counting and not being counted

Last Friday the Census Bureau released the 1950 dataset, after the mandated 72-year quiet period. Because artificial intelligence applied optical character recognition to these hand-written documents, it’s now possible to search for people with simple text strings. Although the OCR is imperfect, it was good enough for me to locate my father-in-law. He was 5 years old when his family was surveyed; his younger brother had also been born, but not his sister yet. I also tracked down the record of his paternal grandfather and uncle. Unfortunately, I could not find my mother-in-law.

As for blood relations, my own ancestors weren’t in the States until later, when my parents independently immigrated from the Philippines, being the pioneers of their respective families. My dad arrived in Albany (New York) in 1959, and would have been counted in Paramus in 1960. My mom arrived in St. Louis in 1962; for the 1970 Census, she would have been in the Bronx, married, with three children. It’s amazing how much life can change between censuses.

Soon after World War II, the Philippines had become its own nation. However, during the 1940 Census, it was part of the concealed empire of the United States. As Daniel Immerwahr states in How to Hide an Empireabout 131 million citizens lived in the US mainland (that is, the extant 48 states), while nearly 19 million people lived in Alaska, Hawai’i, Puerto Rico, other territories, and especially (more than 16 million) in the Philippines. When my parents were young adults, they were among the more than 1 out of every 8 people who were colonial subjects of the United States. In Immerwahr’s words: If you lived in the United States on the eve of World War II, … you were more likely to be colonized than black, by odds of three to two. This map from his book shows the size and extent of the land held by the American empire at that time:

Greater United States

Although millions of Filipino subjects in overseas territory were not counted in the 1940 Census, the category of “Filipino” was one of the races listed, along with White, Negro, American Indian, Japanese, Chinese, and “Other race — spell out”. There are so many other historical artifacts in this brief survey: the head of household is assumed to be male, his spouse is female, there are two genders, etc. And under “What kind of work was he doing?” there are five examples: Nails heels on shoes (?!), Chemistry professor, Farmer, Farm helper, and Armed forces. What a strange set of occupations; overall, what a parochial national self-vision.

The questions we are asked, and those we are not asked. The types of answers we are permitted to provide, and those we cannot give. How much has really changed in the last 72 years? The truth is silent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *