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Matthew Frye Jacobson Interview

Matthew Frye Jacobson is an Associate Professor of American Studies and History at Yale University. 

He is the author of Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and The Alchemy of Race and Barbarian Virtues: The U.S. Encounters Foreign Peoples at Home and Abroad 1876-1917.

Matthew Frye Jacobson

New River Media Interview with: Matthew Frye Jacobson Associate Professor of American Studies and History 
Author, Barbarian Virtues 

QUESTION: Please characterize the prevailing ideas of race around 1900. 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: We tend to think of race in this country almost entirely in binary terms of black and white. And then, if pressed, most Americans will move to a spectrum, also based on color, of maybe five large groups. But at the turn of the century, there were upwards of 36 races in some schemes, 75 in other schemes, and the largest [number of distinctions] being within what we now think of as being one white race: [namely] the distinctions between Anglo-Saxons, who uniformly were at the top of the white hierarchy, on the one hand, and then [other white] groups like Celts, Slavs, Hebrews, Mediterraneans, groups we now think of in terms of ethnicity, or culture-based groupings. 

But at the time, the distinctions that people were implying by that phraseology - Celt or Hebrew - that was a level of difference that ran far deeper than modern distinctions of ethnicity. So when they talked about the Hebrew race or the Celtic race or the Slavic race, they really did mean race in the way that we tend to mean race when we use it a century later; that is, as a kind of biological, heritable package of traits of one sort or another. 

[Within] the hierarchies themselves, although they vary, there's a three-tiered scheme that distinguished Nordic from Alpines and Mediterraneans. Then there were some much finer kinds of schemes that would have thirty-six or so or forty races from Europe, some tags that at least are words that we've heard, like Hebrew or Celt, although it's a different meaning than we tend to think of now. Others of these distinctions are words that have just totally disappeared from the language, just as the visual distinction that one might make by looking upon a face has also just dissolved. It has no more meaning in the late twentieth century. 

QUESTION: How would this scheme of race be influenced by the wave of immigrants coming to America between 1880 and 1920? 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: One of the long-term inheritances of this period is this notion that American democracy isn't just for any chance comers; that in the phraseology of the time, there is such a thing as fitness or unfitness for self-government. And that's written into our political culture very deeply, as early as 1790. The very first naturalization law says that only those who are "free white persons" can become naturalized citizens. 

Now, that had two incredible consequences, that phraseology, free white person. On the one hand, it laid the way for millions of people from Europe to get in as free white persons. But these were not at all the people who the law's framers had in mind. In fact, they were precisely the kind of people [about whom] the American inhabitants of the late nineteenth century started to wonder, "Well, how white are they? Are they really white? Are they fit for self-government? They certainly don't seem to be." 

And what you start to see in the latter half of the nineteenth century is a fracturing of that idea of a unified whiteness, and [instead] a series of finer distinctions made between Anglo-Saxons, on the one hand, and for example Celts in the 1850s and after, who were the first group of free white persons who dragged themselves ashore in the numbers that seem to sort of raise political questions for the fate of the republic. Later in the century, especially eastern and southern Europeans, were known as Hebrews, Slavs, Mediterraneans - the people now who are the so-called white ethnics, [namely] Jews, Italians, Poles. 

QUESTION: How were these so-called "races" considered biologically separate? 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: [People at the time saw] the distinctions as quite visible, and one of the important things is that they [appeared so] to people on both sides of the divide. It isn't just the case that a bunch of people who called themselves Anglo-Saxons were tarring other people whom they called the Hebrews or Celts as inferior. In fact, many of the groups coming ashore, for reasons of their own, and embedded in their own histories, had biologized or racialized senses of self as well. 

[Thus] the long history of Saxon oppression against the imperiled Celts in Ireland comes ashore with the Irish, so that the notion of a Celtic identity has meaning to the Irish as well as for the Anglo-Saxon old-guard. Similarly, the idea of racial Jewishness had tremendous meaning for a generation of immigrants, especially Russian intellectuals who felt themselves Jewish for particular political and social reasons, both Old and New World, but who had no real connection to the religion. And race became one of the idioms that was very important for building Zionism on both sides of the Atlantic in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. 

On the other hand, you have long-time residents in the United States, people who think of themselves as Anglo-Saxons, who think of themselves as being incredibly distant socially and biologically from these newly-arrived immigrants. And as the debate over the immigration policy heats up, they almost naturally seize on some of the social-scientific and biological scholarly work that is focusing on things like cranial capacity, physiognomy, stature, measurable kinds of characteristics that will go along with this package of presumed social or political traits. 

QUESTION: What were some of the racial stereotypes that emerged from these so-called "scientific" studies? 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: In a number of scholarly disciplines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, not only was race becoming central to the notion of how to think about the world's peoples, but race itself was being measured. It was thought to be measurable in various ways. So you get biologists who are interested in things like cranial capacity or bodily form, or ultimately the genes. You've got psychiatrists or psychometrists, as they were called at the time, who are interested in measuring intelligence, and a standardized test would measure the innate capacity of not just the individual but an entire people. 

So some of the current notions of who a different people was over-determined by this kind of attention on the part of various disciplines, so that the Pole is notoriously kind of sluggish but also steadfast and plodding, a hard worker. The Jew is sneaky perhaps, cunning, too cunning, and clannish. The Italian is notoriously quicker-tempered, even dangerous. And these are things that you'll find in a cool kind of scientific language. 

In some places you'll find it in much more heated language than others. You see horrific kinds of political cartooning of these various types that match a kind of visual and unmistakable visuality of a group with the parcel of traits that are presumed to go along with it. So, you know, Harper's magazine, for example, runs in the 1880s an engraving of a scene in which an Italian is beating an eight-year-old child because the child hasn't brought home as much money from a day of, you know, playing the accordion as expected. And the brutality of the scene is matched by the physicality of Italianness that's being depicted there. 

So there's a real meshing of the idea of physicality and unmistakable kind of physical, biological identify, a meshing of that with the supposed character traits that go along with it. And these are things that are kind of multiplied across the spectrum from the popular press to the scientific treatises, and even school-books. In a primer for children in 1907, one of the exam questions is, "Name a civilization which is low, and explain why it is low." So this notion of not only recognizing difference but then ranging it into some kind of hierarchical order is, in some ways, the business of the day in several disciplines, and certainly in political discourse as well. 

QUESTION: How did the anthropologist Franz Boas respond to this kind of thinking? 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: In the 1890s and into the 1910's, Boas was beginning to formulate and ultimately launch an assault on some of the most powerful and most widely accepted ideas of the hereditarians; that is, the folks who thought that all human capacity and human traits could be traced down through lineage; in other words, it was innate. It was unchangeable. 

And the assault that he launched was really two-pronged. First, in the 1890s, he began to question some of the hierarchical ordering that scholars in various disciplines were making, based largely on evolutionist thought. One of the ironies of this history is that when evolutionism, as a way of thinking and a way of analyzing humanity, when it first emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, in some ways it was an intervention in a debate on the side of what you might think would be the less racialized or racist view of groups and group-hood. 

I mean, in the 1850s there was this debate over whether humanity is one or whether the differences among humans are traceable to different points of origin. And evolutionism at first seems to solve the question in favor of human unity. It says, well, whatever difference there is, is based on different trajectories that have been traced out from a single site of creation. 

But by the end of the century, that part of it, its softer edges had almost disappeared, because what evolutionist thought did was it set up a scale that, while it did away with the idea of innate quality, it set up a scale of presumed progression from point A to point B all the way through to point Z, in such a way that it became very easy for people to assume not only that groups will pass through the same stages but that some groups have obviously passed through more of those stages and have gotten further along that trajectory that humanity is on, such that if the distinctions aren't innate, that's actually a moot point because the distinctions are so great. 

So one of the ironic inheritances of the latter nineteenth century from evolutionist thought is that, well, yes, in fact, there is this hierarchy that is so entrenched in human development that it's unlikely to change at all. And that's the first place that Boas starts his line of questioning. He starts to wonder, first of all, whether there's a real kind of ethnocentrism in the way that the questions are being posed and the answers are being sought. 

And he also starts to wonder about some of the results themselves, even taken on their own terms. He starts to wonder, "Well, if we're seeing this cultural trait among this people and this cultural trait among this people, why should we assume that one is an imperfect version of the other?" which is the basis of hierarchy on the evolutionist scale. He starts to say, "Well, maybe those two developments are completely detached from each other and that evolutionists are misreading their own data in such a way as to create hierarchy where actually that's not at all what's going on." That's the first [prong]. 

And the second prong of his attack on this whole way of thinking was a much more forceful attack on the hereditarian argument, particularly in the 1910s, when he starts to look at the changes, the bodily changes, the physical changes that immigrant groups undergo once they're in the United States. And this is the most radical kind of protest against some of the hereditarian presumptions, and it's the most radical kind of environmentalist argument to set in opposition. 

He's saying, "You know, you're saying that Hebrews or Mediterraneans or Celts, or whoever they are, are so innately Hebrew, Mediterranean or Celtic that they're never going to change; they'll never be anything else. And yet, right here in front of our very eyes, right here on American soil, just looking from one generation to the next, we can see all kinds of bodily changes and facial changes that point to something else in the development of these peoples than the hereditarians are willing to take into consideration." 

QUESTION: What are the important findings of Boas' work for the Dillingham Commission? 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: Boas does a study of his own. He does very precise measurements of bodily form in various ways to determine that while the hereditarians are arguing that so innate are racial differences that they will never change - once a Celt, always a Celt. Boas is now saying, "Well, if we measure a difference from one generation to the next, right here on American soil we have proof that that hereditarian argument is mistaken. In fact, we see tremendous changes, and we can measure them between the Celts of yesteryear and the American-born Celt." 

And so he's launching the most radical kind of critique of hereditarianism, and it's the most radical kind of environmentalist argument one could make at the time. And the study itself is included in the Dillingham Commission report [1911], that voluminous report on immigration that Congress puts together. But his presence there really does not have much impact certainly on congressional debate and certainly not on popular kind of street-level political discussion. His environmentalist argument about race and types really kind of falls by the wayside. 

QUESTION: Was scientific racism a new phenomemon? 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: This kind of what we might call scientific racism of the period is nothing new at all. In fact, one might argue that science is what made race to be race in the first place, going all the way back to the late eigthteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Science, with at least the presumption of precision, with its weightiness, with its authority as a kind of regime of knowledge: it's the piece that makes observable differences, whether they're physical or whatever, between peoples - science is what creates this distinction, and has the kind of social power that race ultimately does. 

So, scientific racism isn't new at the turn of the century or on into the 1910's, but what is new is the range of sciences now that are organizing themselves around the race concept and are actively and feverishly, one might say, investigating race in various ways. What is new in this period is, the number of sciences involved and the kind of feverishness of activity across the scientific branches around the race question and the race concept. So psychology and biology and the rising science of genetics and the social sciences, historiography; there are just so many disciplines that are organized and are rapidly organizing themselves around an investigation of race that, in that sense, it's a new period. 

It's a new period also in the level of influence that science is having on policy debates and on policy itself. And that really comes to fruition in the debates over the 1924 [immigration] restrictive legislation, where eugenicists and their arguments about thinking about immigration, not in terms of laborers coming in to do the work of the nation but in terms of seed stocks coming in to generate and procreate the next Americans, that's the kind of thinking that really carries the day in those debates, and that's a degree of influence that perhaps the sciences have never had before. 

So, you have all these sciences now responding to the social conditions of the day, not just immigration, although that was a big one, but also urbanization, the move from countryside to city, new levels of urban distress and new kinds of social problems that the nation hadn't faced as being so central to national character. I mean, now, you know, at the turn of the century and after, there's no question this is no longer Thomas Jefferson's country of yeoman farmers. This is an industrial republic, whatever that means. And as people look around, they start to see some of what that means, that there are going to be slums, there are going to be undesirable types, however you want to define that and however you want to understand their undesirableness. 

So, the ways in which what you might think as the kind of cool logic of science, on the one hand, and heated political discussion, on the other, one of the ways that those two things come together - and you can see it - is in the immigration question and the debate over it. And there are incredible linkages between the Immigration Restriction League, which is kind of formed by the Harvard class of 1889, it turns out, and comes into existence as a formal organization in 1894. They become the most vocal political group around the immigration question. In the 1890s, they have what you might call kind of proto-eugenist idea about ranking Celts and Slavs and Hebrews against Anglo-Saxons. 

QUESTION: Talk about the period in which eugenics kind of starts to come into its own and some of the specifics on it. 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: In this country, eugenics really starts to come into its own right after the turn of the century, particularly with the establishment of the Eugenics Research Center in Cold Springs Harbor on Long Island. A Chicago biologist named Charles Davenport is given a lot of money from the Carnegie Foundation to do eugenic research and genetic research. And that gives what had been a kind of vague intellectual movement; that gives it a kind of infrastructure. It gives it a place. It gives it some money. It gives it some laboratories. It gives it a name. It kind of becomes a focal point for eugenicists of every walk of life to kind of get into the picture and treat eugenics, this idea of biologically engineering society, as a serious idea and an idea that is not only practicable but is a good one. 

[For] Davenport, immigration represents the importation into the country of genetic material that is unalterable, and it's also readable. You can read racial character. You can see it. You can measure it. You can define it. And ultimately, if you understand it well enough, you can use those ideas for breeding a better society or, you know, keeping procreation down among certain elements of the population who aren't desirable. And ultimately, of course, you can also use it in deciding who should be able to come into the country and become a naturalized citizen. 

And ultimately that not only is the spirit of thought that carries the day in the debates in the '10s over immigration and restriction, but it's the same folks; it's the same people. You know, Davenport has connections with some of the people who are involved in intelligence testing, people like H. H. Goddard, who does intelligence testing on Ellis Island and determines, from a psychological or an intelligence point of view, that certain races are undesirable. 

They have ties with other people who will later become very important in congressional debates, people like Madison Grant, who perhaps doesn't have the kind of formal training as some of the scientists like Davenport but is very prolific. He's very interested in the question and he gets a very high profile. Another person who testifies before Congress is Harry Laughlin, who cuts his eugenic teeth, as it were, as one of the researchers at the Cold Spring Harbor station. 

So there's a lot of traffic, not only in ideas in this period between eugenics as a rising science and policymakers in Washington, but there's actual physical traffic among people who become friends, who have various connections, who are related in one way or another with the project at Cold Spring Harbor and then who show up to testify before Congress years later, with very much the same kind of arguments in mind. It's important that this was not a strict consensus. These ideas did not go unchallenged, and some of the fights on the floor of Congress were actually quite vocal and quite bitter over this question. 

QUESTION: What about the rise of the idea that intelligence is measurable? 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: In the area of intelligence, the two key figures in the United States are H. H. Goddard, who brings Binet to the United States and introduces the idea on this side of the Atlantic that intelligence is measurable, and not only that it's measurable but that it can be used in a practical way in social policy and the like. And the other is Lewis Terman from Stanford, who really popularizes Binet's thinking, first at the World's Fair in 1915, [where he] unveils the Binet-Stanford intelligence test. 

When Binet came up with this method of measuring intelligence in France, he made some very forceful and distinct caveats about how the test could and could not be used. He said, first of all, that it could only be used to make gross distinctions between people who are normal and people who, for one reason or another, are operating at a sub-normal level. But beyond that, the test isn't going to tell you anything. 

He also insisted that you couldn't rank races or classes on the basis of a particular individual's performance on the test or even a huge sample of individuals' performance on the test. You could only evaluate an individual using the test. And third - and this is most important in his thinking - that whatever you find on the test, if you find someone testing poorly, you cannot write them off for some kind of better performance later on. People aren't stuck where they are. It's not innate, immutable, native intelligence. You're just testing where someone is at a particular moment. 

Now, in the United States, all of those caveats go by the wayside. People like H. H. Goddard and Louis Terman, who popularized the Binet test in the United States, within this context of debates over immigration and the like, they use the tests in precisely the way that Binet himself said they could not be used. So they do try to use the tests not only to make gross generalizations between normal and abnormal, but actually to rank people at every point from the lowest scores to the highest and think of that as a kind of static hierarchy that is meaningful and think of the distinctions within those categories as meaningful. 

They do tie test scores to race. They do make that extrapolation from the individual performance to the race that that testee is supposedly representing. And they also do think of these scales as being immutable. So if someone tests poorly once, then that kind of tells you everything you need to know about their capacity, no matter how far down the road you want to look. 

H. H. Goddard's real contribution to American psychiatry was he added a third category to what had been a two-tiered scheme. Before Goddard there were - when you're thinking about abnormalities, there were idiots and imbeciles, idiots being the lowest on the scale, idiots being the most kind of hopeless. Goddard added a third category, morons, which are kind of borderline. 

The thing that made morons, in Goddard's estimation, so important, so worthy of study and such an important kind of social presence, is that morons were thought to be - he called them low-grade defectives; that is, morons were thought to be functioning enough that they could actually enter society and take part in society as workers, as voters, and most importantly for Goddard and some of the other eugenic thinkers, as procreators, as family members. They would be the mothers and fathers of the future generations of Americans. 

QUESTION: What did Goddard conclude from his trip to Ellis Island? 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: One of the things that he did was [go] to Ellis Island to test out his idea of morons, and also to make some of these linkages between individuals and the way they tested and races. And it's kind of astonishing now to look at from an empirical or scientific point of view in terms of the way science is supposed to be conducted, because he goes to Ellis Island at a time when, you know, twenty-six million people are coming ashore within a few decades of each other over a long time. Over a million are coming in any given year, if you pick the right one - if you pick 1907 for example, one of the peak years. So we are talking about millions of people. And he goes to Ellis Island and he tests a few. I mean, really a handful. So, maybe on the basis of eighteen Hungarians and thirty-nine Russian Jews, extrapolates first and then calculates that enormous percentage of the people that are coming ashore on Ellis Island are by his phraseology "morons"; that is, a risk for the republic. So he pronounces with confidence that upwards of 70 percent of the people coming from Eastern and Southern Europe are low-grade defectives who are going to bring the nation down one way or another. 

QUESTION: Explain how the Johnson Act of 1924 ties into eugenics. 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: The Johnson Act in 1924 is really the kind of touchstone of the whole restrictionist effort of the previous decades, and particularly the eugenicists' effort to limit immigration based on biological ideas about who some peoples were and what their likelihood of success for and in the republic was. 

Now, in the Johnson Act every group that was defined as a group got a quota of two percent based on their overall numbers in the country in the 1890 census. One of the things that that did by going all the way back to 1890 is to cut out from the calculations all of those millions who had arrived after 1890. And so it cut to a trickle the immigration from precisely those regions where on racial grounds people were considered to be morons in Goddard's estimation, or at least a bad risk in the estimation of Goddard. So that two percent of the 1890 census for a group like Eastern European Jews is almost nothing. It's a bit more for Italians. 

So while it's called a National Origins Act, it really is very much a racial act. It's a racial origins act, if you will. It's based on eugenics thought, and it's a kind of demographic and geographical scheme for deciding upon the numbers of incoming immigrants. But what it does in fact is cut out exactly the people who eugenicists were the most afraid of. 

QUESTION: What happens to this discussion in the 1930s and 1940s? 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: There are some really significant shifts that are traceable to changing historical circumstances. On the one hand, the 1924 act solved, if you will, the immigration problem. So all of those distinctions - Hebrews, Slavs, Mediterraneans - they really kind of lose their salience. The questions are not as pressing. 

Another way is the great African American migration from the rural South to the urban North and to the West around the two world wars - completely changes the racial alchemy of precisely those cities where the problematic Eastern and Southern Europeans had arrived earlier on. So suddenly in a city like Boston in 1870 and past the turn of the century the most salient racial divide in the city [had been] between Anglo Saxons and Celts. By a bit later on in the twentieth century that's not the case anymore. 

Once the number of black inhabitants is not counted in the hundreds or even in the thousands but in the tens or hundreds of thousands in many industrial cities, suddenly black and white become the major most salient racial divide in cities like Detroit, New York, Boston. So the racial alchemy changes dramatically, and those white races, those one-time white races from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century become what we now call white ethnic. Ethnicity is a rather modern invention for talking about difference in a different way. Ethnicity is not a kind of biologically based immutable biologicized difference in the blood, a parcel of hereditary genetics or bodily material. Ethnicity is cultural. 

And so one of the things that you see, certainly over those middle decades of the twentieth century, is the kind of reconsolidation of whiteness. What had been simply white persons in the early nineteenth century had then become a series of white races, and now again in the mid-twentieth century is reconsolidated as a white race or the Caucasian race. 

Another element of this is the kind of retreat from racial thinking on the part of many scientists, particularly in response to what was going on in Nazi Germany. I mean, one of the things that is interesting and chilling actually is that many high-ranking Nazis looked to some of the eugenics thought and eugenics-based policies of the United States as an inspiration, that they were reading people like Madison Grant and they were looking at things like the Immigration Act of 1924 as models for here's how you can take what we know to be true from the standpoint of racial science - here's a model for taking that knowledge and turning it into policy. 

So I think understandably, especially in the United States, but I think across Europe as well, there is a kind of retreat on the part of the scientific community once it becomes clear how racial thinking is being used in Nazi Germany. So you have these highly politicized tracts in the late 1930s and 1940s about the race concept and how it's mistaken, how we might revise our thinking about human differences, and Boas [was] himself writing quite overtly about the possible incompatibility between the race concept and the functioning of a polity that is calling itself democratic. 

QUESTION: Was there a lasting legacy of Franz Boas' work: Changes in Bodily Form of the Descendents of Immigrants in the Dillingham Commission's report? 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: The real contribution of Changes in Bodily Form is as the most radical kind of critique of the hereditarian argument and the most radical kind of advancement of a truly environmentalist kind of approach. [He was saying:] "we can measure as a way of finding out the truth about humanity and all its diversity." And what he is finding goes right at the heart of the hereditarian argument, because in his measurement of body shape and body form and body type and the like, he finds that in fact there's a tremendous change between the pure types from the old world and the pure types from the new world, that in fact immigrants over even just a short span of time, over one generation, might change quite a bit in a physical, measurable way. And what that implies is that the hereditarians have it completely wrong. I mean, they are talking about immutable types. They are talking about unshakable characterology. They are talking about a kind of being, a racial being that is etched in stone that will never change anything. Right before your eyes, right here among these throngs that you are so worried about, if you are in the new world, we can see changes, and quite rapid ones at that. 

Now, this work does get included in the Dillingham Commission's report. But in terms of the debate over policy, it really kind of gets pushed to the back burner, and it has very little impact at all on the way that the discussions are shaped, and certainly not as much impact as the eugenics argument. And so people like Henry Laughlin and Madison Grant were testifying before Congress, giving the racial hereditary point of view and that argument about its policy implications. 

QUESTION: Help us get in the mind-set of the time, how people thought about race. 

MATTHEW JACOBSON: I think one of the hardest things from our vantage point now at the end of the century is the way in which the racial distinctions that were discussed earlier in the century were every bit as racial, if you will, as the racial distinctions that we still recognize. So it's not just that people were misusing the word "race" when they talked about Hebrews or Anglo-Saxons; it's that they saw race in a different way, that physiogamy impressed itself on their consciousness in a different way. And I think that it's very hard for us now that those distinctions have melted away. I mean, race clearly is with us still, and the racial distinctions that we live with strike us as natural and as, you know, they will never disappear. But that's the power of race. It seems natural, it seems part of the landscape. 

But in fact it is always changing. [It's not that] earlier people really thought that Celts were a different race whereas now we know that they are not. In fact, they were a different race, because everyone thought so, including themselves. And that's what's very hard to get inside of in retrospect. And I think it's important that we do, because I think there is tremendous power in unlocking race from the inside out, and to understand its mutability, the way it is generated at certain moments in different ways. 

It has never been the case that democracy in this country has been wide open. There [has] always been some kind of presumption that certain people are fit for self-government and certain people aren't. And that's a phrase that we don't use anymore. In fact, from the beginning, democracy and racism have been [inextricably linked, and] the notion of democracy was based on racial presumptions, about fitness for self-government for that very narrow circle in the late eighteenth century of "We the People," and that circle has been expanding over two centuries and more now. But I don't think that the presumption [is] that democracy is just something you can throw the doors open to and allow anyone to participate. And I think that's something that a lot of Americans misunderstand about their political culture.


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