Oakland Black Cowboy Association member Elijha McAlister rides on horseback as West Oakland residents look on during a 2020 census outreach event on Sept. 16, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Along Linden Street in West Oakland, the cowboys caused a flurry of excitement.
Three men on horseback, members of the Oakland Black Cowboy Association, trotted through the neighborhood Wednesday. Children stopped to look while strolling by and grandparents came out taking pictures on their iPads.
Attracting attention was the point. The official end to the 2020 U.S. census count is just two weeks away, on the last day of September, and the cowboys were out to encourage everyone to participate.
Although there is a legal challenge underway that could extend the count another month, the cowboys, and the Alameda County census outreach workers partnering with them, weren’t taking any chances.
Wilbert Freeman McAlister, 79, the president of the group, looked the part, with a cream Stetson hat, aviator glasses and leather boots. One wardrobe addition: a black “Census 2020” mask.
McAlister said he hopes Oakland residents who come out to see his group might take notice and feel compelled to heed its call to fill out the census.
“They see us out there, feel that it must be important,” he said. “The cowboys are there! Why can't we just take time out?”
The group has been putting on a parade in Oakland every October for the past 46 years, honoring the role African Americans played in settling the West. This year’s parade had to be canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“Play a part in America. Play a part,” said McAlister, urging neighborhood residents to be counted. “That's for all people here in the United States, even immigrants, they wanna know about that as well. No one is going to jail. There's no binding situation here. Just feel free to let us know.”
Casey Farmer, who manages census outreach for Alameda County, says every household has by now received multiple mailings and reminder calls to get counted in the once-every-10-year survey. But in some neighborhoods, like this one in West Oakland, only slightly over half of residents have responded on their own volition.
Census enumerators are currently going door to door to reach the rest. As of Thursday, the Census Bureau field office covering Oakland, Berkeley and parts of Contra Costa County reported it had reached nearly 87% of non-responding households.
But local governments and community leaders fear the count is lagging as a result of pandemic disruptions and efforts by the Trump administration to exclude unauthorized immigrants and shorten the census count. Meanwhile, more than 70% of Californians are considered “hard to count,” because of factors like poverty, limited English proficiency and being renters.
After COVID-19 concerns shut down field operations in the spring, census officials asked Congress for more time, saying they needed until Oct. 31 to get a full and accurate count, and until April 30 to deliver the results. But after initially requesting the extension, the officials reversed themselves and said counting would end by Sept. 30.
Civil rights groups and some local governments, including the cities of San Jose and Los Angeles, sued, saying that shortening the time frame would hurt the accuracy of census data. A federal judge in San Jose is hearing the case next week.
Census Bureau officials say they are on track to complete the count by the end of September. But Farmer says there are still thousands of people in Alameda County that need to be counted. An endorsement of the census by the Black cowboys, who are loved and respected by many in the neighborhood, might help, she said.
“They want someone who they trust to convey to them that it is important, and not just be obliterated by ads and pieces of mail that they see us junk,” Farmer said.
And in a neighborhood like this one in West Oakland, with a large immigrant community, Farmer says Trump’s unsuccessful effort to include a citizenship question on the census made a lot of people fearful to participate.
“The administration has not painted a good picture about what the census is,” she said. “It's America's headshot. It is inclusive of every single person living in this country, and they have a constitutional right to be counted.”
Oakland City Councilwoman Lynette Gibson McElhaney, who represents the neighborhood, joined the cowboys Wednesday, along with volunteers from the West Oakland Senior Center who were distributing hot lunches to homebound seniors.
McElhaney said her immigrant constituents have felt “targeted” by the president, while many residents in the Black community are distrustful of the government and don’t see their interests represented.
As she delivered a meal to an elderly African American woman, McElhaney encouraged her to make sure all of her family members filled out the census to ensure the city’s entire Black population is represented.
“I think for many people who are feeling the pain of gentrification, of feeling that the numbers aren't there. I think we're more here than people realize,” said McElhaney, who is African American.
She urged people to promote the census outreach effort using the hashtag #myblackcounts.
An accurate census count is crucial for getting much-needed federal dollars to repair infrastructure and clean up environmental hazards in the community, and a shortened timeline jeopardizes that, she said.
“All of those grants and things that we rely on from the federal government come from the census data,” she said. “That's why I think this administration is playing with the data, you know, shortening the count by 30 days. And we just will not give in to the shenanigans. We as a community are going to show up.”