Periscope Depth

when seven powers failed to spin me, I had to get me seven more

I like making bold promises on my blog in the hopes that the Internet will hold me to them. This proves that you’re reading.

Anyhow, when I went off on my rant about the census, I closed with the following:

So I’ll make you a deal.

You find me an official Census statement that acknowledges the wrongdoing of prior Census staff, and I’ll fill out my own form. Show me a link on Census.gov. Show me a press release by a Census Bureau chief. Show me somewhere, in writing, where a representative of the Census said, “Yes, we aided in one of the most evil acts ever carried out on American soil: the internment of American citizens on the grounds of their ancestry, not their actions. We carried water for villains. We were wrong and we are sorry.”

And the Internet paid up. My friend Christine, with some casual research, uncovered the following statement by then Census director Kenneth Prewitt (warning: PDF):

The record is less clear whether the then in effect legal prohibitions against revealing individual data records were violated. On this question, the judicial principle of innocent until proven otherwise should be honored. However, even were it to be conclusively documented that no such violation did occur, this would not and could not excuse the abuse of human rights that resulted from the rapid provision of tabulations designed to identify where Japanese Americans lived and therefore to facilitate and accelerate the forced relocation and denial of civil rights.

I would also like to state clearly that for many years the Census Bureau was less than forthcoming in publicly acknowledging its role in the internment process. Silence was not the worst offense, for there is ample evidence that at various times the Census Bureau has described its role in such manner as to obfuscate its role in internment. Worst yet, some Census Bureau documents would lead the reader to believe that the Census Bureau behaved in a manner as to have actually protected the civil rights of Japanese Americans. This distortion of the historical record is being corrected. The internment of Japanese Americans was a sad, shameful event in American history, for which President Clinton, on behalf of the entire federal government, has forthrightly apologized. The Census Bureau joins in that apology and acknowledges its role in the internment.

On Saturday morning, a Census worker gave a long ring on my buzzer. I went downstairs and found a man named David, with broad, freckled arms, waiting in my lobby. “Oh, do you — okay, yeah, let’s do this outside,” he said, as I shouldered past him and closed the (locking) building door behind me. It was a gorgeous day out, high 80s with a slight breeze.

After showing me his Census worker badge – unprompted – he sat down on the stoop and reeled off his list of questions. I stared into the middle distance. Only resident as of April 1, 2010. Renting. Unmarried. Would describe myself as white. Checked the spelling on my first and last names.

“Phone number?” he asked. “In case the Census Bureau needs to follow up?”

I shook my head.

“You don’t have a phone?”

“I’d just as soon not give a phone number,” I said, “if it’s all the same to you.”

“Okay,” he said. He wrote “refused phone number” on the bottom of his sheet, saying it as he said it.

After double-checking the details and trying for the phone number one more time – not cajoling; I need to stress how friendly this man was – he thanked me for my time. “There’s a bunch of other people in your building who haven’t answered their Census yet,” he said. “Would it be all right if –”

“I’d just as soon not,” I said, heading back inside. “You can ask them yourselves.” I pulled the building door closed behind me.

I can’t pretend that all of my beliefs are fully rational. But I like to believe they’re pretty well informed. And the one thing I can do that makes them more rational is to set conditions that’ll change my mind. “What would it take for you to question this theory?” is a hallmark of scientific inquiry. More deeply held than my belief that the Census is a tool of ill omen (which it’s not, no more than any piece of innocent bureaucracy) is my belief that no American federal agency would ever apologize for the sins of prior administrations. I was wrong about that.

So, I’m learning.