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Last week, the Census Bureau released information about the 2020 census, designed to enable states to start the process of drawing new lines for their congressional districts, a process known as redistricting.
Because of that very limited intent for this particular information dump, the picture the material gives is a very specific one. The specificity of that information echoes the political history that in the 1920s began to skew our Congress to give rural white voters disproportionate power. It also reinforces a vision of America divided by race: precisely the vision that former president Trump and his supporters want Americans to believe.
The U.S. Constitution requires that the government count the number of people in the country every ten years so that lawmakers can divide up the representation in Congress, which is apportioned according to population in the House of Representatives. (The Senate is by state: each state gets two senators.)
This matters not just for the relative weight of voices in lawmaking in the House, but also because of our Electoral College. The Electoral College is how we elect the U.S. president. Each state gets the number of electors that is equal to the number of senators and representatives combined. So, if your state has 10 representatives and 2 senators, it would have 12 presidential electors.
Censuses are never 100% accurate. It’s hard to count people, especially if they don’t want to be counted. Censuses also are inherently political, since a corrupt president will not want an accurate count: they will want areas that support their party to be overcounted, while areas that support the opposite party to be undercounted.
The 1890 census is a famous example of both of these problems. Indigenous Americans who were eager to avoid the observance of the federal government out of concern for their lives moved around to avoid being counted. The process itself was notoriously corrupt because, in 1889 and 1890, the Republican Party had forced the admission of six new western states—North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming—that supported the Republicans, and had insisted that the new census would show enough people there to warrant statehood. So they were eager to find lots and lots of people in those new states but very few in the populous territories of Arizona and New Mexico, which they knew would vote Democratic. (I would love to write a whole post about the 1890 census, but I will spare you.)
Today, because of the pandemic, the results of the 2020 census have been delayed, and states are already behind in their schedules to redistrict for the upcoming 2022 election. (I know, I know, but it really is right over the horizon. Some states are already thinking about moving their primary elections because there’s not enough time to redistrict before them.) So last week, the Census Bureau released the information states need to begin that process. It released its record of the number of people living in each state and U.S. territory.
But in addition to needing to know the actual numbers of the count, state lawmakers need to know the racial makeup of their states, since there are federal rules about making sure minority votes aren’t silenced in redistricting by, for example, splitting a minority vote into small enough groups among districts that minorities essentially don’t have a voice (this is called “cracking”), or concentrating members of one group into a single district, so they are underrepresented at the state level (this is called “packing”).
So the material that came out last week was not the entire information from the census; it was just the material states need for redistricting.
It shows how many people there are living in America today. Population shifts mean that Montana, Oregon, Colorado, North Carolina, and Florida all picked up a seat, while Texas picked up two. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, California, and West Virginia all lost one. Within those states, cities have grown and rural counties have lost people. For the first time in our history, all ten of the country’s largest cities now have more than a million people in them.
The material released last week also shows the nation’s racial makeup. That information is confusing, as all self-identification on a form can be. It says that America’s white population has dropped significantly since 2010. According to the census, people who identify as white now make up 58% of the population while just ten years ago they made up 64%. But the census also shows that people who self-identify as a mixture of races has skyrocketed, climbing from 9 million in 2010 to 33.8 million in 2020. It seems likely that some of the drop in self-identification as white is due to people identifying themselves differently than they have in the past.
Urbanization and multiculturalism are not new to our history, and their appearance in the census led lawmakers to create an imbalance in our government in the 1920s. The Constitution says that a state can’t have a representative for fewer than 30,000 people, but it doesn’t say anything about an upper limit of constituents represented by a single representative. In 1912, when the country had 92 million people, the House had grown to 435 members.
But the 1920 census showed that more Americans lived in cities than in the country, at the same time that white Americans were all tied up in knots that those new urban dwellers were Black Americans and immigrants from southern and central Europe and Asia. Aware that continuing to allow more representatives for these growing numbers of Americans meant that the weight of representation would move away from rural white Americans and toward immigrants in cities, lawmakers refused to continue increasing the number of seats in the House. (They also passed the 1924 Immigration Act, which set quotas on how many people from each country could come to America.)
In 1929, lawmakers froze the number of representatives at 435 voting members of the House. While this number would bounce around as new states came in, for example, it has once again settled as the number of voting representatives today, when our population is 331 million.
That cap means that the size of the average congressional district is now 711,000 people, a number that is far higher than the framers intended and that favors smaller, more rural, whiter states in the House of Representatives. It also favors those states in the Electoral College, where they have more weight proportionately than they would if the House had continued to grow.
By identifying everyone by race—as it needed to, for redistricting purposes—last week’s census material also engages what sociologist Karen E. Fields and historian Barbara J. Fields have called “racecraft,” which, by artificially dividing people along racial lines, reinforces the idea of race as the most important thing in society. Last week’s material does not mention, for example, income or wealth, which are not explicitly factored in when redistricting but which the last census material released on that topic suggested are at least as divisive as race.
The idea that race is paramount is, of course, the theory that the right-wing would like Americans to believe, and the idea that white Americans are being “replaced” by people of color and Black Americans falls right into the right-wing argument that minorities are “replacing” white Americans.
For a century now, the machinery of redistricting has favored rural whites. With the 2020 census information reinforcing the idea that white, rural Americans are under siege, it seems unlikely that lawmakers in Republican states will want to rebalance the system.
But it seems equally unlikely that an increasingly urbanizing, multicultural nation will continue to accept being governed by an ever-smaller white, rural minority.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.