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Opinions | The harms of Trump’s effort to meddle with the census

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/2/2020 Mae Ngai, Rebecca Kobrin
a group of people holding a sign: Demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court building in Washington on April 23, 2019, to protest a proposal to add a citizenship question in the 2020 Census. © Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images Demonstrators rally outside the Supreme Court building in Washington on April 23, 2019, to protest a proposal to add a citizenship question in the 2020 Census.

On Monday, the Supreme Court heard a case on the Trump administration’s effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the decennial census count used to apportion congressional seats. Federal law requires the president to deliver to Congress “a statement showing the whole number of persons in each State” based on the once-a-decade census. However, President Trump is pushing for an unprecedented new approach to census tabulation “For the purpose of the reapportionment of representatives following the 2020 census … the United States [should] exclude from the apportionment base aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status” even if they usually reside within the borders of the United States and had already been counted.

Never before have people counted by the Census Bureau been purged and their presence erased. As the court weighs in on the Trump administration’s numerous efforts to reshape apportionment, it is useful to revisit 1890, when another politicized census was criticized for undercounting foreign-born residents in the United States. As the 1890 Census clearly illustrates, exclusion, incorrect counting and tabulation can have many dire long-term consequences.

Since it started in 1790, the census has had a specific purpose: to guide the apportionment of representatives in Congress and to collect data about who resides in the country. As a result, it has always taken measure of the nation’s identity because it showed who and where people lived in the country and what they did to earn a living. In fact, the empirically minded Founders saw the census as a way to ask questions and collect a wide range of data that would benefit beyond the goal of apportioning congressional seats. For example, by 1810, the census began to ask a host of questions concerning manufactured goods produced throughout the country, dividing all goods into 25 broad categories, which addressed over 220 different kinds of products. This contributed nothing to discussions of reapportionment but provided important information about economic trends, specifically the increase in manufacturing.

In the 1880s, census takers appreciated that America was at a critical turning point as the nation emerged as an industrial powerhouse fueled by an exploding immigrant population from new places, such as Southern and Eastern Europe.

The 1890 Census asked new questions of the over 60 million people living within U.S. borders, as it aimed to produce more specific demographic information about the population. New questions included “How many years has the person been in the United States?” “Was the person naturalized [as a citizen]?” and whether “the person had taken naturalization papers out?” It also included for the first time questions regarding debt and whether the home residence the enumerator was visiting was rented or had a mortgage on it. The goal was not just to document immigrants but to suggest negative comparisons between the economic conditions they lived in vs. native-born Americans.

It also deployed new technologies to process this information. As Scientific American boasted, the Census Bureau newly designed machines that used “electricity” for the speediest tabulation, and “it is estimated that the population of the world could be counted by the United States Census Bureau in 200 days.”

And yet, who was counted and the language they spoke generated tremendous political controversy. Foreign workers speaking Italian, Gaelic, Polish, Yiddish or myriad other languages lived in large cities, and were considered by some “birds of passage” as they came to the United States to work for years at a time before returning to Europe. Because they weren’t putting down roots, they did not naturalize and these people were cast by some in Congress as a threat to the American way of life.

Census enumerators purposefully undercounted the population by hundreds of thousands in an attempt to erase foreign born workers’ presence in places like New York City. Immediately, New York City legislators responded, citing the city’s October 1890 police registration, which found 1,710,715 people living in Manhattan, in contrast to census enumerators, who claimed only 1,515,301 lived there. In response to the undercount, the state launched its own census and found in 1892 over 1,801,739 people living in Manhattan, enough to allot New York City one more congressional seat.

But the federal census was not redone. Instead, administrators in New York State began to urge lawmakers to ignore the federal census, seeing this data as unreliable. For example, the New York City Health Department chose to dismiss the 1890 Census when tabulating the death rates for the city’s population, and instead used its own data from 1892.

Yet, despite the known undercount in the census, over three decades later, this faulty federal data was then used in xenophobic ways to fundamentally alter the nation. Members of Congress wishing to restrict immigration in 1920 used this data when crafting the legal baseline for calculating immigration quotas. The Immigration Restriction League, a nativist group, purposefully chose 1890 because its census misrepresented how many “Anglo-Saxons” made up the population and undercounted people of Southern and Eastern European origin.

The restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s embodied hierarchies of race and nationality and served contemporary prejudices among White Protestant Americans from northern European backgrounds and their desire to maintain social and political power. The apportionment based on the undercounted immigrant communities also shaped what was possible politically. While one more congressional seat for New York City in 1890 might not have made a difference in the 1920s, the underrepresentation of these communities compounded over the years. In short, this miscounting was also deeply undemocratic.

Census tabulations are not only important for democratic governance and the allocation of government funds. They also matter for statisticians today and in the future who will assess such things as our death rates, our public health system and our educational system.

Indeed, in a year like 2020, in which a virus has ravaged the American population, eviscerated our publish health system and wrought havoc on our economy, we need tabulations that are as reliable as possible to understand what is happening now and to understand what changes were set in motion by the events of 2020.

Today, as experts interested in urban history, architecture, immigration, big data, public health and education, we are working on a project that uses census material to tell the history of New York City. Our project mines census material to show how land use, demography and industry shifted between 1850 and 1940 as well as micro-level shifts such as on which block or in which building did individuals hailing from Germany, Sicily or Poland actually live.

The problematic undercounting and tabulation of the 1890 census makes it impossible to see a true picture of New York City and Brooklyn (two separate cities before 1897) in the decade before their merger. Who lived in New York City? How did ethnicity and race shape where people lived, learned and worked? Did African Americans actually flee the city for Brooklyn after the deadly riots of 1863? We cannot write a full account of the historical development of the City of New York because of the baked in problems with the 1890 census.

In short, although allotment is at the heart of the case at the Supreme Court, census collection and tabulations are about much more. They are about democratic participation, validating the lives of individuals actually living in this country and telling a larger story of who makes up this nation and how this story changes over time.

The 2020 Census, like all censuses, will tell a story of who we actually are as a country. Indeed, the Founders understood that allotment was not about citizenship but about presence. They believed in the enlightenment ideal that everyone counted, regardless of their status — which is why enslaved people were counted.

The Supreme Court already supported a shortsighted curtailment of this administration’s efforts to collect census data in 2020 amid an unprecedented pandemic. But it must move beyond the politics of allotment and see what is at stake, as allowing rushed tabulations before Jan. 1, 2021, will further obscure who we are as a nation. Everyone of us counts, today and in how future historians will narrate the history of 2020.


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