When the Census Bureau mobilized thousands of workers to survey neighborhoods around the country, it prioritized job creation as well as outreach to historically undercounted communities. Months later, the statistics are rolling out, and so is a stream of evidence that for all the talk of a more inclusive census, the government’s hiring practices systematically discriminated against people of color.
Though the census project helped offset the unemployment crisis temporarily, activists say it shut out countless applicants through an arbitrary and racially discriminatory screening process.
According to a major class-action lawsuit, applicants were unfairly singled out if their names turned up in a notoriously inaccurate federal criminal database. In effect, the background checks blocked virtually anyone with an arrest record. This included with arrests that never led to conviction; older adults with long-forgotten juvenile delinquency records; or activists who once got a slap on the wrist at an antiwar protest.
Now, rejected workers have brought a federal lawsuit accusing the government of systemic employment discrimination in violation of the Civil Rights Act. Since people of color are vastly overrepresented in the criminal justice system, the suit charges that the excessively harsh background checks reproduce overarching patterns of racial discrimination.
According to the complaint, the Census Bureau’s screening system automatically siphoned out anyone with an arrest record, regardless of whether a conviction followed. In order to move on with the hiring process, applicants would need to provide court documentation of their case within a 30-day window. That hurdle knocked out a full 93 percent of applicants, or 700,000 people. The remaining applicants were then subject to “an arbitrary and irrational screen” that targeted “even those who had never been convicted, those who had their records officially expunged, and those with very minor and old offenses.”
When all was said and done, less than one in twenty of the applicants who were asked to show their court papers “were deemed eligible for hire.” So, it might take months of bureaucratic shuffling just to have a shot at being considered for a job — and by then the census might be winding down already.
The disparate racial impact is tied to the fact that this rigamarole applied specifically to a class of workers, in which people of color have historically been overrepresented in criminal justice institutions.
Eugene Johnson, one of the named plaintiffs, thinks he deserved better. With a high-school level education and plenty of work experience in market research, surveying and data entry, he looked like a solid candidate on paper, until his rap sheet surfaced. Back in 1995, he was hit with misdemeanor charges after a spat with his landlord. He paid restitution and did some community service, but the government’s background check snared him when he applied for a census job earlier this year. Johnson hunted down court documents to show the disposition of his case and wrote out an explanation of his circumstances to the Census Bureau. When he was finally placed on the “eligibility list” about four months later in June, he discovered that the most of the positions had been filled already. Johnson had been excluded by default.
Samuel Miller, counsel in the lawsuit, said the alleged discrimination was a direct contradiction of the Census Bureau’s campaign both to engage marginalized communities and to offset the impacts of the recession. In the end, there may be tens of thousands of others like Johnson, who should have been out knocking on doors in shabby neighborhoods on behalf of the feds, but ended up locked out by the state itself.
“There was a point there where hiring for census was the only thing keeping the unemployment figures from getting dramatically worse,” Miller said. “There was an opportunity there for census to make a difference, not only in national unemployment statistics, but to actually provide much needed work in communities of color.”
Miller added that many people involved with the suit saw the census as a lifeline: “it would have made a huge difference in terms of just not being evicted, paying the rent, putting food on the table, hopefully providing a bridge to the next job… and it really had a big impact on a number of people.”
The plaintiffs in the case hope that, although the census is a singular event in terms of its scope and decennial timetable, a ruling that strikes down the screening process as racially discriminatory could set a precedent for hiring across other federal agencies. It could even spur the private employers to rethink their hiring practices, in light of discrimination and inequity against people with criminal backgrounds in the private-sector workforce.
The census was a massive civic mobilization, an effort to capture America’s demographic profile in order to make policy more responsive to social trends. Yet even though the job was to make every household count, the workers who have always been undercounted were once again overlooked.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.