Colorblind bind

Posted: May 13, 2002 12:00 AM
Look at a University of California application, and you'll see why UC Regent Ward Connerly wrote the Racial Privacy Initiative (RPI), which would prohibit the state from classifying people by their ethnicity. Expect the measure to be on the November ballot. The form tells students to check the "appropriate boxes:" "African American, " "American Indian/Alaska native," "East Indian/Pakistani," "Chinese/Chinese American," "Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Pacific Islander," "other Asian (not including Middle Eastern)", "Mexican American/Chicano," "other Spanish American/Latino," "white/Caucasian (including Middle Eastern)" and simply "other." This year, 7.3 percent of UC entrants refused to state their ethnicity. If Connerly has his way, UC will stop asking all applicants about race. RPI would end racial questionnaires in public education, public contracting and public employment -- unless it's mandated by the federal government. (Connerly thinks K-12 schools would be exempt.) The RPI also would allow race data collection (but not race tracking) by law enforcement, and race data collection for medical research, or if two-thirds of the legislature finds that collecting ethnic data "serves a compelling state interest." Connerly championed Proposition 209, the 1996 voter-approved measure that ended gender and race-based preferences in state hiring and college admissions. He told me that if RPI wins, it would be his last initiative in California. Why RPI? Connerly believes "there is something fundamentally un-American" in grouping people by race. He wants to do away with "identity politics." He objects to what he sees as too many African Americans "living on the left side of that hyphen, rather than the right side of that hyphen." He wants to change the culture. Connerly is part black, Cherokee and white -- his ethnicity defies one easy category. He looks at his own family and the growing number of mixed-race families, and bristles at the practice of typing people in a race box. If the government stops race-typing, he believes, "skin color and all of these traits we assign to race will begin to diminish." I don't agree. The state can stop asking, but that won't make race discrimination go away. And not knowing the facts won't make racial parity a reality. Kerry Mazzoni, Gov. Gray Davis' education secretary, worries that RPI could make it hard to monitor how minority schoolchildren fare. "If we can't monitor their progress," she said, "there will be some children left behind." UC spokesman Michael Reese believes that while some professors may welcome the measure, others "fear the unintended consequences." State lawyers are checking for federal laws that might exempt schools and universities. Paul Turner of the anti-redlining Greenlining Institute objected that the RPI would hamper attempts to eradicate racial profiling. He's right. Turner then descended into bogus fear-mongering. He claimed that the RPI would hurt medical research -- wrong, it exempts medical research. Turner also said it's "conceivable" that courts would order private companies with state contracts -- such as, say, State Farm Insurance -- not to collect racial data. Yeah, and pigs could fly. Actually, the courts more likely will try to gut the RPI. Yet, Turner called RPI a "deceptive and divisive measure." Divisive? That's liberalese for a license to smear. During the Proposition 209 campaign, critics called Connerly a self-loathing black man, a traitor to his race. Opponents ran an ad linking the KKK with 209 and an ad that claimed 209 would threaten abortion rights. So, I've decided to let the tenor of the campaigns determine how I'll vote on the RPI. I don't like what RPI would do, but I dislike even more how nasty the opposition is likely to get. If the RPI opposition sticks to the issues, I'll vote against the measure. But if the opposition is as dishonest as the anti-209 camp was, if it gets overly personal, if it equates the desire for color-blindness with racism, if it concocts horror scenarios to scare the public, I'll vote for RPI. People of goodwill can disagree on this measure. But people of goodwill should not countenance the smear campaign.