October 3, 2003

Commentary

Legal Rights Imperiled by Prop. 54

by Christopher W. Todd
President, San Diego County Bar Association

If Californians approve Prop. 54, we may wake up October 8 with fewer rights than we went to sleep with. It is important that we understand the impact this initiative will have if passed, and fight back against those that seek to undermine efforts to track the progress, or lack of progress, in providing equal opportunity for all citizens. We urge you to vote “No” on Proposition 54.

Proposition 54 would stop California’s state and local governments from collecting data on the basis of race and ethnicity. While supporters of Prop. 54 tell us that this will bring us closer to a “colorblind society,” in reality we know that it is impossible to prove discrimination without information and data. Passage of Prop. 54 would, in effect, make it impossible to enforce California laws against racial and ethnic discrimination, effectively rolling back the State’s efforts toward racial equality to the pre-civil rights era and undoing three decades of progress.

California is the most diverse state in the nation, according to the 2000 U.S. census. We are 47 percent white, 32 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, 7 percent African American and 1 percent Native American. Statistics, however, point to the continued under-representation of minorities in the state’s justice system, including:

 A 2002 California Judicial Council Advisory Committee report that found superior court judges in the State were 89 percent white, 4.3 percent Hispanic, 4 percent African American, and 2 percent Asian;

 A California Bar Journal report that the state’s lawyers are 83 percent white, 6 percent Asian, 3.7 percent Hispanic, and 2.4 percent African American;

 As of March 2000, of the approximately 14,000 law students in California law schools, 10,000 (71 percent) were white.

If Prop. 54 is approved, these statistics cannot be collected. The problems in the justice system would not disappear; only our ability to measure progress would. And, it would severely impact our opportunity for legal recourse in the face of discrimination. For these and other reasons, the San Diego County Bar Association’s Board voted unanimously to oppose the Racial Privacy Initiative.

We must continue to collect statistics to identify patterns of abuse by those in positions of power. How else can we provide legal relief to those who are the victims of insurance companies seeking to redline communities, unfavorable loan rates to minority applicants, or employers who give preferential treatment in hiring and promotions. Knowing that this information is being collected acts as a disincentive to those who would unlawfully discriminate.

Information shines a light on the inequities that stand between us and a truly color-blind society. Although progress has been made, much work remains to be done. Turning off the light is not the answer.

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