After years of research, a Fordham University scholar and his colleague at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee have made public data that show that the U.S. Census Bureau provided information to American surveillance agencies during World War II to identify people of Japanese ancestry.
|William Seltzer, a senior research scholar in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, said that his research has found that the Census provided information to the FBI and other agencies on Japanese Americans during World War II.
Photo by Bruce Gilbert
William Seltzer, a senior research scholar in Fordham’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and Margo Anderson, Ph.D., professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said that their research confirms the bureau’s actions, despite decades of official denials.
The researchers, who first wrote in 2000 about the bureau’s role in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America on March 30.
The study drew coverage in newspapers and magazines throughout the country when it was released and prompted the American Civil Liberties Union, the Japanese American Citizens League and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to urge Congress to investigate and ensure that such practices do not occur today.
Seltzer and Anderson said the Census Bureau complied with a 1943 request by the U.S. Treasury Department for a list of all persons of Japanese ancestry in the Washington, D.C., area as recorded in the 1940 census. This information, collected under a pledge of confidentiality, was handed over in only seven days, according to the researchers, who said the bureau also disclosed information about other persons counted in the 1940 Census to the FBI as well as information about businesses and other establishments to war planning agencies, such as the Office of Emergency Management.
Whether the Census Bureau provided individually identifiable information on Japanese Americans during World War II has been a highly contested matter for decades and the controversy was reignited in 2004 when it was reported that the Census Bureau had provided zip-code level data from the 2000 census on persons of Arab American ancestry to the Department of Homeland Security.
The researchers said that the bureau broke no law because the Second War Powers Act permitted such disclosures, but the case has important implications for the upcoming 2010 census because the Census Bureau depends on public trust to get an accurate count. Seltzer and Anderson have called on the bureau to disavow its denials of the disclosures and to set the bureau’s historical record straight.
Seltzer’s Work Becomes a Work of Art
|The artwork, “Innocent Questions,” was inspired by the research of William Seltzer, a senior research scholar at Fordham.
Photo courtesy of William Seltzer
William Seltzer is the recipient of an honor few can match. Late last summer, Seltzer, a senior research scholar in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, traveled to Oslo, Norway, for the opening of the Centre for Holocaust and Minority Studies. The artwork that graced the front of the Villa Grande, the site of the museum and research center, was inspired by Seltzer’s statistical research involving genocide and human rights.
“It was quite an honor,” Seltzer said. “It’s a special honor because it’s one thing for academic groups to say you do good work, but to have an artist understand what you are doing is something rather special. I was very pleased with it.”
Seltzer, a demographer and statistician, said he had no idea Arnold Dreyblatt, an American artist living in Germany, was aware of his work. Among other things, Seltzer has served as a consultant to the International Criminal Tribunal investigating the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. He has also researched the use of population registers by the Nazis during the Holocaust, the critical role of South Africa’s population registration system and 1961 census in furthering its system of apartheid, and the U.S. Census Bureau’s involvement in the surveillance and round-up of Japanese Americans during World War II.
The artwork, “Innocent Questions,” is about 30 feet tall and made up of three layer-glass panels, the front layer containing etched glass and one of the other two equipped with light-emitting diodes. The diodes form numbers and words that might be on a punch-card recording, such as address, work history and mother’s name.
Dreyblatt has said that he focused on the “personal questionnaire” in population registration systems as the defining element that connects the Holocaust to other genocides of the 20th century.
For Seltzer, the artwork is a reminder of the use of population data systems to target vulnerable populations for human rights abuses. It is also a reminder of the power of statistical data to tell the story of human rights abuses and genocide.
“The point of the numbers,” he said, “is to document the quantitative dimension of what happened. They are useful in documenting these international human rights crimes and they also provide an understanding of how perpetrators make use of data systems.”