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Be Counted Detroit—Beyond Racism and Mass Incarceration Through the Census

By April 5, 2019 No Comments

The Heads Up!

$144 million. Apart from that of Detroiters who’ll report falsely to live elsewhere or avoid responding altogether, this is what the city of Detroit stands to lose as a result of its current incarcerated population during the census count next year in 2020. Also not factored here are those serving time in federal prisons or those incarcerated out of state. It was Desiree Ferguson of the Detroit Justice Center who explained mass incarceration as mass displacement. And it was Professor Heather Ann Thompson, PhD, of the University of Michigan that connected this phenomenon to the economic disenfranchisement of Detroit through the census. Focus: HOPE was blown away by this!

What can be done by those of varying backgrounds loving, living and working in Detroit. The answer is clear in three words:

“Be Counted, Detroit”.

And be sure all our colleagues, children, neighbors, friends, housemates, roommates, classmates and love mates are counted with us.

 

The Numbers

Many folks remain unaware of the huge economic impact the census has on where we live. Mandated by the U.S. Constitution, the country undergoes a count of its resident population every 10 years. This helps the government determine a number of things for districts, from electoral and legislative representation to the amount of federal funding received until the next census. This funding is used to support food provision, education, medical service, roads and housing for hundreds of thousands of Detroiters. Every person counted in the census represents approximately $1,800 per year in federal dollars, or $18,000 over 10 years. As of 2017, the city of Detroit is (perhaps under-) estimated to have a population of 673,104, equating approximately $12 billion to go toward Medicare and Medicaid; food stamps, W.I.C. and free lunch; Head Start, Early Head Start and special education grants; and, of course, Highway planning and construction for “fixing the damned roads”.

 

The Dark Past

It’s important to note that in addition to the decennial count, the U.S. constitution also outlined who would count! Specifically, enslaved Blacks in this country were factored as 3/5 person during the census. And while the harmful layers of this despicable, dehumanizing practice were endless, two factors that stand out are:

  1. whites in the rural south enjoyed immensely inflated political and economic advantages from even the partial count of Black bodies in their districts and
  2. these advantages came at the extremely high cost of Blacks’ freedom with little to no trickle-down benefit to those Blacks and their families.

 

The Present

There is disappointingly little difference today. According to the Michigan Department of Corrections, there are currently, 8,000 Detroiters serving time in Michigan prisons. You can safely guess many of them are being held for nonviolent, victimless crimes. This trend is the result of unconscious but deeply embedded and wide-spread bias in law-making and law-enforcement such as exemplified by the decades of lengthy sentences imposed unfairly on Blacks through the catastrophically failed War on Drugs. Sadly, 154 years “post slavery”, Blacks in this country are still uprooted in droves and held captive in rural districts, not only creating low-skills jobs for those predominantly white populations, but also immensely inflating their political and economic advantage. An ironic twist is instead of these Blacks being counted as 3/5, today each person is considered wholly. This means with no trickle-down benefit to the prisoner or their home communities, the federal resources determined by the census will be redistributed from Detroit in full to the rural areas around prisons to the tune of $144 million from 2020 to 2030.

 

The Way Forward

There’s unfortunately little we can do about those currently displaced except pray for their safe return and connect them to programs, people and opportunities to prevent recidivism once they’re home. However, what we can do for this city in the meantime is ensure we are each counted next year. Portia Roberson, Focus: HOPE’s CEO, declared on Monday, April 1st, “As we are counting on our children’s early education, we must be counted in 2020… For the 44,000 seniors who count on Focus: HOPE for food monthly, we must be counted in 2020.” This announcement was made during Mayor Mike Duggan’s 2020 Census Kickoff Rally held at Focus: HOPE last week.

 

The HOPE

While reasons people are not counted include fear of government or insurance providers, we expect that our love for this city and our collective desire to see it succeed may embolden us. We must know the fate of Detroiters, new and old, are tied and that overcoming the harms of displacement and underrepresentation requires being counted together. This was evidenced by the overwhelming presence at the rally on Monday. Dr. Felix Rogers, D.O., a Focus: HOPE volunteer through Christ Church Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills, recounts the events: He was on campus doing what he usually does on Mondays, advising on health and helping out with a community garden in the HOPE Village, a neighborhood in central Detroit comprised of the roughly 100 residential blocks around the campuses of Focus: HOPE, Neighborhood Service Organization, Advantage Health, Wellspring Lutheran Services, Presbyterian Villages of Michigan and Detroit Public Library Parkman Branch. Despite the crisp cold air, the sun was bright and warming. He made his way up the thoroughfare noticing the usually busy corridor was particularly abuzz with traffic. Present only once a week, he wasn’t aware of anything special occurring today. But he followed the crowd and the further west he walked, the denser the crowds became, until he was standing in front of the conference center, watching Focus: HOPE and mayoral security courteously guide a mixed crowd through the television trucks and double parked cars. Inside the building, the registration lines were so long, many guests skipped the sign-in and went straight for the escalators.

Upstairs, the meeting space was filled to standing-room-only well before the program started. The room throbbed with music and pulsed with the energy of the gathering crowd. At least 10 video cameras from the media were jammed in a row near the front, creating obstructed view seats for many. The gathering here was multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-generational. Business, political and nonprofit leaders converged with grassroots. The enthusiasm was palpable. Mayor Duggan declared that this was Detroit.

A mixed line-up of speakers, activists and poets including officials like Senator Peters and Congresswoman Tlaib encouraged listeners to be brave, assuring them the Census Bureau is restricted from sharing information with government agencies or otherwise, “including your insurance providers” said Mayor Duggan to a room of hundreds bursting with laughter. “So if you live in Detroit and not the suburbs, you can admit it to the Census!” he added.

Focus: HOPE is committed to the idea that if Detroit is on the way up even as thousands of its people are being displaced, disenfranchised and left behind, then all of us owe it to them, to ourselves and to the future of this city to welcome them back to a locality fully resourced, supportive and committed to finally undo the legacy of racism, poverty and other injustices in this region.

Jasahn M. Larsosa is Director of Advocacy, Equity & Community Empowerment, serving under Portia Roberson, the newly appointed CEO of Focus: HOPE.  The insights in this analysis are part of an ongoing education series launched on MLK Day at Focus: HOPE.  Look for more analysis with further insights on disrupting racism from Mr. Larsosa.
Co-authored by Dr. Felix Rogers, D.O. of Christ Church of Cranbrook, Bloomfield Hills, MI
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