Using All Five-Fifths of Our Power

When we say Black lives matter, we mean it in every possible sense. We are whole, worthy people who deserve to live full lives uninterrupted by oppression of any kind. Especially on Juneteenth, as we celebrate the long-delayed freedom of our ancestors kept in chattel slavery, we affirm their full humanity despite being officially counted as only 3/5ths human, and we affirm everyone who is organizing and protesting against dehumanizing treatment of Black people today. Our protests have already sparked a massive shift in public awareness and opinion, and it’s critical that we seize this moment to make lasting changes that will protect Black lives.

In order to permanently change the conditions we’re protesting, we have to step into our full civic power so we can shift who gets to make decisions in our communities and our country. But what does it look like to use all of our power? In addition to protesting, it looks like building community — spending our time, attention, and money on things that keep all of us safe and whole. It looks like speaking out about the issues that matter to us, so our friends and family know what’s going on and how they can use their power to help. It looks like registering to vote and voting if we’re eligible, regularly checking our voter registration status to make sure we’re able to cast ballots that count in every election, and pushing lawmakers to expand safe voting options. And it looks like getting counted in the census — something that isn’t usually top-of-mind for most of us, but which is fundamental to the goal of finally being treated as five-fifths human in this society. 

Census data are used to make decisions about how money and power are shared in our society, so when Black communities are undercounted, the resources and representation our communities deserve are given to more privileged communities instead. Every year, the federal government spends nearly $1.5 trillion dollars on health care, food and housing assistance, education, and more. We deserve our fair share of that funding, and the political representation needed to ensure our money is spent on resources and services that help us live, instead of on deadly industries like mass incarceration. 

We completely understand that folks are busy and overwhelmed with everything our communities are going through right now, which is why we keep reminding folks to get counted. It is easy and quick — over 80% of Color Of Change members who’ve already taken the census tell us it took less than 10 minutes to finish, and virtually everyone was able to complete it in less than 15 minutes. 

We also understand some folks’ hesitation to fill it out because of well-earned mistrust in government. But we keep us safe, and being counted in the census is one of the ways we do that. Census data don’t personally identify people; they’re used to generate statistics that help public agencies distribute funding and representation, and to help advocates like us fight social and economic injustices in our communities, like environmental racism and housing discrimination.

Real talk: Avoiding the census hasn’t protected a single loved one from state-sanctioned violence at the hands of ICE or other abusive cops. Instead, being undercounted has meant our communities are cheated out of the full political representation we need to hold electeds accountable for their complicity with killer cops and other threats to Black lives. Being undercounted has meant we have fewer hospital beds and health care resources in our communities to help us fight COVID. Being undercounted has kept us from having enough grocery stores and parks and recreation services to be as healthy as we could be even before the pandemic hit. And being undercounted guarantees that billions of dollars that should be spent in our communities goes to whiter and more privileged communities at our expense. 

In short: being undercounted has left us with only a fraction of the resources and representation we deserve. But we are not fractions of humans — we deserve all five-fifths of our due. 

Our ancestors didn’t have much direct say over whether they were counted in the past; they had to resist, rebel, and fight just to be regarded as fully human. Past generations couldn’t control if racist census takers were “too afraid” to knock doors in Black communities. They didn’t have the option to self-respond on the phone, or mail back their form, or just go online and take 5-10 minutes to fill it out themselves. But most of us do have that option, and it is urgent for us to use it

If “decisions are made by those who show up,” we need to challenge the people who try to stop us from showing up — in the streets and in elections, in the census, and everywhere else we get a chance to have a say over how we share money and power in society. It’s time for us to take up all five-fifths of the space we’re entitled to, and to use all five-fifths of our power to make justice real in America.