Author Archives: (They Got the Guns, but) We Got the Numbers
In my last post, I criticized TV news, and suggested searching for alternative text or online news sources. You can access news via phone and tablet apps, and those based on a subscription to a newspaper can be useful (I use one for my local paper). Other news apps that you think might be good give you mostly ads and junky articles, however. Apple News is a good example of this – and of my love-hate relationship in general with Apple. It claims to personalize the news in your feed and allow you to order the subjects you’re interested in, but it doesn’t, and it’s full of ads for Apple’s $9.99 a month magazine subscription service, some of which actually prevent you from reading articles. Flipboard is also problematic. I’ve decided to try Google News, Feedly, and a few more radical sites instead. P.S. To read magazines for free on your phone or tablet, see if your local library is connected with RBDigital, an app for reading magazines your library subscribes to.
Whenever I visit friends and family who watch more TV than I do, I’m re-confronted with the toxicity of network and cable news programs, even on supposedly liberal channels like MSNBC. The emphasis these shows place on toxic personalities like President Trump and Jeffrey Epstein and the all-too-common mass shootings in the US is not only depressing and disempowering, I believe it’s skewing the thought and behavior of Americans in negative directions. I think there would be fewer mass shootings, even without the strict gun control we obviously need, if the news didn’t make heroes, however negative, out of the shooters. Trump is also given way too much attention, his every lying, self-aggrandizing tweet and statement dominating the headlines and endlessly commented upon. We know by now that his statements and actions aren’t always followed by concrete action, so what’s the purpose of all this attention? Just as during the 2016 presidential campaign, it encourages him and his followers, and makes him seem like a real option for political leadership, rather than just the “star” of his own bizarre, un-reality show. The mass media have been and are allowing Trump’s surreal, insane, and completely uninformed unreality to become our reality – clearly a bad thing for our country and our individual psyches, including those of our children.
There are a lot of other things the news media could and should be focusing on: climate change; cruel, destructive, and unnecessary wars, many of them mounted or aided and abetted by the US; national and worldwide poverty caused by the corporate capitalist system and the “Washington consensus;” and uplifting news about the good things many people in the US and around the world are doing. These kinds of stories would stimulate needed discussion about national and world problems and provide a positive example for the children and teenagers exposed, even tangentially, to the mass media.
If you want a proper emphasis on what’s happening, including a lot more actual facts, you have to go a bit out of your way. I hope you will. Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now,” available on public radio, cable TV, and online at democracynow.org is one of my favorites, and her show will point you in the direction of other good sources of news and information. Stop polluting your mind and soul with ad-saturated mass media “news,” catering to the lowest common denominator because all these outlets care about is selling us their products, and get adult viewpoints featuring real potential solutions to the all-too-serious problems facing us (with no ads).
Capitalism is killing us, sending us and the rest of the natural world we depend on down the tubes, and TV news is one of its major tools. Expose yourself to alternative thinking for the good of all of us.
On 7-11-19, Glen Ford, executive editor of the Black Agenda Report, posted an article entitled “Sanders vs. the Endless Austerity Regime,” in which he cast many doubts on real change occurring as a result of the current election cycle. Let me pick it up somewhere near the middle…
“If you think this column is supportive of the Sanders candidacy, then you haven’t been reading BAR all these years,” Ford wrote. “We are socialists and Black liberationists who do commentary and analysis, and have never backed corporate parties or candidates. The Democratic Party serves its ruling class financiers, and, as one of the two parties of capitalist governance in the U.S., it will self-destruct before it bucks its corporate bosses. That’s why purported ‘socialists’ like Sanders, or the Democratic Socialists that always wind up supporting Democrats, are delusional if they think they can usurp control of the devil’s machine – or they’re trying to fool the rest of us. The ruling class isn’t scared of” Bernie’s purportedly socialist agenda, but it “will viciously resist New Deal-type reforms that threaten its austerity regime, a global Race to the Bottom that ruthlessly diminishes the living standards and economic security of the masses of people, so that they’ll accept any job, under any conditions of employment. Capitalist austerity is designed to provide working people with no options but to take what the bosses offer. Austerity regimes gut the social safety nets not to save money, but to impose abject desperation on working people, so that they’ll accept the ‘shit jobs’ that are now the norm even in the most developed capitalist countries.”
Ford says the Republican Party only has to satisfy its “rank and file whites’ only desire – that their government affirm white supremacy.” He speculates that “it would have been a great political lesson if Sanders’ momentum was such that corporate Democrats had to steal the nomination from him in broad daylight, hopefully prompting a mass exit from the party and creation of a new social democratic formation (or a much bigger Green Party).” Isn’t that what happened in 2016? “Or, if somehow Sanders won the nomination, we could all watch the corporate players pick up their marbles to form a new ‘centrist’ party, leaving leftish Democrats encamped in the hollow shell. As things stand at this early stage in the process, Sanders may simply wind up an also-ran, mobbed and co-opted by the biggest, most multi-colored crowd of Democratic politicians ever assembled for a presidential race. Dollar-drenched corporate hacks like Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have claimed to endorse Sanders’ signature Medicare for All legislation, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, once considered anathema by corporatists, is suddenly a darling of party leaders and media. The corporate strategy is to ensure that the super-majorities of Democrats that support Sanders’ issues are split among the ‘progressive’ pretenders, while Joe Biden soaks up the nervous-nellie voters that desperate to beat Trump with someone – anyone – ‘electable.’ The corporatists’ nightmare scenario, that Sanders might rev up his highly energized and youthful 2016 machine, funded by tens of millions in small-contributions, and smash his way to a first ballot victory at the convention, now seems unlikely. The corporate media have acted in near-unison to alternatively ignore or malign Sanders, often pretending he’s just not there as they fawn over his mimics, who can be counted on to retreat from corporate-opposed issues once the Bernie-bear has been contained.”
Elsewhere on the BAR website are articles detailing how Kamala Harris served the status quo and hurt black people as California’s attorney general and describing Elizabeth Warren as “decidedly to the right of Bernie Sanders on the issue of war and peace. Warren supports U.S. sanctions against Venezuela, for example, estimated to have killed over 40,000 Venezuelans between the years of 2017 to 2018. When Trump agreed to negotiate directly with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Warren called for a more aggressive posture toward the DPRK. The Massachusetts Senator proclaimed that Israel possessed the ‘right to defend itself’ during its invasion of Gaza in 2014, which killed thousands of Palestinians, including hundreds of children. Warren prides herself in fighting for a kinder capitalism but has no problem with a nasty, murderous imperialism.” Danny Haiphong, author of the article on Warren, concludes by saying that the only hope “is that the political crisis engendered by the struggle between the oligarchs and Sanders, with some help from the likes of Tulsi Gabbard and even Elizabeth Warren, will lead to the splintering of the Democratic Party and more room for independent, left political forces to breath and grow.” In another article, Haiphong says, “We should expect that Gabbard and Sanders will eventually concede to the Democrats once they’re driven from the race. Since we can’t rely on them to lead a struggle for revolutionary change from within the Democratic Party machinery, we’ll need to develop independent political organizations capable of harnessing the anger and rebellion that will surely emerge once their demise at the hands of their own party is assured.”
The corporate two-party system and its mass media don’t serve our needs, and the longer we remain focused on the dog-and-pony show of excessively long presidential campaign seasons, the longer it will take for a critical mass of us to recognize this. Like Russiagate and Mueller investigation, the presidential campaign is nothing but a distraction from the mass revolutionary movement we need to be mounting — not from the top-down, following political candidates within an unreformable system, but from the bottom up. We need to declare that the whole fake, oppressive system that now bamboozles us is illegitimate and create shadow governments and regimes we can respect and give our allegiance to.
The World Socialist website (wsws.org) can be doctrinaire, but it often gives excellent analysis of current events, as in today’s article by Barry Grey, “Image of drowned father and daughter sparks global outrage against US anti-immigrant rampage,” 6-27-19. Here’s my edited/shortened/and-added-to version of it:
The photo of a young Salvadoran worker and his 23-month-old daughter washed up on the shore of the Rio Grande has gone viral on social media and sparked world-wide outrage against the sadistic assault on immigrants being carried out by Trump, with the full assistance of the Democratic Party. The photo of Óscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter Angie Valeria, taken Monday by journalist Julia Le Duc, encapsulates the human toll of the fascistic and dictatorial policies being carried out by the Trump administration. The two victims succumbed to the powerful currents of the swollen river one day after having sought to apply for asylum, along with Oscar’s wife Tania Vanessa Avalos, at the legal port of entry between Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, Texas.
The father and his daughter were among the many thousands of Central American workers fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries, the legacy of a century of US imperialist subversion and exploitation. The young family was prevented from applying for asylum as a result of Trump’s “metering” policy, which effectively strips immigrants of their internationally guaranteed asylum rights by forcing them to wait in Mexico for weeks or months in sordid, prison-like camps. This is why the family decided to risk the dangerous river crossing. Vanessa Avalos could only watch in helpless horror from the Mexican side as her husband and daughter drowned.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a denunciation of the Trump administration, comparing the photo to the picture of the three-year-old Syrian refugee child, Aylan Kurdi, who drowned in the Mediterranean and whose body washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015. The comparison underscored the international character of the attack on immigrants being carried out by capitalist governments across Europe and elsewhere. This includes Mexico, where Mexican President Lopez Obrador has mobilized 20,000 national guardsmen to serve as Trump’s anti-immigrant enforcers on the Mexican side of the border. Commissioner Filippo Grandi said, “The deaths of Oscar and Valeria represent a failure to address the violence and desperation pushing people to take journeys of danger for the prospect of a life in safety and dignity.”
Also on the weekend, US Border Patrol agents found four bodies along the Rio Grande in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, about 55 miles west of Brownsville: one toddler, two infants, and a 20-year-old woman.
In the most recent fiscal year, there were 283 deaths across the US southern border, according to US authorities. The real toll is much higher. US border patrol agents have apprehended 664,000 people along the southern border so far this year, a 144% increase from last year. Some 14,000 unaccompanied immigrant children remain in US concentration camps.
The Democratic Party has responded to the escalating war on immigrants by voting overwhelmingly to grant Trump another $4.5 billion dollars to build more detention facilities, shore up the US military presence on the border and otherwise strengthen Gestapo-like anti-immigrant agencies such as Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On the same day the photo of Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his daughter was published, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives passed a $4.5 billion funding bill that allocates $788 million for new CBP facilities to hold asylum-seeking families and children. It provides $866 million for facilities run by the Health and Human Services Department (HHS) where unaccompanied children are sent after they are released from CBP jails. It also includes $128 million for ICE.
In the vote on the House bill, all but four voting Democrats voted “yes” (the four who voted “no” were Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib). Of the four House members who didn’t vote, three were Democratic presidential candidates – Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), Eric Swalwell (California) and Tim Ryan (Ohio), in Florida preparing for the debates. The Senate passed its $4.59 billion version of the bill on Wednesday by a bipartisan vote of 84 to 8, with eight senators not voting, and Democrats giving overwhelming support to the Trump administration. Only six Democrats voted against the bill. Seven of the eight non-voters were Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Michael Bennet, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand. The “nay” voters were Hirono D-Hawaii, Lee R-UT, Markey D-MA, Menendez D-NJ, Merkley D-OR, Paul R-KY, Van Hollen D-MD, and Wyden D-OR. The Senate bill is even more overtly repressive than the House version, including fewer restrictions on the brutalization of immigrants and an additional $145 million for US military operations on the border, a tacit legitimization of Trump’s illegal and indefinite deployment of active duty troops to aid police actions within the borders of the US.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi telephoned Trump to assure him that the House Democrats were prepared to accept most, if not all, of the Senate bill’s provisions in order to avoid a threatened presidential veto. The Democrats are eager to secure a deal before the week-long Fourth of July recess, which begins on Thursday. As the Senate was passing its bipartisan version, Pelosi told reporters, “There are some improvements that we think can be reconciled.” Democratic Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer said, “We could quickly have a conference, talk about those four changes, try to get them in the bill, finish this quickly and I hope that’s what will happen.”
The Democrats are rushing to give Trump his blood money under the absurd pretext that the measure is a “humanitarian” effort to help the children and families caught up in his anti-immigrant campaign. Last Friday, Pelosi telephoned Trump to plead with him to delay his plan to carry out deportation raids against 2,000 immigrants in cities across the US, assuring him that she would push through a border funding bill in the House. She and the rest of the Democratic Party are petrified at the prospect that such military-style raids in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities will spark mass protests and resistance that could spiral out of control. Trump agreed to wait two weeks while Pelosi and Schumer did his bidding in Congress. He also wasted no time shattering the lying pretexts about defending human rights, making clear what millions around the world already know: that he has no intention of using a penny of the money allocated by Congress to back off from his brutalization of immigrants. On the contrary, he intends to escalate the attack as a central part of his reelection campaign and the axis of his efforts to mobilize his fascistic base of support.
On Tuesday, CBP announced that it had returned 100 children to the holding facility in Clint, Texas it had evacuated the previous day after reports of squalid conditions and rampant disease aroused mass indignation. The same day, while the House Democrats were preparing to vote for the administration’s border war money, acting CBP Commissioner John Sanders resigned and Trump officials let it be known that the White House had selected acting ICE Director Mark Morgan to replace him. Morgan, who served as assistant commissioner of CBP under Obama, has made no bones about his hatred for undocumented immigrants and desire to drive them out of the country. As acting head of ICE, Morgan authored the plan for mass raids in US cities that Trump’s postponed. He spent 11 years in the Marine Corps and 20 years in the FBI, and while out of government appeared regularly on Fox News. He’s also boasted of looking into detained children’s eyes and seeing that they are “soon-to-be MS-13 gang members,” and defended far-right border vigilantes who’ve illegally detained hundreds of immigrants points and removed emergency supplies, including water, left for migrants by humanitarian groups.
According to Wikipedia, Mara Salvatrucha, popularly known as MS-13, is an international criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles, California, in the 1970s and 1980s. Originally set up to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other gangs in the Los Angeles area, over time, the gang grew into a more traditional criminal organization. The US government deported many MS-13 members to El Salvador after the close of the Salvadoran Civil War in 1992, and the gang is currently active in many parts of the continental United States, Canada, Mexico, and Central America. Most members are Central American, Salvadorans in particular. In 2018, the gang accounted for less than 1% (10,000) of total gang members in the United States (1.4 million), and a similar share of gang murders.The gang is often referenced by the Republican Party to advocate for anti-immigrant policies…This is how US policies, including propping up dictatorships in Latin America to the detriment of democratic movements, lead to suffering in those countries, resulting in increased efforts at migration. It’s called “blowback,” the classic case of which was US support for the Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union during the 1980s, which led directly to the formation of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. We should pay reparations to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala and encourage democratic governments in the area, not only for moral reasons, but so that people will be content to remain in the countries of their birth.
What are the implications of the Trump administration’s efforts to ask whether respondents to the U.S. census are citizens? Here’s an article posted on the OneZero website by Yasha Levine on 4-30-19 that might answer that question. (Short answer: great, racist, undemocratic.) Levine titled his article “The racist origins of America’s tech industry: how the tools built to conduct the U.S. census fueled Nazi genocide, internment, and state-sanctioned racism and helped usher in the digital age.” Here’s my edited version — still long, but shorter, and an essential read, I think:
The U.S. census , specifically mandated by the Constitution to take place every 10 years , is back in the news not only because the next count kicks off in 2020 but because, as it’s often been in the past, the census is a political flashpoint with inevitable racial undertones. The current controversy revolves around a plan devised by Donald Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form. On the surface, it seems like an inconsequential detail. But there’s wide agreement that adding it will have profound political implications for a decade.
Aggregated population data provided by the census is a critical component in our democratic system. Its most important function is to apportion Congressional representation for the coming decade, but it also determines the structure of the Electoral College and guides the distribution of hundreds of billions in federal spending. Objections to the addition of a citizenship question are based on concerns about undercounting. The fear, widely shared by former census officials, is that asking people for their citizenship status will push some immigrants and Latinos to avoid taking part in the census, and that large enough undercount of a specific minority or socio-economic group will skew how seats are apportioned in the House of Representatives, shifting political power and federal resources away from districts where these groups reside. The Trump administration has claimed that the citizenship question is being added for a good cause: to help the federal government enforce the Voting Rights Act and protect minorities from voter discrimination. But many immigrant advocates see the citizenship question as part of Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, put it this way: “The decision by Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to force the last-minute addition of an untested question on citizenship will result in an undercount of Latinos. While we don’t know the true motivation behind these actions, we know the impact: as a consequence of these actions, Census 2020 is on track to significantly undercount the Latino population in the United States.” Others are more direct. “Our president, the face of our federal government, which oversees the census, has based his candidacy on a deeply anti-immigrant platform,” says Betsy Plum, vice president of policy at the New York Immigration Coalition, one of the organizations trying to stop the Trump administration from adding the question. “What the citizenship question did was take a much broader fear and focus it onto the census. The risk to a place like New York’s congressional representation can’t be understated. I think the intent is to weaponize the census against immigrant communities. Places like New York and places like California are the target.”
There’s another, less discussed dimension to the issue. Based on a close reading of internal Department of Commerce documents tied to the census citizen question proposal, it appears the Trump administration wants to use the census to construct a first-of-its-kind citizenship registry for the entire U.S. population, something that arguably exceeds the census’s legal authority. “It was deep in the documentation that was released,” Robert Groves, a former Census Bureau director who headed the National Academies committee convened to investigate the 2020 census, told me. “No one picked up on it much. But the term ‘registry’ in our world means not a collection of data for statistical purposes but rather to know the identity of particular people in order to use that knowledge to affect their lives.” Given the administration’s posture toward immigration, the fact that it wants to build a comprehensive citizenship database is highly concerning. To Groves, it clearly signals “a line being crossed.”
Multiple states have challenged the Trump administration’s plans, and their lawsuits are headed to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear the case in April. Meanwhile, at an oversight hearing in March, Democratic U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez dug into Wilbur Ross, Trump’s multi-millionaire Secretary of Commerce, who oversees the U.S Census Bureau. She accused him of conspiring with nativists and white supremacists to add the citizenship question and of overstepping his authority. “Why,” she wanted to know, “are we violating law to include this question?”
Whatever the courts decide, the latest debate over the census is hardly new. For most of its history, the census , and the constitutionally mandated government bureaucracy that carries it out , has been intertwined with nativism, bigotry, and fear of “the other.” The dark and ugly history of the census makes it a uniquely telling weathervane of race politics in America. That development of technology to conduct the census simultaneously played a central role in the history of the computer age more than 130 years ago makes it doubly relevant, offering a glimpse into how computers, surveillance, and racist government policies have been linked from the very beginning.
Governments have been counting their people since the beginning of recorded history. You can find descriptions of censuses in the Old Testament, on Sumerian cuneiform tablets, and in the writings of the ancient Greeks. There were censuses in pre-modern Europe, and most American colonies kept population records. Governments counted people for two main reasons: raising state revenue and waging war. They needed to know who and what to tax, and they needed to know how many fighting-age men could be mobilized. It was the U.S. Constitution that added a third and novel reason for counting people: representational democracy.
When the drafters of the U.S. government’s founding set of principles met in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the first things they hammered out was a clause mandating that the population be counted every 10 years. This directive for a decennial census appears up at the top of the Constitution, long before the document gets around to laying out the structure of the government. To the framers of the Constitution, the census came first because it determined taxation and the balance of congressional political power. Under the Constitution, the number of seats in the House of Representatives apportioned to each state would be based on population, which meant the government needed to know the precise number of people living in each state.
The first census took place in 1790 and was overseen by Thomas Jefferson, then serving as Secretary of State. Mostly a straightforward head count designed to meet the constitutional mandate, it was expected to take no more than nine months to complete. But despite its simplicity and our nation’s tiny population, it took nearly two years to fully tabulate. And it only got worse from there. With every passing decade, the census took longer to complete. It was filled with errors and undercounts, which led to accusations that the data was being manipulated for political ends. By the end of the 1800s, the bureaucratic problem had become untenable: The census was taking nearly 10 years to complete, meaning the results were outdated well before they came in.
When the first census was carried out, there were 3.9 million people living in 13 states. By 1890, the U.S. encompassed 42 states and had a population of 63 million , having increased by more than 16 times over a century. Never before had a country grown so fast. Still doing their work the old-fashioned way , with pen and paper , census workers struggled to keep up. Meanwhile, on top of having to enumerate a rapidly growing population, government officials began to cram the census with more and more questions: about occupations, literacy levels, criminal histories, medical conditions, home ownership, economic trends, and a whole lot of probing about people’s race and immigration status. As the 19th century drew to a close, census officials had started transforming what should have been a simple head count into a system of racial surveillance. Slavery had been abolished, allowing millions of blacks to move, attempt to take charge of their own destinies, and play a role in the country’s political life. Immigration was also making itself felt. Well into the 19th century, free immigration into the U.S. had been largely dominated by English settlers. But starting in the 1850s, that pattern began changing drastically. Millions of Irish peasants streamed into the country to escape the potato famine that killed over one million people. Millions more were fleeing the crushing poverty of southern Italy and the eastern territories of the Russian Empire. Chinese laborers were arriving on the West Coast en masseto build U.S. railroads. This influx was a boon to an emerging industrial oligarchy, a source of never-ending cheap labor. But it was also a source of political instability. Widespread inequality and exploitation led to massively popular movements for change. There were labor protests and strikes, a populist movement, and a nationwide self-help organization created by poor farmers. Socialist and anarchist ideas achieved broad adherence. Black civil rights activism emerged. America’s political establishment looked on this instability, social unrest, and change with horror. They saw the masses of free blacks and Chinese, Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants , with their tattered clothes, alien languages, unnatural religions, and demands for better treatment and political rights , as a threat.
Grasping for solutions, many settled on various strains of race science quackery. So-called social Darwinists relied on a twisted version of the theory of evolution to explain why the poor and marginalized should remain that way while the wealthy and successful should rule unchallenged. Taking this notion a step further, adherents of eugenics fervently believed that naturally superior Anglo-Americans were on the verge of being wiped out due to the high birth rates of “degenerate” and immigrant stock. To head off this threat, they advocated strict controls on reproduction , breeding humans for quality in the same way that farmers did cows and horses. These weren’t fringe ideas; they were firmly embraced by the American cultural and political mainstream. From future presidents like Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, and Calvin Coolidge to robber barons like J.P. Morgan and Leland Stanford to writers like H.G. Wells and progressive activists like Margaret Sanger, eugenics was all the rage. In the first decades of the 20th century, 32 states passed sterilization laws to deal with the threat of genetic degradation , laws that were upheld by the Supreme Court. And few worried more about the threat of genetic degradation than the officials at the U.S. Census Bureau.
Born into a wealthy Boston family, Francis A. Walker served in the Civil War as a general, dabbled in journalism, and ultimately made a name for himself as an influential Progressive Era economist and statistician who would later become president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As a professional economist, Walker had a keen interest in the nation’s changing demographics , and he was horrified by what he saw. Like most upper-class Americans at the time, Walker believed that the country’s original English colonists had evolved to be the most superior race on the planet , superior even to the original English race from which they sprang. To him, Anglo-Americans stood on the pinnacle of the world’s race pyramid. He and his people were “as far ahead of the English as the English were ahead of any other branch of the Teutonic race, which was in turn far ahead of the Slavs or the Celts,” he wrote. He believed that the influx of poor immigrants from Ireland and Italy as well as Jews and Slavs from Eastern Europe was diluting the United States’ superior racial stock and threatening to drag American genetic superiority back into a cesspool of degradation and decline. He blamed these immigrants , “vast hordes of brutalized peasants,” for the social and political unrest happening around him. He not only pushed to restrict immigration in order to prevent what he viewed as Anglo-American “race suicide,” he also advocated forced sterilization. “We must strain out of the blood of the race more of the taint inherited from a bad and vicious past,” he wrote. “The scientific treatment which is applied to physical diseases must be extended to mental and moral disease, and a wholesome surgery and cautery must be enforced by the whole power of the state for the good of all.” In addition to his other contributions to U.S. life, Walker served as superintendent of both the 1870 and 1880 U.S. Census.
The census had been a racial instrument from its inception, beginning with the original constitutional clause that instructed census officials to count black slaves separately from whites and to assign them a value of three-fifths of a person. With each decade, new “racial” categories were invented and added to the mix: “free colored males and females” and “mulatto” were counted, including subdivisions like “quadroon” and “octoroon.” Categories for Chinese, “Hindoo,” and Japanese were added, as were “foreign” and “native born” designations for whites. The census slowly expanded to collect other demographic data, including literacy levels, unemployment statistics, and medical ailments, such as those who were “deaf, dumb, and blind” and the “insane and idiotic.” All of it was broken down by race. Most of these questions, included in a haphazard fashion, were overtly political, added in response to whatever racial fear gripped the national ruling elite at the time. A racial category for Chinese was added after railroad companies began importing cheap, exploitable laborers from China, for example; and categories for “mulatto” came after the abolition of slavery caused a panic about racial mixing.
To Walker, these early efforts didn’t go far enough. As an economist and statistician, he wanted to collect and process more data and to professionalize and standardize the effort. He wanted it to be a proper, scientific “national inventory,” not a haphazard collection of facts. But his dreams kept running up against a hard limit: technology. The census was still counted and analyzed by hand, and the work was slow and limited, with sophisticated analysis next to impossible. What it needed was a talented inventor, someone young and ambitious who’d be able to come up with a method to automate tabulation and data analysis. Someone like Herman Hollerith. In 1879, when he graduated from the Columbia School of Mines with a degree in engineering, he was recruited to help compile economic statistics for the 1880 census, being run by Walker. Having invented the punch card system, he kept tinkering with it, and before long, he came up with a design that separated the enumeration process into parts. The first involved converting data into a format that could be read by a machine. This he accomplished by punching holes on a piece of paper. The second step involved processing the data. This was accomplished by feeding the paper through a machine that, through a combination of pins and dials, read the number and position of the holes. At first, Hollerith experimented with using a continuous strip of paper like the recent invention of ticker tape, which was widely used to transmit stock prices via telegraph. But he wasn’t happy with the results. “The trouble was that if, for example, you wanted statistics regarding Chinamen, you’d have to run miles of paper to count a few Chinamen,” Hollerith explained in a letter. Race was never far from his mind when working on his contraption. He eventually hit upon a better idea: Each person would be represented by their own punch card , an idea he picked up while taking a train. “I was traveling in the West and I had a ticket with what I think was called a punch photograph. The conductor punched out a description of the individual, as light hair, dark eyes, large nose, etc.,” he explained, noting that he’d simply done the same thing.
In March 1890, Hollerith’s machines were installed in a building not far from the White House that became the bustling headquarters of the 11thcensus. Hundreds of clerks worked around the clock in shifts, taking raw census data collected in the field and transferring it onto cards using specially designed hole punch machines, then passing the cards to another set of clerks who worked the tabulators and sorters. Hollerith’s machines clanked away day and night, with clerks crammed together like sweatshop workers. It took four years to finish and release the reports, an amazing improvement over the previous census, which took nearly a decade.
The 1890 census contained 35 questions, 10 more than the previous census, on a whole range of data: literacy levels, sizes of household, professions, the value of a family’s property, and whether they rented or owned. Perhaps most important was the racial dimension. The census collected stats on native and foreign-born Americans and broke them into multiple racial categories: white, colored, Chinese, Japanese, and “civilized Indian” (i.e., a Native American no longer living in a tribal society). It was the first census to include a complete count of Native Americans living on tribal lands. It asked for data on unemployment history, fertility rates, citizenship status, criminal history, literacy, and English language proficiency.
It wasn’t just the speed that set Hollerith’s invention apart. It was its ability to mine and sift through data and even combine multiple data points. Such fine-grained analysis on a mass scale was completely unprecedented, and it made Hollerith’s machines an immediate hit with the United States’ race-obsessed political class.
Robert Porter, head of the 1890 census, who’d overseen the adoption of Hollerith’s tabulator machines, was deeply impressed by their power to sort immigrant and non-white populations based on numerous demographic variables. He was particularly pleased about being able to analyze the three things most feared by the “race suicide” crowd: immigration rates, immigrant fertility rates, and mixed race marriages (or what the census called the “conjugal condition”), all of which could be broken down by age, race, literacy levels, and naturalization status. Overnight, Hollerith’s tabulator technology had transformed census taking from a simple head count into something that looked very much like a crude form of mass surveillance. The data seemed to confirm the nativists’ worst fears: Poor, illiterate immigrants were swarming America’s cities, and outstripping native Anglo-American birth rates.
Immediately following the census, the states and the federal government passed a flurry of laws that heavily restricted immigration. It started with the Immigration Act of 1891, which set up the first federal agency to oversee immigration and border control and turned an unused island on the southern tip of Manhattan into an elaborate screening center for immigrants. It continued through the passage of a half-dozen major immigration bills, including one that stripped women of U.S. citizenship if they married non-naturalized foreigners. The culmination was the Immigration Act of 1924 that introduced race immigration quotas. This suite of laws gave immigration officials the power to ban just about anyone, including mental and physical ‘defectives,’ anarchists and socialists, most of Asians, and many Middle Easterners and eastern Russians. Immigration rates plunged.
Venture capitalist Charles Flint bought out Hollerith, combined his company with several other businesses that made precision mechanical contraptions ( clocks, cash registers, coffee grinders, and butcher scales ) to create a computational monopoly and handed this new conglomerate over to Thomas J. Watson, an ambitious young executive. Watson then ruthlessly leveraged the Hollerith’s’s computer technology to crush competition and establish a global monopoly in the early computation market. The result was International Business Machines (IBM), founded in 1911. Installed in factories, corporate offices, and city and military bureaucracies, IBM’s tabulator computers not only sped up accounting but greatly reduced labor costs. Businesses and local and federal government agencies ordered Hollerith machines by the truckload. Insurance companies relied on them for accounting and calculating actuary tables. Railroads used them to route freight and work out schedules. At one railroad company, a single Hollerith machine operated by two people replaced the full time work of 20 clerks.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935, creating America’s first old-age pension program. The Social Security Act brought about a massive need for accounting and data processing for both businesses and the federal government. Businesses suddenly had to keep meticulous records on their employees. They needed to track salaries and Social Security contributions and file that information with the federal government. The government, in turn, had to process all that data. It needed to monitor contributions to each individual Social Security account over the lifetime of each individual. And then, when they hit retirement age, it had to cut monthly checks to millions of Americans. As soon as the legislation passed, businesses queued up at IBM to get the proper tabulator payroll systems to meet federal accounting requirements. IBM also won the contract to oversee accounting for the Social Security Administration, beating out competitors like Remington Rand. It was the only computer company at the time that had the experience and production capacity to undertake a project of that size. As one official IBM history put it, “the Social Security project catapulted IBM from a midsize corporation to the global leader in information technology.”
Naturally, the military was a big fan of the technology. In peacetime, the Department of War used the machines to keep track of enlistment data and track military pensions. When the U.S. entered the war, IBM’s Hollerith tech became a vital part of the Allied military effort. Hollerith machines were involved in almost every part of the war, from designing the atomic bomb to managing troop deployment. Special “portable” IBM machines installed on trucks landed with U.S. troops in Normandy, Tunisia, Sicily, and Italy. They were used on the home front as well. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S Census Bureau hauled out the punch cards from the 1940 census and reprocessed them to produce block-by-block population lists on Japanese-Americans in a half-dozen states, including California. Ultimately 130,000 Japanese-Americans were forced to move to concentration camps.
Hollerith tabulators were a big hit all over the world. But one country was particularly enamored with them: Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler came to power on the back of the economic devastation following Germany’s defeat in World War I. To Hitler, however, the problem plaguing Germany wasn’t economic or political. It was racial. The reason Germany had fallen so far, he argued, was its failure to tend to its racial purity. There were only about a half-million Jews in Germany in 1933 , less than 1% of the population , but he singled them out as the root cause of all of the nation’s problems. Hitler and the Nazis drew much of their inspiration from the U.S. eugenics movement and the system of institutional racism that had arisen in slavery’s wake. Their solution was to isolate the so-called mongrels, then continuously monitor the racial purity of the German people to keep the volkfree of further contamination.
IBM’s German subsidiary landed its first major contract the same year Hitler became chancellor. The 1933 Nazi census was pushed through by Hitler as an emergency genetic stock-taking of the German people. Along with numerous other data points, the census focused on collecting fertility data for German women , particularly women of good Aryan stock. Also included in the census was a special count of religiously observant Jews. Nazi officials wanted the entire count, estimated to be about 65 million people, to be done in just four months. It was a monumental task, and German IBM officials worked around the clock to finish it. Hundreds of female clerks worked in rotating seven-hour shifts 24 hours a day in a giant Berlin warehouse.
As Hitler’s Nazi Party tightened its grip on Germany, it launched all sorts of additional data-gathering programs to purify the German nation. And IBM helped them do it. “The precondition for every deportation was accurate knowledge of how many Jews in a particular district fitted the racial and demographic descriptions in Berlin’s quotas,” write David Martin Luebke and Sybil Milton in Locating the Victim, a study of Nazi use of the tabulator machines. “Armed with these data,” they said, “the Gestapo often proved able to anticipate with remarkable accuracy the total number of deportees for each racial, status, and age category.”
Germany’s vast state bureaucracy and its military and rearmament programs, including the country’s growing concentration camp/slave labor system, also required data processing services. By the time the U.S. officially entered the war in 1941, IBM’s German subsidiary had grown to employ 10,000 people and served 300 different German government agencies, including the Nazi Party Treasury; the SS; the War Ministry; the Reichsbank; the Reichspost; the Armaments Ministry; the Navy, Army and Air Force; and the Reich Statistical Office.
This history reveals an uncomfortable and fundamental truth about computer technology. “The Third Reich opened startling statistical venues for Hollerith machines, perhaps never before imagined,” wrote Edwin Black in IBM and the Holocaust, his pioneering 2001 exposé of the forgotten business ties between IBM and Nazi Germany. “In Hitler’s Germany, the statistical and census community, overrun with doctrinaire Nazis, publicly boasted about the new demographic breakthroughs their equipment would achieve.” (IBM has criticized Black’s reporting methods, and has said that its German subsidiary largely came under Nazi control before and during the war.)
Demand for Hollerith tabulators was so robust that IBM was forced to open a new factory in Berlin to crank out all the new machines. At the facility’s christening ceremony, which was attended by a top U.S. IBM executive and the elite of the Nazi Party, the head of IBM’s German subsidiary gave a rousing speech about the important role that Hollerith tabulators played in Hitler’s drive to purify Germany and cleanse it of inferior racial stock.
On the surface, it may seem like the story of Herman Hollerith and the U.S. census are historical relics, an echo from a bygone era. But this history reveals an uncomfortable and fundamental truth about computer technology. We can thank nativism and the census for helping to bring the computer age into existence. And as the battle over the 2020 census makes clear, the drive to tally up our neighbors, to sort them into categories and turn them into statistics, still carries the seed of our own dehumanization.