What's Race Got To Do With It? Measure Aims To Ban Calif. Racial Classifying
Six years after successfully urging California voters to pass Prop. 209, which banned affirmative action at the University of California (UC) system, UC Regent Ward Connerly is spearheading a new initiative that would prohibit the state and local governments from classifying people by race or ethnicity.
The so-called Racial Privacy Initiative would impact the collection data on topics ranging from the diversity of police officers to student dropout rates. It also would bar companies from awarding contracts based on race.
"While there are indeed bigots out there, generally people can be fair. If we don't believe that, the whole American creed will collapse," said Connerly. "This is about freeing all Californians from the arbitrary race boxes whose walls officially divide us at a time when we most need to be united."
Connerly last month submitted nearly 1 million signatures ? 300,000 more than he needed ? to put the initiative on the ballot. Depending on how quickly state and local agencies authenticate the signatures, California residents could vote on the issue as early as November.
If the vote were held today, it would pass, according to a recent poll of 546 voters by the Field Institute, a research group based in San Francisco.
Overall, 48 percent of those polled said they supported the idea, with 34 percent against it and 18 percent undecided. The majority of whites, Latinos and African Americans support the initiative, the poll found, but only 35 percent of Asian Americans approve it, while 42 percent said they would vote against the measure.
Connerly said he was dumbfounded by the Asian-American response. "My assessment is that many Asians still have an ethnic identity that is largely born of language that cause them to attach greater meaning to race," he said. "So at first blush many might think this initiative might cause them to lose that ethnic identity."
But Jan T. Liu, a member of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, brings up one of the many objections the initiative could face. Liu points out that Asian Americans and all residents should be worried about the initiative's impact on medical research, which has shown that some racial and ethnic groups have higher incidences of certain diseases.
"Asians and Pacific Islanders have the highest tuberculosis rates of any other racial group," he said. "Vietnamese women have the highest cervical cancer incidence rates of all women."
In a letter to the director of medical research of the Children's Hospital of Oakland, Lui wrote, "I find the Racial Privacy Initiative unconscionable. How can we possibly address the needs of children who suffer health consequences associated with race if we are unable to collect racial demographic information?"
Lynette Henley, a board member of the California Teachers' Association raises another objection.
"If our schools are to strive for excellence in an era of accountability, educators must have access to every tool in the tool box," Henley said. "Connerly wants to keep teachers in the dark about demographic data that is crucial in helping us identify and meet the needs of all of our students."
Diversity consultant Gregg Ward, co-founder of the San Diego-based Orlando-Ward and Associates, said the initiative could send California back 10 years.
While he's against discriminatory profiling, Ward said he supports statistics that are used to make sure underserved populations are treated fairly.
"By trying to take the information out of the hands of the government you make it much easier to overlook underserved populations," he said. "You have nothing to measure success by."
In diversity work, clients constantly ask consultants if they can measure the success of an initiative.
But banning race-based classifications "seems like a quick fix to an incredibly complicated situation," Ward said. "I understand the desire to make things fair, but I think this is the wrong way to go about it."
"Without surveys and statistics, you can't determine whether something's working, whether a program is stagnant," Ward said.
The law would prohibit race from being a factor on state- and local-government hiring forms, state- and local-government contracting and transfer application forms for grades K-12.
The proposition reads: "The state shall not classify any individual by race, ethnicity, color or national origin in the operation of any other state operations, unless the legislature specifically determines that said classification serves a compelling state interest."
The initiative carries exemptions for areas such as health care, public house and law enforcement, according to Connerly. The Department of Fair Employment and Housing would be exempt for 10 years. Law enforcement officers and medical personnel also would be able to lawfully use race to classify people.
"There are literally hundreds of millions of dollars in tax-payer money spent on racial tracking that we could save," said Kevin Nguyen of the American Civil Rights Coalition, the organization behind the initiative.
Connerly, an African American, is no stranger to racial tension. His birth certificate classifies him as colored, he said. But he has faith that the world has changed and that California, where minorities now make up the majority of the population, should allow its residents to embrace diversity naturally.
"We can either be race conscious and pigeonhole people into groups, or we can just naturally understand the dynamics and see the differences without allowing the government to profile us and define us," Connerly said. "I prefer the latter approach."