April 19, 2002

Opinion

Son of Prop. 209: Making the state color blind

By Peter Schrag
Sacramento Bee

April 17, 2002 -- By Friday (April 19), Ward Connerly and his American Civil Rights Coalition will have to turn in the 670,816 valid signatures required to get their Racial Privacy Initiative on the California ballot. The coalition’s executive director, Kevin Nguyen, thinks it will have close to 1 million, but Connerly may turn in few enough that qualification is delayed and the measure gets pushed to the March 2004 election.

Whenever it goes to voters, RPI could well join the list of other influential California initiatives — tax cuts, bans on bilingual education, medical marijuana laws — that sent tremors through the nation.

With some exceptions, notably data required by the federal government, the measure would prohibit the state and all other California public agencies — cities, counties, school districts — from classifying individuals by race or ethnicity or from collecting such data. It’s thus a logical successor to Connerly’s Proposition 209 prohibiting race preferences in public education, employment and contracting that voters passed in 1996. Washington State voters approved a similar Connerly initiative in 1998.

Connerly, a Sacramento businessman and University of California regent, is convinced that America will never get past its racism until the nation’s bureaucracies stop their obsessive collection and publication of racial data: test scores, employment ratios, crime rates, illegitimate births, college enrollments and scores of others.

Those questions, he says, fuel identity politics by incessantly reminding every citizen to think of himself or herself in terms of ethnicity. The government can’t ask questions about religion or sexual preference, he says; why should race be different? In California, the point is strengthened by the state’s rapidly changing demographics and marriage rates. We are a majority minority state with increasing proportions of people of multiple ancestries.

The U.S. Census, responding to the growing numbers of those hyphenated Americans, now has 63 racial and ethnic categories (though there’s still none for golfer Tiger Woods, who calls himself “Cablanasian” — Caucasian, black, Indian, Asian). But for every one of those hyphenated Americans who want to check two or three boxes, there may be a hundred who hate those questions and would rather just identify ourselves as Americans, period. Sooner or later we will all catch up with Connerly.

Still, there are questions about his measure. He’s right that “divisiveness is part and parcel of virtually every program or activity that involves race.” But even he acknowledges that race consciousness didn’t begin with bureaucrats or with government categories.

It wasn’t government data collectors who created the Indian caste system or fostered the African slave trade. And while Connerly is also right in his assertion that special-interest groups and identity politicians often feed on those official categories (as do journalists and scholars) their objective, however distorted it sometimes becomes, is the remedy, not the perpetuation of the gaps and bias they describe.

Perhaps the most controversial element of RPI is its treatment of law enforcement. While the initiative, quite reasonably, doesn’t prevent the police “from describing a particular person in otherwise lawful ways” — meaning that they can say the wanted man is black — it prohibits the state from requiring the cops to “track individuals on the basis of such records.”

That means, quite simply, that if police engage in racial profiling in their decisions about who to stop in a middle-class neighborhood or on the freeway, nobody will be able to prove it. There are people who believe that profiling is defensible police practice, but if so, let’s debate it, not hide it.

Something similar is true with school achievement data and data about the conditions of schools. While societal discrimination may often be nearly as sharp between the resources provided schools serving poor students and those provided to schools serving the affluent — teachers, books, classroom conditions — racial data are likely to show gaps that even economic distinctions don’t show.

Federal rules will still require the collection of ethnic breakdowns of school data even if the state is barred from it, but if California can’t measure and consider such disparities in its own policies it could create even more tensions and frustration.

Republican Connerly says his polls show that 70-plus percent of voters favor a measure like RPI. But he acknowledges forces in his own party that want nothing to do with it. At a time when the state GOP is (at least officially) trying to broaden its base, the bruises from its support of Propositions 209 and 187, the 1994 measure that sought to deny services to illegal immigrants, still hurt.

Despite Nguyen’s optimism, that’s made money tight. Which in turn means RPI may not have the extra signatures that would allow for the fast random count that almost guarantees a place on the November ballot. A slower full count could push the whole thing to March 2004.

Connerly says he wouldn’t mind keeping the heat of RPI out of this year’s state political races. But in that he may be trying to make a virtue of necessity. Whenever RPI comes to a vote, it will make a lot of people steam.

Peter Schrag is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee and can be reached at pschrag@sacbee.com .

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