Racism and the census, then and now
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.