Blogs > Cliopatria > Census Data, Ethnicity and Security

Aug 1, 2004 9:30 pm

Census Data, Ethnicity and Security

The New York Times is reporting that

The Census Bureau has provided specially tabulated population statistics on Arab-Americans to the Department of Homeland Security, including detailed information on how many people of Arab backgrounds live in certain ZIP codes.

The assistance is legal, but civil liberties groups and Arab-American advocacy organizations say it is a dangerous breach of public trust and liken it to the Census Bureau's compilation of similar information about Japanese-Americans during World War II. [for which, as the article later notes, the Bureau apologized in 2000]
The tabulations ... provided ZIP-code-level breakdowns of Arab-American populations, sorted by country of origin. The categories provided were Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Palestinian, Syrian and two general categories,"Arab/Arabic" and"Other Arab."

Christiana Halsey, a spokeswoman for Customs and Border Protection, said the requests were made to help the agency identify in which airports to post signs and pamphlets in Arabic."The information is not in any way being used for law enforcement purposes," she said."It's being used to educate the traveler. We're simply using basic demographic information to help us communicate U.S. laws and regulations to the traveling public."
Needless to say, not everyone (hardly anyone) is buying the 'signs and pamphlets' story. There's been no discussion of internment, as far as I know, and if Homeland Security is using four-year-old self-reported nationality figures in a strategic sense, they need a refresher on survey methodology. I would find it plausible, though still somewhat troubling, if they were looking for ways to refine things like the FBI 'voluntary interview' program.

I'm not going to argue that ethnicity/nationality is irrelevant. I am however, going to assert that, without a clearly and convincingly articulated purpose, the collection of this data by Homeland Security raises real questions about the thought processes going on in that agency. At the very least, they should realize that what they do is seen as symbolic, relevant, and is of great interest. So it would behoove them to think it through before doing something with such powerful historical reverberations.

Addendum: Anne Zook pointed out that the ethnicities listed don't even include most of the nationalities most strongly linked to terroristic groups (Saudi, Pakistani, Afghani, Iranian). What were they thinking? Also, check out her book reviews: Southern revisionism and Bushwhacking.

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Jonathan Dresner - 7/30/2004

Well, there is something to be said for targetting multilingual signage to the relevant populations. But I would think that the airlines and airport managers (or, perhaps, customs and immigration officials!), not census bureau, would be your first line of questioning.

There is an odd disjunction between the hyperscripted moments and the unscripted gaffes in this administration. It's probably present to some degree in any administration, but they go to so much trouble to stage-manage so much, that the unmanaged stuff looks really sloppy.

Anne Zook - 7/30/2004

I'd have to say the "signs and pamphlets" explanation smells pretty fishy. If you're posting informational and educational information in travel locations, it makes sense to put them in all locations since the people are going to be, you know, traveling to different places.

The problem with this Administration isn't that they're doing evil things. It's that they take no care to be seen to be doing right. It's the contempt for what anyone outside their inner circle thinks of their behavior that ticks me off most frequently. (And, I suspect, lends credence to the rantings of conspiracy-theorists.)

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