Pacific Islanders are hard to count… and other census myths

by Tavae Samuelu & Natasha Saelua

There have been three censuses in my lifetime, and I’ve never been counted. Not in 1990, when I was just two years old and among the nearly two million children who went uncounted that year. Not in 2000, as the daughter of then undocumented immigrants in a mixed-status family. And not in 2010, as a college student where campuses in California showed some of the lowest response rates. I have never been easy to count.* Three decades later, and I’m still a “hard to count” person in the hardest to count county in the hardest to count state. It’s only now as part of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC) that I understand the depth of that indelible label.

The decennial census is in EPIC’s organizational DNA, a keystone in our origin story. When EPIC founders asked NHPI elders how they could help, community leaders were clear. Elders spent years telling elected officials, federal departments, city councils, and county supervisors about the needs of NHPIs sharing story after story of collective pain only to be met with, “…but what are your numbers?” Those that distributed resources wanted quantified suffering, a tangible measurement of inequity.

Census participation for the NHPI community continues to be crucial. It is the single most important source of nationally representative survey data about our community that is publicly available. Drawing from census data, we’ve been able to understand the NHPI community across a range of social indicators and NHPI subgroups. Census data is how we compiled demographic profiles that remain some of the only ones to disaggregate data on our communities. We know the depth and diversity of NHPIs in the U.S. because of census participation.

Although conditions have changed significantly since the 2010 Census and the stakes are even higher, community wisdom teaches us:

1. Access will be a struggle.

In February 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau released a memo announcing their language support program. Of the 59 languages listed for some level of support, none of them were Pacific Islander. The burden will be placed on community members and service providers to offer in-language support. NHPI advocates understand the power of language to not only communicate a concept but also signal cultural-relevance. Concerns have also been raised about the barriers of conducting the survey online. Even if PIs speak English, many older members of the community are not fluent in internet.

2. Trusted messengers are key.

Focus groups with our Tongan community revealed a heightened level of fear in a political climate which has allowed anti-immigrant sentiment to flourish. They are all too familiar with the contradictory rhetoric about immigrants being an economic drain and stealing jobs. One participant shared how this current political climate reminded her family of similar treatment of Pacific Islanders by the government in New Zealand. In 1965, “dawn raids” were conducted to forcibly deport “overstayers” back to the islands. Focus group participants stated that it’s only trusted messengers like clergy who would be able to assuage fears. We also found that children who are often the first in their family to engage these systems play cultural translator for their families on uniquely American concepts.

3. NHPIs are the experts on NHPIs.

Outreach to the NHPI community must be conducted in partnership and collaboration with and alongside these communities. Kawen Young, chair of the NHPI Alliance, shared how she had to advocate for appropriate and relevant targeted advertising during message testing for the 2010 Census. First drafts of proposed advertising focused on images of hula dancers and grass skirts; second drafts removed people altogether and offered a scenic beach view. Marketing firms saw NHPIs in stereotypes and erasure, investing in our dehumanization. As a result of Kawen’s advocacy, community groups helped to create in-language videos featuring prominent community leaders that were ethnic-specific and responsive.

We know that it will be even more difficult to achieve a fair and accurate count of NHPIs in 2020. This is a community that is well-acquainted with challenge, and we will meet the most arduous parts of this Census with the same ingenuity and fortitude of those who’ve navigated systems and oceans before us. We understand that counting and being counted is our tautua.

*Coincidentally the only people deemed easy to count are the same wealthy white men who suppress votes, but that’s for another blog.

Tavae Samuelu is the Executive Director of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities (EPIC) and Natasha Saelua is the Lead Researcher at EPIC.