A colorblind California?

With one in seven California kids born to parents of different races, Ward Connerly says it's time to stop collecting outmoded racial data. But even some old allies say Connerly's is an idea whose time has not yet come.

Published May 9, 2002 8:22PM (EDT)

Five years ago, University of California regent Ward Connerly proposed a novel reform to the controversial UC admissions system: anonymous applications, devoid of information about race or ethnicity, a move the diehard opponent of affirmative action hoped would eliminate admissions officers' temptation to consider such factors when deciding who attends the prestigious state system. But Connerly, the campaign chair of California's Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot measure banning racial preferences in state decision-making, was ignored by the UC administration.

Now Connerly is taking another shot at the same goal, with a proposed statewide ballot initiative to prevent California from collecting racial data in the first place. Dubbed the "Racial Privacy Initiative" by supporters, Connerly's proposal would eliminate the racial check boxes that Californians encounter on state government forms ranging from job applications and school enrollment papers to birth and death certificates.

"There is some vision that all of us have for this state, one in which we're treated as individuals, regardless of our ancestry or physical traits," Connerly says, explaining why he's made this his new cause. "Californians are increasingly marrying across the old lines of race and ethnicity, having children, and making the race boxes essentially obsolete." Indeed, in 1997, 14 percent of all California births were to parents of different races, making mixed-race kids the third largest group, behind whites and Latinos and ahead of Asians and blacks. (In fact, Latinos aren't a racial group, but are treated as one on most state forms.)

Even in the post-209 era, UC and other state agencies say they have research, statistical and social policy reasons for continuing to gather racial data. But Connerly isn't convinced. "If you can't use race to favor or disfavor someone, then the question is why do you need the government involved in race at all?" asks Connerly. "This is a logical sequel to 209. Until I am senile or no longer draw a breath, I will constantly urge the government to embrace race-blind policies."

But opponents say the measure would cripple racial anti-discrimination laws, thwart successful social policy that's been appropriately shaped by race -- efforts to reduce high breast-cancer death rates among black women, for instance, or cervical cancer among Latinas -- and endanger the progress California has made in leveling differences among racial and ethnic groups. (Supporters say the measure would let the state continue to collect crucial racial data, including medical data, but the initiative's true impact is hotly debated.)

And while opponents call the measure the "Connerly Initiative," hoping to link it inextricably with a man civil rights groups consider the enemy, the opposition transcends California's civil rights establishment: Even some of Connerly's allies in his Prop. 209 campaign are stepping forward to oppose his new measure.

Connerly's proposal is likely to be seen as the latest example of ballot-initiative backlash against the state's unparalleled diversity. California voters ended affirmative action in 1996 and bilingual education in 1998, and passed a measure blocking benefits to illegal immigrants in 1994 (though that one was struck down by the courts). Other states have adopted some version of those bellwether initiatives.

Like those measures, Connerly's new initiative enjoys an early lead in the polls. A recent Field Poll showed that 48 percent of voters were inclined to back it, with 34 percent opposed and the rest undecided. The numbers tracked pretty closely to how voters came down on 209 six years ago, said Field pollster Marc DiCamillo: "It looks like, on the first blush, it's tapping into the same sentiment and the same voters."

Yet six years after 209's passage, Connerly faces a more diverse electorate, whose decisions may be less predictable, as well as an unexpected obstacle: a fight for the legacy of 209. Connerly considers racial privacy the logical conclusion of the prohibition against racial preferences -- if the state can't use racial data to privilege or discriminate against individuals based on race, he argues, why collect it at all? But at least one of Proposition 209's authors disagrees, and he is going public to defend his baby.

"At the outset of the 209 campaign, opponents said this is just the first step by right-wing fanatics to gut civil rights in America," recalled Thomas Wood. "I want to tell people that this was never part of the agenda of 209. It's not 209.

"In fact, I am opposed to the Racial Privacy Initiative. The debate should be over what you do with the data. It shouldn't be in favor of some proposal that puts us in a state of racial ignorance so that we don't know whether the laws are being enforced. If you remove the power of the state to collect data, you are gutting the anti-discrimination laws, including 209," said Wood, who runs the California Association of Scholars, the state branch of a nationwide network of conservative academics.

Whether Wood is correct about the initiative's potential impact is hard to determine, because the measure itself would be tempered by a thicket of federal requirements as well as various exemptions, including those for medical research and law enforcement. Almost no two people seem to agree on the initiative's actual effect.

And no one yet knows whether Connerly's personal crusade has the makings of a successful political movement. But he has enough support already to qualify his initiative for the state ballot. With the 980,000 signatures turned in by the campaign last month, the measure is expected to clear the tedious counting process and win a spot on the ballot this November, though it's possible it will be held over until the March 2004 election.

Connerly's basic argument -- that race should make no difference in public policy -- is seductive in its simplicity, and has a fundamental appeal to voters weary of the state's obsessive focus on racial categories. That obsession, his supporters say, amounts to a type of "racial profiling." That's just one of many novel rhetorical twists "racial privacy" proponents savor: lumping civil rights advocates in with their foes, in this case those who use racial stereotypes to justify disproportionate police investigations of minorities.

San Francisco author Richard Rodriguez praises Connerly for identifying a cultural trend that's beyond politics: California's erosion of racial boundaries and its celebration of racial blending. "I salute Connerly's shrewdness in catching a moment larger than the political. Clearly the cultural moment we are entering is civilization at play, in which color is completely open and no longer fated," said Rodriguez, outlining the central argument of his new book, "Brown -- The Last Discovery of America."

Rodriguez wouldn't say he supports the initiative, but his take on racial categories echoes Connerly's: "I am in a rage about these classifications that children are being forced to submit to. There are five major categories when so many children tell me they belong to more than one."

That argument, opponents realize, is hard to dispute.

"There's a rhetorical advantage they get by saying 'Let's be colorblind,'" concedes Troy Duster, a sociologist at New York University who still directs the American Cultures Center at UC-Berkeley, where he taught for many years. "It's very hard to say, 'Yes, we do want to keep race front and center' without making it sound like you want to go back to some retrograde notion that race is or should be the way people are selected," said Duster, who also went to battle with Connerly over affirmative action back in 1995.

"You don't want to rescue an 18th century conception of race, based upon a false notion of biological differences," Duster continues. "On the other hand, the effects of two centuries of racial stratification remain. To suddenly act as if that was not an issue is a transparent fiction."

Duster was surprised to learn that his Berkeley colleague and frequent ideological foe, linguist John McWhorter, agrees with him on this point. A vocal critic of affirmative action and a Connerly loyalist, McWhorter he says he can't join Connerly this time around.

While Duster's work often spotlights racial inequality, McWhorter likes to use racial statistics to illustrate how far black people have come toward equality. Either way, the statistics are useful, he says.

"One way of approaching social change is the "as if" way -- to pretend that there are not different races and that the races are not separated by vast social differences," said McWhorter. "The other way of fostering change is to work with the grimy reality. Yes, race is a fiction. Ultimately we want to be Americans. But to get there, to get beyond race, we have to deal with it," said McWhorter.

While Connerly's stated goal is to get beyond racial divisions, it can also be said that he likes a good fight. A black Sacramento businessman, he launched what seemed like a quixotic battle against racial preferences at the University of California, and in 1995, a divided Board of Regents voted to dismantle most of the system' s race-based policies.

Throughout that debate and the subsequent 209 campaign, which he chaired, Connerly clashed with university administrators and professors. He fired vitriolic memos at the likes of Angela Davis, the '60s radical-turned-UC-Santa Cruz professor, for using her UC post to fight 209. And he suggested reforms -- like anonymous admissions applications -- that went nowhere. His perceived audacity made him Public Enemy No. 1 to many on the left and within the black establishment. He endured numerous personal attacks, including a public spat with state Sen. Diane Watson over his longtime marriage to a white woman. But while his rhetoric has grown a tad less confrontational than in his early UC years, Connerly's views haven't changed much.

In many ways, the question of racial check boxes goes right to the heart of what irks Connerly, who considers himself black but shuns the African-American label. Connerly's ancestors include slaves of African descent, French Canadians, Irish-Americans, and Choctaw Indians. True to his personal background, Connerly seems bent on defying categorization -- as he did in opposing affirmative action.

And for as long as he has spoken out against affirmative action, he has railed against the "silly little boxes." Five years ago, for example, in a letter to President Clinton, he wrote, "Most Americans have a strong abhorrence to the counting-by-race phenomenon which currently exists. Most of us resent checking the silly little boxes which classify us."

But while many people agree the box-checking is a little retrograde, they think they shouldn't be eliminated, but updated to jibe with a multicultural reality.

What's mostly gone unnoticed in the debate over collecting racial data is that California has changed its approach to collecting racial information dramatically in recent years. According to Don Fields, policy section chief at the state's Office of Vital Records, California is the first state to go to a "multiple race" policy for birth certificates and other vital records. Race is listed on the confidential portion of birth certificates, where the mother and father self-report their race or ethnicity, with an option of listing up to three. Contrary to what is often stated in popular debate, no race is listed for the child.

"California is one of the leading states for collecting race data," says Fields. "We're on the forefront for collecting data because of our ethnic mix here."

There's little agreement in the data and policy world over exactly what the Racial Privacy Initiative would mean for academic research and policy analysis. While the initiative is unlikely to bar scholars from collecting whatever information they want in their own studies, the fact is that most researchers rely on data gathered by the state, and that is what's in question.

Take birth records, for example. Hans Johnson, a demographer at the Public Policy Institute of California, says he uses the racial data in birth records in order to predict fertility rates for the state. Those rates differ by ethnic group, so he needs to calculate rates for different groups in order to accurately forecast population growth.

"That's important for infrastructure planning for the state," said Johnson. "How many children are going to be going to California schools, how many freeways are we going to need, what are the implications for road use, water use, housing? That's an example of something you could argue isn't completely necessary for the functioning of society, but that kind of information, I would argue, is a good thing."

The PPIC doesn't take positions on initiatives, and Johnson says he isn't sure how the initiative will affect the collection of that particular data.

Nobody is.

Even supporters of the initiative have different ideas about its impact. Kevin Nguyen, executive director of the American Civil Rights Coalition, which is backing the initiative, believes that birth records would fall under patient records, which are exempted in the initiative. But Eugene Volokh, UCLA law professor and one of Connerly's legal advisors for the initiative, has a different view: "My sense is that's the very sort of thing this would prohibit."

Don Fields of Vital Records said he can't tell how the initiative would affect birth records. Though birth, death, and fetal death information is provided to the federal government for a $1.2 million annual fee, he said the state -- not the federal government -- dictates the contents of those records, suggesting that even if federal law allows the collection of racial data, the state's rules would probably apply here.

And according to Carmen Nevarez, medical director and vice president of the Berkeley-based Public Health Institute, an opponent of the initiative, birth certificates are public records, not medical records, and therefore wouldn't be protected if the initiative passes.

She predicts the same fate for race and ethnicity in disease records -- which have been used, for example to target groups in order to prevent disease. For example, breast cancer attacks white women twice as often as African-American women, but black women are twice as likely to die from the condition. That information helps public health leaders target the most at-risk groups when they promote mammograms and other disease-prevention tools. In Oakland and other cities around the country, public health advocates have used a variety of geographic, cultural and even religious outreach efforts to reduce infant mortality among black families, whose rate is roughly three times that of whites. Likewise, Latinas and Korean women appear to be at greater risk of cervical cancer, and that data has helped with outreach and screening for those groups.

Initiative backers remind critics that the measure would permit the Legislature to allow the state to collect any data that serves a "compelling interest." That doesn't reassure Nevarez, who can envision bickering over what legislators believe is a compelling interest: "It is a scientifically valid tool that over and over again helps us understand where disease comes from and what we do to prevent disease. Why would you take it away?" And researchers at nonpartisan think tanks like PPIC say they might not be in a position to petition the Legislature.

The defection of Connerly allies like Wood and McWhorter doesn't bode well for racial privacy as a hot new intellectual fad. But it's not surprising that the idea wouldn't catch fire in academia: Researchers and scholars are congenitally in favor of having more, not less, information. Many are likely to join Patrick Callan of the Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in calling Connerly's latest gambit a "see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to the world."

Says Callan, "There are legitimate questions about what the appropriate solutions are, but not knowing some things doesn't make us better off as a society in terms of being able to solve them."

Yet a few scholars say they are willing to sacrifice the utility of racial statistics for the greater good of moving closer to a race-blind America. Like McWhorter, Shelby Steele of Stanford's Hoover Institution has used racial data to assail affirmative action. But, having decided that the debate itself is destructive, he is says he supports the initiative, because he sees no evidence that racial data helps craft smart social policy. Indeed, he argues that interjecting race into social policy is harmful.

"All of this number crunching has had a negative impact," said Steele. "If you have a racial breakdown on you-name-the-problem -- illegitimacy rates, literacy rates -- what does that do? It doesn't solve illegitimacy or illiteracy. It just enables the left and the right in America to fight. When we cloak these problems in race, we're going to do one thing and one thing only -- we're going to argue over whether those problems are the result of racism and whether minorities are victims and whether they're not, and the problems themselves get completely lost."

Arguments like Steele's may carry the day outside of academia. It won't be academics or demographers, after all, but the voting public who will decide the fate of this initiative, and voters are just starting to find out about it. Only 25 percent of those polled recently were familiar with the measure.

DiCamillo of the Field Institute thinks the proposition is beatable -- as, he says, was Prop. 209. "It does not have a huge lead," said DiCamillo. "It seems to be vulnerable to a well-funded No-side campaign." And there likely will be one: Nevarez is part of a growing network of environmentalists, civil rights lawyers, housing advocates and educators who aren't waiting for the initiative to qualify to begin organizing against it.

And it does not bode well for Connerly that several prominent California academics who sided with him on affirmative action, including Wood's Prop. 209 coauthor Glynn Custred, have yet to support his new initiative. It's possible that the opposition of Wood and others could lend a critical mass to efforts to defeat Connerly's latest crusade.

Another major difference from the Prop. 209 battle is the demographics of California's electorate. Since 1996, whites have dropped from 76 percent to 70 percent of likely voters, with Latinos increasing from 11 percent to 16 percent, Asian Americans growing from 6 percent to 8 percent, and African-Americans holding steady at 6 percent.

And yet focusing on the declining number of white voters in California assumes that only whites will be sympathetic to Connerly's colorblindness crusade. As Rodriguez notes, untold numbers of Latino, Asian and black voters may well agree with Connerly -- not to mention the fastest growing racial group, mixed-race Californians. Though a majority voted against it, a significant number of Asian, Latino and even black voters supported Prop. 209. The number of nonwhites supporting Connerly's initiative will likely be bigger than the civil-rights establishment expects but smaller than Connerly hopes. Still, whenever it appears on the California ballot, Connerly's latest cause is sure to advance the debate about race in this state, even if voters decide its time has not yet come.

By Pamela Burdman

Pamela Burdman is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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