the years to render them, at times, as tools of oppression, as opposed to justice.

The census is, in concept, the very basis for the equitable distribution of money, power, and resources across the country and across communities. Although the census of today is on its face not inherently designed to marginalize any one group and is a critical exercise we must all participate in to ensure that it is, in fact, a tool for empowerment, the history of the census demonstrates that it has often been used as a tool of oppression.

Examples include:

  • The “Three-Fifths Compromise” (1787-1868) counted every enslaved person as only three-fifths of a person in the census.

  • During the Reconstruction period, the census categorized U.S. residents with more than one “racial” background based on the percentage of either Black or Native blood that was in theory present in any given individual, resulting in the ranking of those with more “white blood” as “higher” in social status.

  • During the Jim Crow era (early 20th century), various law enforcement officials, particularly in the South, forcibly repressed participation in the census upon threat of violence, so as to ensure Black communities were deliberately undercounted and underrepresented.

  • Data from the 1940 Census was used to identify Japanese Americans for forcible relocation to internment camps during World War II.

The census evolved:

  • As a result of Japanese Internment and the collective national shame it wrought, Title XIII of the U.S. Code was passed in the early 1950s to protect individual census data and prevent it from being used in any way which could bring harm upon an individual or a community.

  • Since then, all personal census data is private and cannot be shared with any individual or government agency.

  • Today, the significant undercount of Black and Brown communities deprives them of critical federal funding that is rightfully theirs and the political representation they need.

The 2020 Census:

In 2019, an attempt to add a question on citizenship on the census was intended to deter undocumented immigrants from completing the census and thus further disenfranchising our Black and Brown communities. As a result of a lawsuit brought by the City of New York, along with many other cities and states, this attempt was thwarted, but in many ways, the fear and misinformation stemming from the attempt resulted in significant damage that we have had to work tirelessly to collectively undo.

Furthermore, since the launch of NYC Census 2020, we have centered outreach around Black and brown communities to reclaim the 2020 Census as a tool to promote equity and secure our communities’ rightful share of billions in federal funding and representation at every level of government.

And so, in honor of Juneteenth, we lift up all who suffered and continue to struggle against institutional racism and we recommit to breaking the chains that remain by getting the word out to achieve a complete count in the 2020 census. 

Shareable graphics for social media available here.

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