From Reconstruction To WWII, How The U.S. Census Has Been Used For Both Good And Bad

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The census taker knocked and was received by President Franklin D. Roosevelt who went on record as answering all the questions on the large sheet on April 2, 1940. (AP Photo)
The census taker knocked and was received by President Franklin D. Roosevelt who went on record as answering all the questions on the large sheet on April 2, 1940. (AP Photo)

The Supreme Court will hear opening arguments next Tuesday about whether the Trump administration can bring back a question about citizenship to the 2020 U.S. Census.

Critics say asking the question "Are you a citizen?" will lower response rates among Latino and immigrant households, a potential problem since the census determines how congressional seats are allocated and where federal funds flow. But the Trump administration has claimed it needs the data to enforce the Voting Rights Act and that past censuses have asked about citizenship before.

Throughout U.S. history, the census has been used for both good and bad. During Reconstruction, it helped enfranchise voters, but during World War II, it helped facilitate the internment of Japanese Americans.

Some say — including historians Nathan Connolly and Ed Ayers, co-hosts of the podcast "BackStory," produced at Virginia Humanities — that how the census is being used now has echoes to the past.

“We're seeing something that has a very dangerous kind of echo to other less progressive approaches to using the census,” Connolly (@ndbconnolly) tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson.

“People can see that as the federal government is deciding what categories people fit in, who actually are we? How are we defined?” says Ayers (@edward_l_ayers). “I think that everything feels like it's of a new stake of importance right now.”

Interview Highlights

On why the census was so important to the Founding Fathers, and its history of distortions

Ayers: “Well, [in a] representative democracy, you need to know exactly how many people live in every part of the country that's being represented, and so, they take for granted that every 10 years, we're going to have to go through all that expense and trouble of counting everybody.

“Not only does the Constitution create the census, but it also builds in a distortion from the very beginning. People will remember the Three-Fifths Compromise in which five enslaved people count as three in terms of population. So, the House of Representatives and the Electoral College are both kind of manufactured from the beginning by the census, by giving the South this huge advantage. The idea of the census sounds neutral in the Constitution — just count everybody — but from the very beginning, they add these distortions to it.”

On efforts to add different categories to the census and expand its use

Connolly: “There were some efforts in the early-going to try to think about what the country needed in terms of its commerce or other kinds of long-term planning, so someone like James Madison — who at the time was just a lowly Virginia congressman — is thinking about the early census in 1790 and wants to add categories on, say various arts and professions, or wants to think about properly provisioning agriculture and commerce and manufacturing, and ultimately, Madison gets overruled, and he's almost threatened with the notion that what his proposals represent is a kind of threat to the Constitution itself. But the idea was never really off the table that the census should be used as a kind of living instrument to meet a variety of economic and political needs.”

On how the 1850 census asked more questions about enslaved people than ever before, and how the census was eventually used to help enfranchise people

Ayers: “The one great continuity across the entire history of the census is that it singled out African-American people, and in 1850, they start bringing additional details now — not details such as people's actual names, but their gender and strangely whether or not the white census-taker deems them to be black or mulatto, of mixed race. Why that's something the federal government would want to know about seems bizarre, but one byproduct of that was that Americans had a far more granular understanding of just how the North and the South were diverging, and people can look at these numbers and say, 'Boy, the North really seems to be pulling ahead with all this immigration that's surging in from Ireland and Germany.' And so, the South looks at this, and there's a Southern white man named Hinton Rowan Helper, who goes over the census numbers and points out that, 'Look, non-slaveholding white people, you are the ones who are losing in all this. The slaveholders becoming rich, but look how the North's developing and you're not.' The Republican Party prints over 150,000 copies of that book and distributes all across the country right on the eve of the election of 1860. They think what this is going to do is to rouse non-slaveholding white people to vote for the Republicans. It doesn't. What it does is arouse them to be angry at the North, so the law of unintended consequences.”

Connolly: “[In] the 1870s, you begin to see for the first time concerns and questions around people whose voting rights are infringed upon, because obviously, it's in the interest of Congress to try to track who's had their voting rights impinged. ... Enumerators were given very specific instructions to look for male citizens, 21 years of age and upward, and specifically to ask the question 'Whose rights to vote were denied or abridged?' and for grounds that weren't having to do with having rebelled against the United States or having committed a crime rates — so really targeting African-Americans who were disenfranchised and thinking about how you can then use that data to basically bring about a more just voting system in the United States.”

On internment and how the census was used to take away people’s rights during World War II

Connolly: “By the time you get to the late 1930s, there are efforts coming from the FBI, certain military intelligence agencies, who were trying to basically relax the confidentiality rules around the census, and obviously there are categories that are coming in and out of consideration long before that. Of course, people are thinking about the Chinese in the 1870s. Whether or not to count Native Americans becomes a question in the late-19th century. But it really isn't until the 1940s where you have the retiring of the census director — a man named William Lane Austin, who tries to get in the way of FBI-military intelligence to keep some of the data confidential — and the arrival of a man named James Clyde Capt, and Capt really does work kind of hand-in-glove with officials in the law enforcement arm to begin to open up the possibility of basically aggregating and sharing data, and it's pretty incredible.

“You have historians in the early 2000s, who basically began to uncover the Census Bureau providing block-level information about those of Japanese ancestry living in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Arkansas, and it really does force the Census Bureau in some ways to look back on that period and apologize. And so you have in 2000 the director of the U.S. Census, Kenneth Prewitt, have to issue a public apology for the Census Department's role in tabulating figures and providing information that allowed the U.S. government to directly infringe on the lives of American citizens.”

On how the census is being used today

Connolly: “When [you] look back on the census, … you see the way in which people are encouraged obviously to respond to try to get a proper accounting of where they live and the resources that are deployed. But by virtue of these numbers, you look back and you say, 'Well, gosh, under slavery or under Reconstruction or under the Jim Crow period — just as three examples, obviously internment being another — you would want to try to find ways to get the government to at least be accurate in figuring out who needs to get what to make society more equitable.’ ”

Ayers: “The census over time of course is adapting constantly to new technologies, which allow it to be ever more invasive. It begins by people just knocking on your door and say[ing], 'Hey, who lives there?' It's a different thing than the kind of technologies that we have today.”

Connolly: “The other thing that I think is a kind of echo of the earlier period is some of the arguments being made now before the court in terms of the case coming out of New York, is that the Trump administration is trying to basically enforce voting rights, which again if you go back to the Reconstruction-era language in terms of what it meant to really try to identify disenfranchisement as a problem and not simply have a blanket notion of there being quote-unquote voter fraud or some kind of tampering with the electoral process to try to then elicit private information. There was actually a template that's available for us to think about how we really could identify voting concerns if that were what was drawing us into this debate.

“Now, we see the court now grappling with this, I mean, the lower court has been very clear in saying that there is a lot about this that feels as if there's a kind of subtext that is much more akin to older concerns about racial purity and whether or not we should be in the business of trying to police people on the basis of what we imagine America's racial purity to be.”

Cassady Rosenblum produced this interview and edited it for broadcast with Todd MundtJackson Cote adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on April 19, 2019.


Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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