By Michelle Han
Black community leaders in southeast Queens are all too familiar with the consequences of the U.S. Census count.
“This year will mark the 21st dicennial census and we are still not getting it right,” said Anjeanette Allen, program coordinator of the New York City Black Advisory Committee for the census. “We are still partial people in a country where we are all given equal rights.”
Allen was one of half a dozen panelists at a York College breakfast conference last weekend urging the black community in Queens to take an active role in the 2000 census count to make sure their community is accounted for.
Speaking to invited guests from churches, schools, and community groups in southeast Queens, panelists told the all-black audience that the very freedom their ancestors fought for was at stake in the U.S. census count.
The 1990 U.S. census failed to count some 8.4 million black Americans, according to estimates, while some 4 million white Americans were counted twice. And black advocates say those numbers cost neighborhoods in southeast Queens millions of dollars in funds for schools, health care programs and other services that are boosted by federal funds.
“I'll tell you one thing that I'm tired of doing,” said U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans), prompting audience members to cry out “Preach!” and “Say it, Brother.”
“I'm tired that we always have to react after something happens. I want us to do something affirmative to prevent it from happening,” Meeks said, “because Census 2000 could undo all the work that we achieved just a short 35 years ago.”
The U.S. census figures are used to determine the amount of federal funding that is allocated to local communities in the form of money for schools, housing and health programs, and other special services.
The figures also are used to redraw municipal districts and determine the number of representatives each community will have in city, state and federal governing bodies.
With the opportunity this year to mark off several boxes on census forms that indicate a person's race, advocates say blacks should check off “black only” no matter how mixed their racial backgrounds may be.
“We got a lot of racial mixing going on, and that's groovy,” said civil rights attorney Glenn Magpantay of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “But the census form is not about the importance of affirming the dynamics of racial diversity.”
Minority advocates fear checking off three or four boxes indicating race on the census forms will dilute the black population when the numbers are tabulated in Washington.
To emphasize the message, audience members wore bright green buttons that read: “Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud – check 'Black Only.'”
“Nobody's trying to steal your culture,” said Hazel Dukes, president of the NAACP's New York State Conference of Branches. “But know that you're in America, where you can't get health care and your children can't get books.”
Ogo Sow, of the Caribbean radio station WLIB, noted that there has always been a distinction between Africans “from the continent” or the Caribbean and African Americans, who were born in the United States.
But he, too, lined up behind the movement to have all African Americans band together to amass numbers in the U.S. census count.
“There are more than 500,000 Africans in Manhattan alone,” he said, most of whom live in the Harlem area. “But there is only one hospital in Harlem.”
Census officials said if residents have not gotten letters telling them they will receive an official census form, they should go to a “Be Counted” center in their community to obtain a form on their own.
The centers will be set up at libraries, post offices, community centers, businesses, and other places in the community.
Census forms were mailed out Monday, officials said, and should be returned as soon as possible. At the end of April, the Census Bureau will begin releasing data showing how well each community is responding to the census forms.
According to Census Bureau estimates, the Queens populations that are easiest to count are in most of northeast Queens, Forest Hills, Maspeth, and Middle Village.
Hard to count populations are in Richmond Hill, South Jamaica, most of Jamaica and St. Albans, Ridgewood, Flushing, Woodside, Elmhurst, Astoria and Woodhaven, estimates show.
“We have always had to struggle in northeast Queens to be realized, to make sure that our history in represented in our books, in our schools, in our organizations,” said Kenneth Cohen, president of the NAACP's Flushing branch. “We need this census.”