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Scholars: Census Gave Names to Security Agencies in WWII


The U.S. Census Bureau provided information to American surveillance agencies during World War II to identify persons of Japanese ancestry, according to William Seltzer, a senior research scholar in Fordham University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Margo Anderson, Ph.D., professor of history and urban studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who say their research confirms the bureau’s actions, despite decades of official denials.

William Seltzer, senior research scholar, Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Seltzer and Anderson say 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 say the bureau also disclosed information about other persons counted in the 1940 Census to the Federal Bureau of Investigation 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, say Seltzer and Anderson, 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 say that the bureau broke no law, since 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 succeed in its mission. Seltzer and Anderson call for the bureau to disavow its denials of the disclosures and to set the bureau’s historical record straight.

The researchers, who first wrote about the bureau’s role in the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II in 2000, will present findings from their study, “Census Confidentiality under the Second War Powers Act (1942-1947),” at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America in New York City. A copy of their paper is available on the the authors’ “Official Statistics and Statistical Confidentiality” Web page.


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