Thousands of African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have been rejected for jobs by the U.S. Census Bureau because of systematic discrimination, according to a class action filed April 13th in a federal court in New York.
"The Indian Law Resource Center became co-counsel in this effort because Indian communities depend on an accurate count of their members to ensure fairness in the administration of federal programs," said Robert T. Coulter, Executive Director of the Center.
"Native Americans and other minority individuals are often targeted by the police, arrested but then released without charges or convictions. By using arrest records to exclude job applicants, the Department of Commerce is unnecessarily excluding thousands of individuals who would be best qualified to assist the Census Bureau in its efforts to count people living in American Indian communities"
The lawsuit alleges the Census Bureau unlawfully screens out job applicants who have arrest records, regardless of whether the arrest led to an actual criminal conviction or to nothing at all. Government records show that more than 70 million people in the U.S. have been arrested, but more than 35 percent of all arrests nationwide never lead to prosecutions or convictions.
African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are far more likely to have arrest records and convictions than others, and so Census's hiring policies discriminate against people of color in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Filed on behalf of plaintiffs Eugene Johnson, 48, of New York, and Evelyn Houser, 68, of Philadelphia, by Outten & Golden LLP and a coalition of leading public interest organizations, the suit is the first of its kind to be filed against a federal agency.
In addition to the Indian Law Resource Center, the coalition actively supporting the lawsuit as co-counsel includes the Center for Constitutional Rights; Community Legal Services of Philadelphia; Community Service Society, of New York; LatinoJustice PRLDEF, of New York; Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, of Washington, D.C.; and Public Citizen Litigation Group, of Washington, D.C.
Eugene Johnson, plaintiff, says he's not a threat to anyone and should be allowed to work for the Census. "I've lived in New York City practically all my life and have 24 years' experience in doing exactly the kind of survey work Census is hiring for. I'm good with people and this job would make a real difference in my life." It has been 15 years since Johnson was convicted of a misdemeanor for which he was not sentenced to any jail time.
The Census Bureau deters and excludes many people who, on a fair review of their record, would meet the requirements to work, according to the lawsuit.
"The Census Bureau expresses a desire to reach communities at risk of being undercounted - particularly low-income people of color and immigrants - by hiring within those communities, yet it has erected an unnecessary and discriminatory obstacle to achieving that very goal," said Samuel Miller, attorney for the plaintiffs.
The lawsuit asserts that the Census Bureau screens each job applicant's name and identifying information using an FBI database that contains incomplete criminal history data spanning several decades. When the database indicates that an applicant has an arrest record, within 30 days, that individual is required to produce official records related to the disposition of the case. The applicants are not provided with any information related to the results of the FBI database query, so they may not know which records to provide. In addition, the official court documentation requested by Census may be impossible to locate because the records have been sealed or expunged - or simply lost or destroyed because they are decades old. Generally, the records related to the most trivial offenses disappear first.
Plaintiffs also assert that Census Bureau demands compliance with these burdensome procedures from all job applicants, not distinguishing, for instance, between job applicants who have recent, serious convictions and might not be appropriate for Census work, and those with records of minor, often non-criminal, violations such as loitering or disorderly conduct.
Plaintiffs will seek to have the lawsuit certified as a class action.
For more information about the lawsuit and how to get involved visit www.indianlaw.org or www.censusdiscriminationlawsuit.com.